The Paradox of the Alongsider: Serving While Walking Backwards (Part 1)

Picking up on last week’s blog, this week I want to explore the role of what I’m calling the ‘alongsider’ a little deeper. Alongsiders know how to serve while walking backwards. That’s seemingly a contradiction, I know, but its consistent with how affective and effective alongsiders show-up. They understand the importance of creating space (which I’ve written about previously here: By The People ) and the ever present danger of crowding out or overwhelming community capacity in the name of being helpful.

Consider the example of a community nurse who, during one visit to the home of a senior citizen, heard that what mattered to the lady she was visiting was that her dog would be walked. The lady who lived alone, told the nurse how she has no relationships that she can tap into for regular help with her dog and that she physically can’t easily walk the dog anymore.

Without pausing for breath, the visiting nurse asked where the dogs lead was, and on locating it, took the dog for a walk. The senior citizen, was immediately grateful and relieved. Before the nurse left the house, the lady of the house, let’s call her Mary, asked the obvious question: ‘when will you be back?’

This is a far more productive question than, ‘was the community nurse right to do what he did?’ After all, these issues are rarely clear cut. Underlying the lady’s question, though, was a more pressing one: ‘who will walk my dog tomorrow and from then on, when you are not here?’ Clearly, what matters to Mary is that her dog is walked regularly. In her circumstances, as long as they are trustworthy she probably doesn’t care too much who does the dog-walking. As money is an issue,  she cannot afford to pay for a professional dog walking service.

So, who might best perform the daily (perhaps twice daily) task of walking the dog? Here are the realistic options:

  1. An outsider (salaried stranger)
  2. An alongsider (citizenship precipitator)
  3. An insider (near neighbour)


The Outsider

The choice will reflect the values of all involved. That’s what makes it complex. The scenario could involve a very person-centred practitioner and a citizen who simply wants her dog walked, who only trusts the community nurse to do so. In that instance will the nurse be released to do so, or will she volunteer to call around on her off time to do so, who knows?

Clearly it’s quite precarious to rely on a salaried nurse whose duties will call them in many other directions, which are arguably more pressing. Another route could be to pursue state funded home-help workers, whom, as part of their duties, walks the dog. This would certainly be a more feasible and predictable option, and the nurse with the support of a Social Worker could work with Mary towards that end. This is reasonably reflective of what often happens in modern welfare states.

The Alongsider

What about the alongsider? The very nature of the alongsider would make them very cautious about doing something for Mary that she could do with a near neighbour. Here, an experienced alongsider who knows the community they are working in will have a trick or two up their sleeve. Allow me to introduce a new Community Nurse, who while providing some services and being very caring and responsive, just like the nurse mentioned above, also operates as an alongsider, let’s call him John. John knows that he’s not just a community nurse walking alongside Mary, he is also alongside the wider community within which Mary lives.

Because John operates to an ethos, whereby he and his line manager’s measure his impact by the level of Mary’s increased interdependence on people close to her own doorstep. For John the key question here is: ‘what can I do in this situation, that will turn three neighbours into genuine friends in Mary’s life?’ This is his universal default question. All the better when Mary and her near neighbours operate to the same ethos. But even when they don’t, John knows what to do.

What would you do if you were John; acting out the role of the alongsider-serving while walking backwards?

Next week I’d like to explore the options, but in the meantime I’d really welcome your thoughts and also what you think are some of the likely dilemmas that John and indeed Mary are likely to encounter in the real world.

Cormac Russell

Continued in Part 2


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  • Ross williams

    Do any of the other neighbours have dogs? Lets walk them together and, once we have a relationship, if one day Mary is unable to walk her dog, the Network of alongsiders are able to play the role.

    Independence can fuel isolation, but interdependence can knit a community together.

    Great blog Cormac!

    May 18, 2018 at 10:00 am
  • Ruth Featherstone

    When the heart wants to reach out but because of being in a professional role where training is given to always observe professional boundaries for safeguarding reasons and so as not to create a dependency it is tricky knowing what to do with confidence.

    May 19, 2018 at 7:44 am
  • Thanks Ross, I hope that part 2 is also useful. Look forward to hearing your ongoing reflections. BW Cormac

    May 22, 2018 at 10:22 pm
  • Thanks a Ruth, I’d be very interested to hear your reflections following your reading of part 2. BW Cormac

    May 22, 2018 at 10:23 pm
  • John Wade

    There might be a neighbour who would love to walk a dog but can’t afford to own one or doesn’t have the space. Could be a double win. So many ways to establish interdependence and gift sharing.

    Love this blog Cormac. It’s so grounded and so recognisable to so many.

    February 2, 2019 at 7:27 pm

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