My hopes for Community Renewal & Nurture Development

Working with Nurture Development over the last three and a half years I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to invite many hundreds of people across the UK and Europe in to story sharing and conversation with each other; As a result, I have been able to listen, enjoy and be moved by literally hundreds of examples of how neighbours have come together to make things better in streets and neighbourhoods from Shetland to Somerset, County Mayo to Clacton, Bristol to Berlin and beyond.

Three things have consistently struck me about the stories people share – the geography changes, the accents change – but these three things remain constant in all the stories of how neighbours come together to make things better:

  • The motivation to act comes from within
  • People instinctively start with what they already have
  • Everyone’s contribution is welcome

In a very practical way, stories and conversations are hugely powerful Community Development techniques and are great places to start building trust, understanding and connection. However, I feel that stories and conversations tend to be overlooked or not seen as that important. Indeed, stories can often be relegated to the role of window dressing for evaluations and as for conversations; they often play second fiddle to the dreaded consultation – the emphasis on telling not listening, consulting not connecting.

During COVID-19 we have seen some amazing examples of how neighbours at street level have come together to make things better. As we tentatively emerge from lockdown into this brave new world I am mindful that if opportunities to invite these stories are not created and if spaces for connection, reflection and sharing are not made then these stories could be lost.

My working assumption has always been that on any street, in any neighbourhood there are stories waiting to be told if we have the ears to listen. In fact, I would go further and say if that is not your working assumption then it must be that the opposite is true. That there are no stories worth discovering or conversations worth having and that you already know everything that is worth knowing?

Over recent weeks I have heard lots of organisations talking about ‘how do we sustain this level of activity’ and truthfully, I do not think you can. Energy does not work that way, motivation to act doesn’t work that way either. However, I do think that the relationships, friendships, connections and trust that have grown through COVID-19 could absolutely be sustained, nourished and nurtured.

I’m mindful while writing this blog that I don’t want to co-opt other people’s stories to prove my point; the challenge for institutions showing up in this space is to avoid the tendency to take control, take credit or indulge in empty humble bragging. I was struck by some powerful questions that Hannah Ellis, a Community Builder at Strathcarron Hospice in Scotland shared which really got to the heart of what I’m trying to say here:

  • How do people want to tell their stories?
  • How do people want to record their stories?
  • How do people want their stories retold?

The thread weaving around these three questions of course being ‘if at all’.

The intention here should be to acknowledge that in many neighbourhoods there has been a blossoming of informal, associational, relationship-oriented ‘community’ and I can’t think of another time in my career when the informal, citizen-led, neighbour-to-neighbour way of doing things has been so visible in our collective consciousness. I don’t think there has ever been a better time to invite people to share their stories and connect through conversation but outside agents (myself included) would do well to approach this domain humbly.

To that end, I’ve been hosting a series of conversations online with Citizens, Services and VCS contacts across the UK creating an opportunity to share stories and connect. The kinds of conversations we have been having took these questions as a starting point:

  1. What do you think makes people healthy in your neighbourhood at times like these?
  2. Of all the things that people have been doing on your street recently, what do you think has been most important?
  3. If COVID was the negative thing which brought people together what would need to happen for this to become ‘the way we do things around here’ rather than a crisis response?

I also invited people taking part to share some of the things that they felt were important and should not be lost or overlooked, I’ll give you a flavour of some of things people have shared:

  • How quickly people can rally and organise when faced with a crisis.
  • Open door and friendly feel of neighbours all being there to support one another
  • To continue talking and say hello good morning
  • Kindness and compassion are powerful and can literally transform not just our own bubbles but whole communities
  • Create space for our communities to continue to be heard
  • Remember the feeling of compassion people had to help those they did not previously know.
  • Not to lose sight of what we have learnt, the relationships we have built and the connections we have made.
  • To appreciate the power of kindness and how it can breed even stronger acts of kindness

There were many more, but you get the idea! These are amazing examples of the kind of things that I absolutely feel we should hold on to, celebrate and value. Too many times have I also heard professionals say things like “why would we have conversations? What would we get out of that”?  Which makes me wonder whether those professionals are more focussed on transactions rather than relationships. It is often said within ABCD that questions carry their own power – I think that stories and conversations carry their own power too. The power to connect, to build trust and to heal.

Can your organisation show itself to be curious and interested? To give people a chance to share and connect with others and to create a space where a conversation can be held which values the ways in people in communities have supported each other during this time Would this act of discovery (not delivery) reveal anything? Would it result in something new being created? We won’t know until we try! As always, the journey is the destination!

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