Launch of ABCD in England, June 30th 2016

For those that could only be with us in spirit (and Twitter) on June 30th 2016 for the launch of ABCD in England, we offer Cormac Russell’s keynote address….


Thank you!

Let me start by saying thank you to Steve and the Croydon Voluntary Action team for bringing this event together and to Sally Byng from Barnwood Trust for acting as steward of the process and to each of you for making the effort to be here.

Following the outcome of last week’s referendum, I felt compelled to set my previous remarks aside and prepare a new speech. I sincerely hope my words strike the right balance between a celebratory tone in light of your great achievements, and an attempt to share with you and those who will view or read this speech online, some cautions I feel about the challenges ahead.


We come to ABCD through our own autobiographies


I have come to understand that everyone who comes to ABCD in a deep way comes via an autobiographical route. They do not get ABCD so much as it gets them because its timeless truths resonate with their lived experience, in the same way they have resonated with mine.

My first confirmation that even the most flawed humanity is better than the best of our institutional programmes came at very young age for me, and it came in the form of my adoption.

Picture this, a married couple from Limerick could find their way to me as strangers (I was in a orphanage in Dublin at the time) and, by means of social alchemy, could leave as my parents with me as their adopted child. Now Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes in his own autobiographical account of his childhood in Limerick, humorously said:

There’s only one thing worse than a Roman Catholic childhood, and that’s a Roman Catholic childhood in Limerick.

Still despite all of the ups and downs that family life brings, my parents did something remarkable and of immense consequence in my life, which has served to deeply influence how I see the world. These two remarkable people, stepped out from the community and gave human expression to the African adage: ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.

Later in my adult life, I was to fully understand what the alternative might have looked like when I worked in residential childcare settings with ‘looked after’ children. There I came face to face with the limitations of the systems world. I became convinced that no institution, not even a combination of institutions no matter how integrated, seamless, and coordinated they might be, can be a proxy for the family and village in the life of a child. In fact, whatever your concern in life, whether it’s raising children, ageing well, economic security or health and wellbeing, the village is an essential part of the answer you seek.

But I don’t want to romanticise community life. In the Ireland of my biological mother’s youth, being pregnant and unmarried was a source of great shame and would have resulted in outright rejection.

It’s the great paradox of community, that the same small village that can produce a couple who would readily adopt a child into their family, is equally capable of rejecting a young woman with a child in her womb.

When I first came to London, I spent some time studying the history of the London Irish, and was forcibly struck by a number of features of their shared exodus. Chief among them was the fact that an estimated one in every three of them had spent time in an institution back in Ireland.

I have often tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been rejected by your family, or as often happened, taken from your family against their will and yours by the Church or State for minor issues like poor school attendance, or petty pilfering, to be placed in an institution, and upon release returning home only to be told:

There’s nothing for you here, there’s the price of the boat, now off with you.

One of the stories that has remained with me is a story recounted for a documentary on Irish economic migrants in England. The story unfolds in London sometime in the 1930/1940s. It’s a story of delightful civil disobedience, where a young Irishman on seeing an ad for a job hanging on the window of a local shop, noted in the bold print the warning:

“No Irish need apply!”

And so not to be outdone, he took a pen and wrote these words:

Whoever wrote this wrote it well, for the same appears on the gates of hell: “no Irish need apply”.

This is another part of my story, and it is the part that brings home to me the need to practise radical inclusion, a key principle of ABCD and it resonates strongly for me today. It is a principle that asserts that if we are to be well as a community, and as a country, wherever we may be from, we must welcome the stranger at the edge from within our communities and from outside our communities. Simply being nice to the people who talk like us, think like us and look like us is not sufficient, in fact to do just that is to live an entrenched and impoverished life. It is a choice not made out of badness, but fear and disconnection.

The realisation on the one hand that our communities have the capacity to become a village where every child can belong and grow well, and on the other hand has the potential to be a place of xenophobia and shame, offers us the best reason I can think of why your community building efforts matter so profoundly.

It seems to me that the two underpinning values of supporting grass roots inventiveness alongside the challenge to welcome the stranger at the edge, are particularly important this week and in the weeks and months ahead for England.

Jean Vanier, reminds us that ‘we can not truly commit to community until we’ve been disillusioned by it’. What he is calling to our attention is the danger of having a enchanted version of our communities. I have encountered a lot of disillusionment over the last few days in England, and many people are searching for an understanding of what last week’s referendum is teaching us, not just in England I hasten to add, but all over the world.

That search will continue and in the weeks and months ahead greater clarity will come to bear, but what do community builders like us do in the face of such challenges? Community Builders accept the world as it is, not as it should be, but only so that they can co-create the world as it should be, not as it is. So take heart my friends because you have much work to do, and it is essential work.

My own experiences on the highways and byways of England have been nothing short of joyous. I have met amazing people, many of whom are in this room today, so I know first hand about English generosity, and the abundance on which you grow your work and this movement, which is now evident in every corner of the world.

I recall in 2009 when John McKnight and I convened the first European ABCD Symposium in Liverpool, we worked in partnership with a range of UK, Dutch and Irish organisations. I’m saddened to say that many of the UK organisations like CDX, CDT, and the Scarmen Trust no longer exist. Over the course of time since 2009, I have seen organisations and fads come and go at a phenomenal rate, in England in particular. During that period we’ve had Big Society, People Powered Change, Cooperative Councils, and I could go on and on. However in a very real sense what has remained consistent has been the constant search for a better relationship between citizens and government. It feels to me that that search for a better social contract for all, is only really getting going now, and that your efforts are of huge importance in helping to figuring out an alternative future for democracy, a future where democracy works at it should.

I know fads will come and go, but that search will continue. I take great heart in the fact that movements like ours are not rooted in faddy models. We are not the ABCD movement, we are rooted in a common story, and a common call towards the local, small and relational -yet we are also rooted in commitment to radical inclusion.

In a sense we have a hand in the soil, and an eye towards the crest of the hill, watching for the stranger coming over the hill, and like giddy children waiting for their favourite aunt to visit, we can’t wait to hear their stories, their songs and their wisdom.

Ours is a movement that understands the urgency of slowness, that believes small is the new big, that asserts that we are inextricably connected to each other, the food we eat and the ecology we move through, and that moves through us.

It’s a movement that comes from the grassroots up, and the sidelines in, it’s a backyard revolution, set against the backdrop of an individualistic consumerist society.

And it is a movement that believes in the power of stories, because stories inspire enduring change, they feed our drooping spirits, and when we are most disillusioned they give us hope and consolation.

In 1819, Irvin Washington the American essayist, during his stay in Birmingham in the UK, wrote such a story. It is a story from which I take great solace, it is the story of Rip Van Winkle. We have probably all heard the story as children, and no doubt we remember it as being about a hapless character that went up a hill and slept for twenty years and then woke up, and on descending the hill found everything had changed.

What we sometimes miss in the story is that when he went up the hill, George III was king of England and the Colonies, and when he came back down again, George Washington was President of the United States of America. Which is to say, he had slept through a revolution.

The other aspect of the story I find interesting is his encounter with another man of the same name. It was of course his adult son, who was also called Rip Van Winkle. The second man of the same name remained awake throughout the revolution, despite the fact that he did not have the stewardship of his father. Reminding us that it doesn’t just take a village to raise a child, it takes a child to raise a village.

I believe our little revolution, which focuses on what’s strong not what’s wrong, which asks what matters to you, in preference to what is the matter with you, is a revolution at three levels. It is a revolution in thinking, a revolution of the heart and a revolution in practice.

Its power is in the combined energy of all three working as one.

I’m pretty sure that anything that brings our movement up the hill to wake the Rip Van Winkles of this world, needs to be measured against the time lost building community in the valley. The challenge to movements like ours is to avoid being drawn down blind alleys, or up sleepy hillsides. Ultimately our work is to expand free space in civic life, and not to reform mountainous systems. Our challenge, I believe, is to work with the wakeful in the valley, to run with the energy, but to continue to remind them to sing a bit longer, to tell their story a little bit prouder so that it might echo over the hillside, and when those that wake come down the hill, to welcome them warmly.

Understand here I’m not suggesting that we don’t go for walks on the hillside, I think we should, and often, but that we don’t do so with missionary zeal, that we don’t go to rescue or convert, but simply to dance our dance, to the beat of a different drum.

I understand many of you try to do both, you mind the gap between the institutional world and community life but I would say to you take care of how you expend your energy. If you are spending all your time fending back the system, but there is no actual community building going on over on the community side, quite frankly your energy is being drained for little real return.

The primary work of this movement is in the citizen-led discovery, connection and mobilisation of community assets. And to do this we need to understand the irreplaceable functions of citizens acting in association with each other and to my mind, there are ten:
1. Produce health.
2. Create safety.
3. Create a village where children can flourish.
4. Produce care, consolation- freely given gifts of the heart.
5. Sustain food production and slow down food consumption.
6. Generate and sustain the local economy.
7. Protect our planet.
8. Create and defend the space for the unknown and unknowable.
9. Create a space where the fallibilities of others can be accepted and respected
10. They are the nurseries of democracy.


These functions can only flourish outside of hierarchical bureaucratic space.

So the primary question we are faced with is how do discover the places where these functions are alive and well, and from there proliferate those practices?

We can not outsource this question to the market place, or professional fixers, this is citizen work. I believe we’ve got to take this one ourselves, in each country, in each region, in each community and at each kitchen table. We all need to start a new national conversation, a conversation that seeks to make the invisible visible, in the place we call home, a conversation that remains endlessly curious about the gifts of the stranger, and keeps an empty chair for the friend who has not yet arrived from Syria and Turkey and many, many other exotic places, with stories of trial and adventure, trauma and triumph. Stories which one day will weave into the fabric of English society, just as surely as the Irish migrant story has.

This ground will not be so easily discovered or recovered. There are many systems and institutions deeply committed to turning people into clients and customers. Like cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, so too will they lay their programmes and services in the nests of associational life. Some will even be so bold as to call what they are doing ABCD, or some other catchphrase. We must be prepared to constructively disrupt their flight path, and those working within such systems must be prepared to dissent, because as Peter Block reminds us, ‘if you can’t say no, your yes is meaningless’. Martin Luther King once said:

‘power without love is oppressive, but love without power is anemic.’

Let’s not be anemic about the space we love and are committed to.

It will take time, but when the million individual pieces of thread are dyed in thousands of different colours and brought together in a unity that is without uniformity, your community building work and that of our fellow travellers will be woven into that tapestry, like golden thread running throughout.

One of the reasons I and my colleagues at Nurture Development enjoy hanging out with you all so much is because you dream big but keep your practice local. Another reason is that you’ve each got a glint in your eyes, you’re mischievous, playful and brave. And we need courage and conviction now, but we also need solidarity.

That in mind, let me conclude by inviting you to follow in the footsteps of our friends in Canada and the Netherlands and invite you here today to convene the ABCD in England Network, so that we can form a circle of friendship around our asset based community driven efforts and the practices that support it.

This is not a top down revolution, this is a grassroots up, sidelines in revolution, a revolution of the heart. So my friends, let me conclude as I have done up and down this fine country of yours, with these words….on with the revolution!



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1 Comment
  • Trudie Canavan

    A great day, spent with inspiring people. Tons of energy in the room and ideas swapping.

    July 6, 2016 at 4:49 pm

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