Touchstone One: Introducing connectors to each other and forming a Community Building team
Asset-Based Community Development ought to be renamed: Asset-Based Community Driven Efforts (ABCDE). After all, if it’s not community driven then it’s not ABCD. But how do you go from a neighbourhood/estate/block of people that are disconnected or even fragmented, to one that is connected? And to go further, one that is connected, and mobilised enough to:
- Define shared priorities in an inclusive way and act on the ones they are best placed to;
- Broker appropriate outside support when needed (that does not take over, undermine or overwhelm) to do that which they can’t do alone;
- Give voice to what they want outside agencies/institutions to do for them.
In every community there are leaders, makers, traders, networkers, peace brokers, gift givers and receivers, labelled/marginalized folks and connectors. Some of these folks often get together with a few of their neighbours and initiate a project; organize an event, share casual moments, help one another or respond to an immediate crisis that impacts the wider community. For example, when someone dies on the street or block, people rally to make dishes for the grieving family, offers of childcare support are made and so on. Or a flood strikes and like magic the community springs into action, typically in such situations it’s plain to see how leaders play their part. Less obvious but no less important, another sort of person is at work behind the scene in such circumstance, called the connector (for a detailed discussion on connectors see Connectors, conductors and circuit breakers).
While connectors can take on leadership roles and exhibit leadership attributes, many resist the title leader, primarily because they are disinterested in having followers or titles, theirs is an ‘underground’ contribution. They are serial connectors; naturals at enabling strangers, who live in close proximity, to become near neighbours and active citizens, and then to step back and let them at it.
Community Connector – an individual that is good at discovering what people care about and where their assets can be received. Not a single-issue person, they are:
1) Gift centered: they easily see and reveal to others, gifts that are not always apparent, even to the person who has them.
2) Well connected: often knowing as many as 80 to 100 neighbours.
3) Trusted: people know that connectors are genuinely interested in them and care about them – they are not trying to sell anybody on their agenda or pre-set outcomes.
4) Believe they are welcome: to make connections. They do not feel like they are interfering in other people private business when they introduce formerly unknown neighbours to each other. And when they make such connections they do so in a way that generally people tend to open to receiving.
5) They are willing to vouch for people who are vulnerable to not having their gifts recognized, valued or received. In this way, they have the capacity to lift labels (that conceal people’s gifts) off people, so that others can see them for their gifts. Because the connector is trusted by their community, when they vouch for someone who doesn’t yet have a valued social role they up the chances that that person will be received for their gifts. This willingness to go guarantor (using their social capital) for someone else (with limited social capital) is critical in ‘building bridging’ social capital.
When Connectors Connect with other Connectors
When a connector joins together with other connectors from across their neighbourhood, in a way that reflects the diversity of that place, it’s a powerful first step towards broader community building from the inside out. When that group of residents – moving at the speed of trust – then decide to do something together that is not just about their signal issues, or starting another project, but is about deeply listening to their neighbours, they become a powerful initiating group with the potential to reach across an entire community and many seemingly impenetrable fault-lines, as they engage in a deep and concerted listen campaigns. Such a group of resident connectors by joining and acting together in this way have in essence, formed a community building team. Their primary power is found in their readiness to hear their neighbours share what they care about enough to act upon, and to work with them to figure out how they can use what they have locally to secure what they need. Over and over again in communities that are growing stronger, healthier and more powerful, I see this sequence, it is indeed foundational to sustainable community development.
I Wish You Enough
Here’s an example of how I’ve seen it play out. In South Central in Singapore there are countless connectors. Before the “I wish you enough” effort, most of those folks just got on with their daily lives, some knew others in South Central with a similar commitment to community, but most -except for some people living in the same apartment block- did not.
Faridah and Nooraini two local-residents were approached by professionals to explore how best to raise awareness around poverty in their neighbourhood. Wisely the professionals stepped back to create space for Faridah and Nooraini to talk with their neighbours about what they felt was the best way to be neighborly towards those living on low income, or indeed whether they cared about this issue enough to take action.
“What is our purpose?” They asked themselves. They agreed that while long term they wanted to see a structural change to ensure better wealth distribution, what they immediately wanted to say to their neighbours is: “I wish you enough”. They did not believe that a campaign to raise awareness about poverty was their optimal starting point. Why not?
There were four reasons:
- They were concerned about labeling people solely on the basis of their economic status;
- Many of the initiating group of residents had experienced tough times themselves and sometimes still do;
- Through those experiences they had learned the power of collective action, mutual help and solidarity;
- They recognized that many of the neighbours they wanted to connect with and support were isolated and labeled and therefore often not tapping into such mutual support.
What I see here is a group of people who are redefining the problem from an institutional framing into the vernacular:
From: “Poverty Awareness Campaign”
To: “I wish you enough.”
They then set about developing their response and then taking action to implement their ideas. Here’s a sample of what happened next: I Wish You Enough
Reflections: The Parable of the Chinese Bamboo
What we see here are residents initiating their own action, tapping into local assets that are within their control. This doesn’t preclude future action to address structural issues, it builds a wider base of residents who can deepen their sense of what they want from outside because they know what they internal assets they have.
One of the biggest challenges in most community work is sustainability. Because so many initiatives are in practice led by paid -I hasten to add well meaning- practitioners, and not by local people, the longevity of the initiative is inextricably linked to funding and salaried people.
The inverse of this is to be found in examples where a community group comes up with a great idea, develops it as project and makes it successful; then it grows; they receive funding and go on to employ a paid worker to run the project. What often happens from there is that the power and responsibility relocates from the residents to the professional. The residents in question either pull back expecting the practitioner to take leadership responsibilities. Or they stay involved but solely as advisors on a management committee, no longer as the makers and producers of the effort, but as the key informants, advisors and sometimes managers of paid staff.
The definitive solution in both instances is to take time to find residents like Faridah and Nooraini and lots of connectors who represent a diverse and wider range of views and experiences and to deeply listen to them describe what they care about enough to act upon with their neighbours. This often requires the contributes of skilled practitioners to do that searching which is Touchstone Two, the subject of next week’s blog.
Supporting residents like Faridah and Nooraini to come together with other small initiating groups of residents is the work of community building. It’s time consuming work but invaluable work.
Much like the parable of the bamboo, where the gardener-despite the ridicule of his neighbours- continually watered the ground for five years, with no results to show. Until on the fifth year the bamboo broke ground and from there it grew and grew, high and solid, with resilience and longevity, proportionate to the strength and depth of its roots. Initiating groups of residents need time to become rooted and will only grow at the speed of trust into a community building team.
The work of building community belongs to those who reside there as a birthright, it is the work of near neighbours; not salaried strangers. That means if neighbours don’t do it-it won’t be done. It was ever thus.