Aiming for Weightlessness

The following blog has been written by Tom Dewar, Senior Associate at Nurture Development.

Tom Dewar_01Several weeks ago I had the great pleasure of being in the UK, traveling around with Cormac Russell to various places where he offered presentations to a variety of audiences. These included the Possilpark neighborhood in Glasgow and Kilmarnock in Scotland; as well as Kendal, Cheltenham, Gloucester and Leeds in England. Along the way I learned a great deal about Nurture Development and its various learning sites. I also got the chance to meet and get to know some of the Associates and community builders already at work. The stated subject for these various presentations was always Asset Based Community Development, but the contexts and range of people in the room always varied.

As interesting as these places and presentations were – the thing that really drew me as I wandered around the edges of these gatherings were the many informal conversations that took place in 2’s, 3’s and small groups. Sometimes these were is in response to a facilitator asking that people do it, but more often it was the natural thing to do during “breaks,” over lunchtime or tea, or on short walks outside.

Through listening to some of them, and by sometimes joining in, I was reminded of the kinds of questions everyday people have about all this community building.

Where do we start? What do we do next? What does it lead to? How can we keep making progress? How do we tell our story to others?

It is not just a matter of the questions themselves, of course. It is also a matter of how they get addressed, and by whom.

Getting from “I” to “we”

In Kilmarnock, over lunch, I listened for some “we” conversations and joined a few. One was a threesome of gardeners who were lamenting the weather and the endless wait for spring, while also making plans about what to plant, exchange, and do in the meantime. At some point, after I expressed interest, they brought up Arthur, an “older man who is a bit of a loner”, and sometimes, a “sourpuss.” He was always fussing around in his tool shed and making things. So what did you do with Arthur? Well, we asked him if he would like to make a wooden trellis for one of us. And he did, and we liked it so much we asked for another. He is now on his third one, and is now asking if we want it in a color.” (laughs, sidelong glances all around.)

A great deal of talk in ABCD is about building relationships, and looking for natural connectors. These women clearly fit the bill. Natural connectors are said to be everywhere, and they are. But they are also sometimes minding their own business, connecting in their own private ways, and for their own purposes. I asked them about this, and they basically said “you have to keep your eyes open, and learn to listen, and observe. You have to circulate.”

A tea and coffee break in Kendal included a conversation with a “local coordinator” who told me that his most satisfying day of work lately was when he found a “walking group” that was willing to include a young man labeled as “delinquent”. “How did that happen?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “I first asked him what he most enjoyed doing, and then I started looking around for walking clubs. I approached several clubs and found one that was fine with it.” “Really,” I said, “what did they say when you asked?” “Well, two things, first they said, no one ever asked us before – that would be fine. And second,” he added, “I learned that several walkers had themselves been labeled in similar ways as kids. For them it was a form of payback for community inclusion they had experienced in their own life. You just never know. And you won’t know if you don’t ask.” So we see that natural community builders keep circulating, they keep listening, and they look for new as well as old ways to keep an empty seat at the table. Someone has to make the invitations.

When ABCD practitioners talk about following the energy in the community or in the room, they are talking about these kinds of groups and conversations.

Grouping up

During several of our sessions, Cormac asked those in the room to break into small groups (or 3 people, preferably with people they didn’t already know) to discuss what they cared about enough to do something with others. In watching these brief encounters, you could see and feel people getting excited. It created a “buzz” in the room. Even when the stated purpose of the overall gathering was to think about how some institutional mission could be better cared out – as with health care or local service provision – it became apparent that other ways were being used in everyday life. In a session with Local Commissioning Agencies for the NHS, mention was made of choirs, walking groups, self-help and support groups, and so forth. Given the actual determinants of health, they could see that local associations and citizen led action represented real alternatives to the prospect of delivering ever more medical care in order to bring about health and wellbeing. They just were not in the habit of enlisting (much less commissioning) associations for these kinds of purposes.

(See John McKnight on the inherently disruptive nature of the freedom to associate – on the Abundant Community website)

These associations are the heartbeat and nerve centers of community. They are also where many people learn to work in teams and decide things democratically, where citizens are born, find their voice and develop of working together despite differences in pursuit of common ground. And it’s where they keep returning. Many eventual “leaders” start out as members somewhere. And for many of us, being a member is quite enough – “thanks very much!” Let’s remember that many citizens are cautious about meetings, budgets, experts, and the expectations of others. Associations grow and adapt, and are often in a state of flux.

Scale is important but whose scale are we talking about?

“Going to scale” is something many successful local community-building projects get told they ought to do. Funders, policy-makers and professional helpers are often behind this. Rarely, are they told to keep up the good work, be patient, and stay mindful of what emerges as you make your way forward together.

In large part, this push for scaling up is driven by how ineffective and costly many programs and institutional solutions really are. There is an appetite for new ways but not much appreciation for what some of the locally rooted and citizen driven efforts require, and even less for how they got that way.

Some things that work at the community level are actually working there precisely because they “fit” with local people and their daily lives. Often they are a work in progress, and full of trial and error. They are finding their way by trying things out, step by step. But they don’t move faster than the speed of trust.

One of the most interesting conversations I joined while schmoozing around the edge of these various ABCD sessions was in Kilmarnock, with two participants comparing notes on the “significance of all this small scale stuff,” as one put it. “I feel it is the right thing to do, and I feel in my bones that it matters. But relationship building and listening for what people are already doing or ready to do, well – let’s just say – some potential partners just don’t see the kind of results we will get in the end.”

“Yes, maybe so” I offered, “but are you in the place you want to be – and moving at the pace that you want to be known for?” Yes, they agreed. “And it could be worse,” I noted (grinning), you could already be known as effective and thus be under a huge amount of pressure to “replicate your model” elsewhere, without having first figured out how to keep it going where you are; and without ever having claimed nor aspired to be a model for anyone else.”

Many working at the community level, engaged as they are in these modest, face-to-face, patient and often informal ways, do feel pressure. And the pressure is not just from outside but also sometimes from the inside (both within their home groups or themselves.)

My own view is that resisting this pressure to over-promise and under-deliver, while trying to find ways to stay mindful and focused on what really matters, is a primary challenge in most community building.

I am no expert on this, but I have seen people resist in a variety of ways. Among the most important of these is to better understand and articulate what might be called ‘community scale.’ What do people need in order to stay in the game? To continue making a contribution, within their limits?

This seems a topic for another blog, but for now, let me suggest that in my experience, community scale seems to be around five to eight people – no more than ten. That is about the number of people a typical citizen interacts with on a weekly basis.

It’s a manageable size, and not so large or unknown that asking people to move within it represent a weighty obligation. Rather, it’s a natural, everyday way of being. And there’s even a literature or body of evidence out there that says it’s about small group size that is most likely to shape and support us. It’s also the group size where our values get most directly translated into behaviors.

Working on the scale of family and community life as it currently exists is where the heart of community building resides, and where out work has to reach. It is the most fundamental “fit” that is required. If you overload or insist on people taking on more than they are realistically willing or able to take on, no one gains.

And yes, we can see in the various learning sites of Nurture Development, it starts with relationships and small groups. Community is right there. Right under our noses, and within earshot. (Are you listening for ‘we’?)

You start with who and what you have – not so much looking for heroes and heavy lifters but everyday people ready and willing to pitch in. For me, one of the surest signs that we are engaged in real community building is to see and appreciate the soft glow of everyday people quietly at work. It’s not about the limelight, or a few leaders; or of getting people to burden themselves with too much, too soon. Rather, it is about how the many members of a community, each in their own way, and on their own terms, can contribute what they can through their everyday practice, aspirations, and values.

Talk about ‘getting to scale’ and achieving ‘real’ outcomes are signs that you are not on community ground or using terms that citizens and neighbors use with each other. They suggest instead that you have entered a monologue defined by those looking at the community from above or beyond! And ultimately, community building in the tradition of ABCD is not about more or better programs. Rather, it’s about what to do instead of more or better programs. Most importantly, for me, it’s about everyday people and the real lives they lead. It’s about how much more doable community building becomes when it fits the rhythms and rhymes of a given place and its citizens.

So – in sum – while many things struck me about my recent time in the UK, what struck me the most was how familiar and important the ingredients really are.

At its best, this kind of community building demonstrates modesty, respect for variety, and scales with the everyday (and often very complicated) lives of the people involved. Gradually, it can even become natural, and the hard work and many benefits can be shared more and more widely. But it is more about digging in and spreading out than about scaling up. It respects and relies on what members can and will do – and one way of describing its approach might be ‘Aiming for Weightlessness.’

(Note: the theme of “weightlessness” in community building comes from “Resident Centered Community Building, A Resident to Resident Learning Exchange,” p 17, for which I was a co-author. The term grew out of discussion with community members from across North America about what moved and sustained them in their work.


Tom Dewar (Senior Associate, Nurture Development)

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