Touchstone Three: Appreciating the assets of the local community

In this third blog of the Eight Touchstones of Community Building series, Chris shares the story of how a local authority shifted from delivery of services to discovery of local assets. Adele, Vicky and Jo helped bring about self sustaining change by encouraging community conversations in Clayton West, Huddersfield. Chris recounts how they discovered what people care about strongly enough & the assets they require to address shared priorities with their neighbours.


Whose Role is it anyway?
by Chris Chinnock

Since joining the team at Nurture Development I’ve worked across the UK with Public Sector organisations, VCS groups and individual members of the community – exploring the dynamic potential of communities, especially when they are meaningfully and positively connected.

I’ve attended a couple of events recently at which there were many Services present sharing details of their work in communities, I heard lots of examples of how those Services are engaging with the community and how through these efforts change was being created – all good stuff.

It occurred to me however that what was actually being spoken about was ‘Service led’ change and that in this context communities were only being described to the extent that they participated in the particular Service that was being delivered to them. It got me thinking about how this misconception has become so prevalent and whether the growth of ‘Service led’ change at community level had crowded out opportunity for Citizens to lead the way.

I speak from experience having spent ten years in various Community Development roles in a Local Government setting so I understand that Services have huge pressures to deliver outcomes, manage projects and measure interventions – especially so in this era of cuts and competition for resources – but I wonder whether in the rush to be Institutionally helpful, a huge opportunity to get into a more balanced, sustainable relationship with the Communities that they serve is being lost.

I remember one occasion having taken on management of the Community Development Team at Kirklees Council I set about reviewing the monitoring systems to understand what measures were being recorded and get sense of how the team was describing its impact. Everyone agreed that the monitoring did not seem to capture the essence of the work carried out by the team and so I set to work reviewing the headings, measures and indicators to see what changes could be made.

Perhaps the smallest but most telling alteration that was suggested was to stop counting ‘community activities supported’ and to insert a small three letter word to get a measure of ‘community LED activities supported’ it was a tiny change with a large impact! When viewed through this lens many of the supposed ‘community activities’ were shown to be Service led activities which left a very shallow footprint in the community. Worse still was the prevailing mindset that a focus on Service led activities engenders – one in which success is determined by the number of ‘things’ that a Community Development Officer does, rather than the net effect that their input has.

Institutions can soothe themselves on their effectiveness by pointing to the serried ranks of ‘things’ that they’ve done “400 community activities supported’ ‘700 community events delivered’ but this is all smoke and mirrors. Add a simple three letter word into the mix to ascertain who is leading these activities and the whole house of cards is shaken… it goes to a series of much bigger questions:

  • Are we building capacity or are we building dependence?
  • Where is the driving force for change coming from?
  • Whose agenda is at work here?

 

Big questions are all well and good but they can feel a bit well, BIG….I like small changes, they feel doable don’t they? The big stuff can seem too far away and well, BIG… that’s why nothing ever gets done at that level isn’t it? So, what do we do with these big changes…. We start by making small changes. I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Peter Block recently and I was reminded of a quote in which he said “How do you change the world? One room at a time, start with the room you’re in” WE have to make changes where we have the power and agency to do so, changes happens in the small day to day practice of people – that’s where we start.

Just as in the example above a small change was made to how a team measured its impact a small change can have a powerful effect – I liken it to the difference that a small course correction can make to the trajectory of a long journey, if you are out by one or two degrees at the beginning you can be hundreds of miles away from your intended destination.

I’d like to share a story of what happens when a small change is made to how a different destination is arrived at, how by parking the agenda and instead of creating dependence attention is placed on growing interdependence within community.

Clayton West Open Village

It started, as most powerful things start – with a conversation. On this occasion between myself and Adele who was an Arts Participation Officer Adele and had been tasked with engaging the community in the village of Clayton West just outside Huddersfield, in West Yorkshire, ostensibly to develop community arts activity. The crux of the discussion was centred on what would happen is we dropped the ‘Art’ bit of her role and instead focussing on ‘participation’ approaching her work with an appreciation of what is already taking place in the neighbourhood and how it might be strengthened by being more connected.

Adele began by reaching out to people that she already knew in the neighbourhood to find out what was important to them, a conversation at the kitchen table with two members of the community Vicky and Jo who were keen to connect with the wider neighbourhood left them considering whether anyone else felt the same way? They agreed on the following questions to find the answer:

  • Wouldn’t it be good to know more people in the village?
  • What would make it an even better place to live?
  • What would they like to do to make that happen?

 

Having set forth with this question on their lips it soon became clear that there were others in the community who felt the same; 40 members of the community helped to host conversations on their streets to get a broader conversation going covering the whole village & outlaying areas.  This grew into a series of ‘Open House’ events (more like a party rather than a meeting) which attracted more people into the conversation, soon enough two things became clear:

  • Lots of people would like to be more connected
  • Lots of people had contributions that they could make

 

Having spent time ‘In Discovery’ in the community it was clear that there was energy for change and people were up for contributing in their own way, many people had spoken about an event which used to be run by the community, a ‘treat’ a village tradition of over 100 years old where a meal and entertainment is put on for its older residents which a number of citizens took part in, it was remembered very fondly by those who’d experienced it. Many people had suggested it as something that not only would they like to do but they would help to make it happen.

That’s how the idea of an ‘Open Village’ came about – with individuals, groups and associations opening their doors and sharing their passions and interests. It was a party and everyone who lives in Clayton West was invited, a celebration of the groups, associations and individuals who make up the community and an opportunity to use the whole village as the stage, the community using the assets that it already had and celebrating what was working well to bring people together and tackle something that people had identified as being important – they wanted to know more people and to have the opportunity to contribute to their neighbourhood.

The first Open Village event was held on a sunny Saturday in September and involved individuals and groups sharing their passions and interests with others in the village, it included:

From people teaching others how to fish, to opening up their gardens and inviting neighbours round to visit through to more formal groups working with older people, young people all coming together in the spirit of community was a fantastic sight to see.

As far as Arts Participation goes there were lots of people interested in doing creative activities – from sculpture projects, community choirs, arts and crafts – but the conversation and connecting was how these things came about, these were (and still are) community led activities, the first task is to first ‘build community’ so that people can come together and participate – this was Adele’s role working side by side with members of the community like Vicky and Jo. The approach in Clayton West went far deeper and broader than an ‘Arts Participation’ project – instead it involved all ages and backgrounds of people into a conversation about what contribution they had to make to their community – and hey, guess what? Lots of people wanted to do something creative… box ticked for the Arts thing then.

There are many reasons to be inspired by the work of the community and Adele, Vicky and Jo whose role as Community Connectors and Builders helped weave the whole thing together, reflecting on my opening comments regarding Service led activities, I feel that the approach taken by Adele in Clayton West shows us that:

  • By shifting the emphasis away from ‘art’ or whatever key driver an agency has – it opens up the possibility for a much more transformative and inclusive dialogue in the community.
  • Practitioners lead by stepping back – creating opportunities for community to connect and to proactively ‘build community’ so that people take action for themselves
  • Sustainability is the gift of the community to give – Over 3 years have passed since Adele’s initial conversations with Vicky and Jo and the movement continues to grow.

 

Adele is no longer working in the area (in fact she no longer works in Local Government) the programme of which the approach was part no longer exists and yet the people in Clayton West are continuing to look at how to connect and involve others in their neighbourhood, it is THEIR responsibility not something delivered TO or FOR or WITH them it is done BY the people.

This was a community organising a conversation with itself, Adele, Vicky and Jo in a supporting role providing support in such a way that it created opportunity for members of the community to shape things – we call this leading by stepping back, creating the space for communities to do things their way. Constructively getting out of the way, facilitating and supporting but not leading and (however helpfully intended) robbing people of the opportunity to do for themselves.

It’s amazing what a small change can lead to, shifting the emphasis on to things that are led by communities is one small change, parking our Agendas and being open to the voice of community is another, but how can you make a small change in your own practice today? As Peter Block would say “start in the room you’re in!”


Conclusion

Chris’s recounting of the shift in his practice and that of Adele’s is a powerful reminder of the value of placing contact before content, and support resident led discovery before agency led programme delivery.

Touchstone 3 lifts-up the incredible power and value of local residents actively appreciating local assets (especially what is local and in their control) and viewing them as the primary resources for building their communities. This jars in a deliciously disruptive way with more traditional approaches that encourage residents to see their primary assets as external and institutional. Touchstone 3 also emphasises the fact that many of these local resources are invisible and unconnected – they can only be revealed through curious conversations filled with searching questions. Hence in essence what Vicky and Jo did was to find a group of other local residents in Clayton West prepared to make the invisible visible, and then to wonder out loud: “How might we connect these “local assets” up more effectively?” Open Village was their response, a local invention, particular to that place, and that place alone.

By working this way, they broadened their circle of participation to include near everyone in their village. To reduce this to a description like: they conducted an asset map, would be to fundamentally miss the point and the transformative beauty of what they engaged in. Better to say that what they did was to commit intentional, repetitive and collective acts of revelation. Adele took on the role of a community animator and supported on the journey, her role was invaluable and did it with great skill, but largely her function was to cheer them on.

John McKnight often shares a story of a visit he made to the West of Ireland in the mid 60s. One day he wanted to go fishing and so he went into a local store and asked the shopkeeper: “do you sell bait?”, to which the shopkeeper asked” “when you say ‘bait’, what do you mean exactly?”. “Well like worms”, John replied. The shopkeeper smiled and offered this advice: “Well if I was you I’d turn around the way I came, and if you look on the ground outside the front door to the left and right, you’ll see two white washed flag stones, I think if you lifted up one of those, you’d find all the bait you need.” It’s a wonderful allegory which captures the essence of Touchstone 3, discovering the worms was just the start, John then needed to hook his bait, cast his line and catch some fish. The ABCD process then is three-fold: a) Discover, b) Connect, c) Mobilise.

Asset-mapping is not an action step, nor should it be about data gathering. It is essential about resident to resident relationship building. Adele understood this and so she didn’t do an asset map to or for the community, she enabled them to do it by themselves and where needed she carried their golf clubs, moved silly barriers out of the way, and paid close attention to people who might be vulnerable to not having their gift seen and received.

Touchstone 3 is what community connectors do (and animators support and help organize) on Monday morning, and in its simplicity and authenticity it changes the world, one conversation at a time.

Chris Chinnock, Cormac Russell

Click here for the complete series: The Eight Touchstones of Community Building

 

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