Shaun McBride: My journey to ABCD
Hi, my name is Shaun McBride and I started as an intern at Nurture Development, helping build the Community Renewal Centre, back in Autumn 2020. As I hope to post some of the interesting places my thoughts take me on this blog, I wanted to introduce myself to you all and provide some background.
I came the long way round to ABCD. With a military father, youthful years spent in the Cub Scouts and Air Cadets, followed by 3 years as a Royal Naval Officer, leaving only to join the ambulance service and train as a paramedic, I was the textbook definition of an institutionalised helper. The world seemed like it was reducible to some simple truths: people don’t know what’s good for them, and even if they did, the good they could attempt to make would be inferior to that made by institutions & professionals. So, of course, I came to the conclusion all human progress could only be made through improving institutions.
You might now be interested to know how I, kicking and screaming the whole way, eventually came round 180 degrees to now spend my time as a champion for citizen’s expertise in defining the important goals for their community and the benefits of allowing them to solve it.
There were three arenas in which my transformation took place. The first is my experience of finding a positive, accepting, loving community for the first time in my life in the Gaskell Garden Project in Manchester, and the way that others, others who carried labels like “refugee” or “mentally ill”, also found personal transformation in the same association. The second is my experience of the limits of institutional work and the direct experience of health inequities through my work as a paramedic. The third, the last straw, took place over the course of four months on the Greek island of Lesbos, working in the small clinic for the largest refugee camp in Europe, Moria, seeing the harm NGOs inflict in “disaster aid environment”.
The Gaskell Garden Project
A chance meeting with Dan, the de facto ‘head’ and founder of the Gaskell Garden Project (GGP), while fixing bikes led me to begin my transformation. I had recently left the Navy, moving to Manchester, where I knew just one other person in the city. The GGP gave me the opportunity to find community and, energised to do some ‘good’ in the world, the GGP allowed me to discover my assets & use them.
While I, as a white, straight, cis-gendered, well-spoken, straight-A student from a secure household, had been privileged enough to have never been labelled out of community life, the general decay in community life around me had left me without ever having truly experienced a real community, except for some faint memories of community life in rural Cornwall when I was very young (late 90s). My search for this community is what attracted me to the camaraderie of the military and probably also the close-knit family of the ambulance service – neither of which, for various reasons, were premised on true inclusion.
The Gaskell Garden Project changed this. The GGP was rooted in permaculture and centred on an allotment where we grew food. Anyone was invited to grow with us and, as Dan worked in a refugee & asylum seeker-led legal organisation (RAPAR) where the groundwork of eschewing labels and paternalism had been long established, I grew food alongside many people traditionally labelled and fixed, whether students defined as “lonely” or refugees & asylum seekers defined as “vulnerable”. Over time, we began to cook & eat the food together at “Pay As You Feel Meals”.
In this association, I found a loving community where I could be the authentic me, an environment where I could undergo personal transformation. I also watched as those who would traditionally be excluded from the cooking experience (“Don’t worry, just sit there and let us do the work”) or who would only be allowed to grow food in a carefully controlled, funded environment where they are expected to declare their problems & allow themselves to be “fixed” by others, could just show up, be themselves and contribute their gifts if they wanted to.
At first, I thought we were doing something unique – we once gave a presentation on “social permaculture” – but later in the story I learned really we were just doing what any true community association does, and what the ABCD community has been lifting up for a long time. That doesn’t mean I instantly converted to the ABCD way. Seeing the amazing changes around me, but not understanding truly where it was coming from, I was the chief promoter of a move towards scaling up and institutionalisation. I too succumbed to the idea that a good organisation aspires to look like institutions and big charities: policies, funding, employment, measurement, research, rigid decision making structures, minimising risk and constitutions. I told you I was a slow learner. Eventually, I came to understand that the reason I and others found the space transformative was because of the very absence of those things.
At the Gaskell Garden Project, in summary, I experienced first hand the power of citizens to define the problem and to use their resources to solve it. I experienced the power of spaces where people can contribute, not be fixed. I also experienced the transformative power of being in community for the first time.
The Ambulance Service and the limits of the institutional world
At the same time as I was experiencing citizen-led change at the Gaskell Garden Project, I experienced the limits of professional-led change within the NHS.
Not many people realise, even among those who work inside it, but the ambulance service is very exposed to what we call “social deprivation”. You constantly find yourself in the same (“poor”) neighbourhoods. Not only do traditional “emergencies”, for example heart attacks or strokes, occur more often there as a result of the very real toll that the stress that accompanies being economically oppressed leaves in your body, but also what could be termed a “social emergencies” where 999 is the only person someone has to turn to. For example, where someone has a simple, non-injury inflicting trip but has noone to just help them get back up off the floor, or where someone has received such stigmatising care in more “appropriate” settings that their problem either becomes an emergency, or they feel that 999 is the only place they can be sure to get help for their problem.
As a result of these experiences, I was led into the realm of the institutional health world called “inclusion health”, a subsection of Public Health/Health Promotion which “combats health inequities”, which is largely led by a progressive layer of health professionals with a special interest in making sure the service we provide is equitable & inclusive.
My experiences attempting to provide equitable care to my patients in my frontline role, as well as trying to improve services more generally, gave me an appreciation for the limits of the institutional world and how I could ‘help’ as a helper. However, these limits were not solely from those who you might expect – those in control of tight budgets or those who hold a more conservative mindset – but also from my very well-meaning colleagues, some of whom were unable to step outside of the paternalistic paradigm and create change in the way I was seeing happen at the Gaskell Garden Project, which began most fundamentally with the recognition of the essential competence & capacity of all.
The assumption unquestioned by many in Public Health/Health Promotion/Inclusion Health is that institutions, namely here the Health & Social Care Complex, is at least the primary if not the only producer of health. Out of this assumption arises paternalism – if we are the only producers of health, and if health is inequitable, it must be us who is producing it inequitably, and thus the solution to inequitable health can only be found in institutional reform. In trying to combat the destructive “individual responsibility” or neoliberal model of health, little room is left for understanding how communities & citizens can also create health, which I believe are the most powerful health creators in the equation.
In summary, when it comes to managing disease, it is essential that the Health & Social Care Complex provides an equitable service. However, when it comes to the whole picture of health creation, the Complex forms only a part, but it is here that it can unintentionally overreach into citizen space and actually displace communities & citizens own, more effective, health creation efforts.
The Refugee “Aid” Context
The stage was set in my mind. The jigsaw puzzle was poised to be solved but was not yet there. I had experienced citizen-led change and was convinced its principles were the way forward, but had not yet quite completely understood how the institutions I worked in and saw all around me fit into this, but I was beginning to suspect that they couldn’t do what citizens could do, and had not yet discovered ABCD as a field. What I needed was a jolt, and I got it when I volunteered in Lesbos, Greece, where I came to really understand the harms of institutional overreach.
While providing medical cover for refugee boat beach landings, I met people as they arrived on the beach having survived not just the incredibly difficult conditions in their own country but also the traumatic & dangerous journey spanning thousands of miles, of which the sea route to Lesbos was but the perilous finale.
The changes I witnessed in these same people as they attended the clinic over the following months, however, was a rapid transition from a hardy survivor who had all the assets to navigate extreme circumstances to someone who was now assumed to have no assets and was alive only thanks to the grace of Western NGOs and their mostly white, middle-class volunteers. This was not the result of an evil, refugee-demonising agenda aimed at breaking refugees, but of the well-intentioned but essentially imperialist & colonial aid sector.
I saw NGO managers drive around the town in the fanciest sports cars, while the local Greeks could only afford clapped-out vehicles and the refugees walked for 2 hours in the searing heat from the camp. I saw the ‘voluntourists’ who had paid thousands of dollars to an NGO for the privilege and were interested in being around a refugee for only as long as it took to get a selfie and tick a box on their CV, but ran in the opposite direction when their perfect beach day was threatened by refugees coming to enjoy the same beach. I saw the long, dehumanising food queues and the abuses of power where favourable treatment was given to those who officially converted to Christianity. But worst of all, I saw refugees come to internalise the falsehood that kept this state of affairs alive – that they depended on us to survive.
I realised that this wasn’t unique to the aid context. It might have been more intense and rapid there, but my friends seeking asylum that I grew food alongside in Manchester had experienced the same process in a slower, more subtle, way, and so had the ‘marginalised’ people I had tried to help in my job as a paramedic, and in a weird way, so had I as a citizen through my whole life. Even though I had ended up on the ‘helper’ side, I had swallowed the myth there was nothing I could do about my life or for my community except consume services.
The final straw was being invited to present research at a conference on “Homeless & Inclusion Health” but which was held at an extremely fancy hotel in London and charging an entrance fee that I as a well-paid professional couldn’t afford, let alone someone who is also denied a home or is marginalised. It felt no different from the extravagances I saw in Greece and became an obvious example that this is far from being isolated to disaster zones and is in fact totally normal and acceptable in western society.
In that way, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. The citizen-led change of the Gaskell Garden Project, the inability of the ambulance service and other institutions to do the same thing, and the very real harm that institutional overreach causes, not only in the “aid” context but “at home” too. So when I began to reflect and research on all this for a university course I was doing and found out that there were other people who thought the same way and it was called Asset Based Community Development, I was overjoyed. I felt like I had found ‘my people’ and something I wanted to dedicate myself to. I decided right then that ABCD was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was so excited that I cold-messaged Cormac on Twitter, who was then, and has continued to be, the most welcoming friend and inspirational mentor. I’m incredibly fortunate to have now found myself as an intern assisting Cormac to build the Community Renewal Centre.
As well as this, I now spend my time exploring the role that growing, cooking and enjoying food together has in our lives, and how this process can be used for community building, as well as making a sustainable, healthy & fun-filled future for us all.
And that’s the story of how an institutionalised helper got here! I hope my story demonstrates that no-one is special, and only very few people ‘get’ ABCD straight away, and we are all on a journey together towards a better future. I look forward to connecting with you, learning more from you, and if you’ll let me, sharing more of my experiences and thoughts on ABCD, over the coming months and years.