The Response Ability of the Many (December 2023)
The Response Ability of the Many (December 2023)
Many of the World’s most urgent crises now require more profound and broader collective community-centred responses. Societies can only flourish or even endure with active citizens and their associations. Institutions shore up these fundamental civil pillars but can never replace them without causing harm. Sadly, the response-ability of the many is continually falling on the shoulders of the few. Whether we consider the “few” to be good actors or bad, there is a gateway crisis that underpins all other crises: citizenship is in retreat, and our shared social fabric is being systemically undermined when we need it most. This begs the question: how can we return citizens and their associations to the centre of democracy as the key actors in our troubled times? The latent capacity of “the many” to “be the change” often gets overwhelmed and overshadowed by moralistic arguments about what some believe others should take responsibility for. “You should do more about the climate crisis”, “You should not support that political candidate.” “They should do a parenting course”. “You should try working in a more asset-based community development way’, etc. There is an enormous difference between telling people what we believe they should take responsibility for and enabling fellow citizens and their associations to determine what they care about enough to act upon together. In other words, investing in the capacity of communities to collectively respond to issues that are priorities for them and the common good is at the other end of the power spectrum to initiatives that aim towards getting communities to do or think the way “we” want them to. The former is colonial even when well-intended; the latter, if truly inclusive, is liberating.
A Story as old as time
Rekindling democracy starts by discovering what people care enough about to act upon towards the common good by rekindling that which already exists in every community: care, which, is to say, care that transcends opinion (typically about what others ought to do) and self-interest. What happened in the Voorstad-Oost neighbourhood, in The Netherlands, where Carin discovered a rumour that the old neighbourhood school was being sold off, is exemplary of such a rekindling. Instead of accepting this fate, Carin and her friend Lotte, along with other residents, took it upon themselves to save the school and transform it into a community centre that residents completely ran. Why? Because they cared enough to act (they did not just exchange opinions). What seemed like an insurmountable task, preventing the loss of a much-loved building without much formal support from institutions and no external capital investment, necessarily became a shared adventure that brought their neighbours together for a common cause. They understood it would not get done if they did not do it by themselves. They were the key actors. It is worth noting that many of these neighbours disagreed on many points of politics, but on this adventure of saving the building, they were as one.
What sets Voorstad-Oost apart from other places, where initiatives rely exclusively on external resources, is that Carin and her neighbours relied on each other, on what some refer to as a “gift economy” where the community members openly ask their neighbours for contributions to in this case turn the vision of the Community centre into a reality from the inside out. Residents’ willingness to contribute their skills and talents led to the project’s success. This collective effort saved the building and created a sense of ownership and pride within the community. The community centre became a space where locals could walk in, contribute, and say, “I helped to transform this into the beautiful community centre you see here.” Too often people confuse the bricks and mortar of a Community Center with the centre of community life, that was that the case here. They understood that the process mattered more than the project.
Unfortunately, this community centre has not prevailed. Carin and her neighbours needed the supplementary support of institutions, and that support for assorted reasons was not forthcoming. This is a familiar tale that reminds us of the fact that community-led initiatives do not all survive. However, many more would if they were supported by institutions that operate democratically in citizen space. Such stories as these are fringe because we do not yet have enough community centred practice in the world; it takes work to discover such possibilities and even more to feature them ahead of the priorities of hierarchical institutions where the few regularly control the actions of the many.
Institutions do not have a monopoly on the solutions, but neither do Communities
When institutions take over civic life and replace it, citizens become clients and consumers (passive or actively dissatisfied) of institutional services, and credentialed experts are seen as superior to the people they serve. This technocratic approach erodes active citizenship, leading to unintended consequences such as defining economically marginalised individuals like Carin as problems to be fixed rather than valued members of society. Moreover, a sizable portion of resources intended to end poverty in such neighbourhoods goes to paid service providers rather than the economically marginalised citizens themselves. I hasten to add here that paying service providers properly is not the issue; doing so at the expense of the communities they serve is. It puts everybody involved in an untenable position. This is not an either-or argument, but a plea for more proportionate approaches to funding.
This institutional-centric approach also overregulates interdependence in natural communities, diminishing community life and undermining community alternatives to conventional programmatic approaches. In communities that have been labelled as “damaged”, it leads to the internalisation of negative narratives about their community and fosters a belief that a few external actors hold a monopoly on the best solutions to local problems1. In such circumstance, citizens often perceive a good life as being exclusively found in services and programs offered by salaried strangers rather than through interdependent relationships within their own communities, with services and programmes acting as an important backup and augmentation to localised desires and capabilities. In this way, the authority that belongs to “the many residents” becomes relocated to the few external actors (albeit well-intentioned).
Neither institutions nor communities have a monopoly on solving problems. But on the see-saw of the current power equation in responding to a wide range of crises, the institutions are the elephant and communities the mouse on opposite sides. If anything is going to get better, it’s because the institutions are willing to relocate authority, resources, and space. However, the dominant narrative now sounds more like this, the only way things are going to get better is if Institutions and their outside actors:
a. Make them better for us (Paternalism)
b. Do better by us (Paternalist Service reform)
c. Do better through us (Utilising/extracting tapping into local community capabilities to fulfil the interests of external actors)
In all cases, institutions are the key actors. They maintain a monopoly on resources, positional privilege, and power.
If we are serious about rekindling democracy, we must therefore acknowledge that the gateway crisis that underpins all other crises is the inversion of democracy. By this, I mean the role of citizens is defined as that which happens after the important work of professionals is done. And so, our health is in the hands of the doctor, our safety in the hands of the police, our ecological survival in the hands of policymakers and charismatic activists, and so on. We cannot relocate our citizenship into the hands of institutional proxies without serious blowback. Nor can institutions expropriate and commodify human needs with the promise that they will do our living and dying for us, yet this has become the dominant narrative in industrialised societies. There is a service solution for every human problem-citizen beware! It does not take much to debunk this conventionalised story; let’s take health as exhibit A: 80% of what determines our health has nothing to do with medical or clinical interventions. Our health is, therefore, not the monopoly of doctors or hospitals; it is largely a social and political affair. A new story is required to re-centre communities, their local biospheres, and economies.
Pick a Crisis, Any Crisis
The issue is not solely with institutional overreach or professional dominance; it is also with monopolies. Select whatever current crisis you wish and attempt to solve it top-down by giving all the responsibility to one sector of society and all the blame for the crises to another and see how that works out. Even the most precursory review of the outcomes of various top-down interventions, such as wars on drugs, homelessness, crime, poverty, hunger, etc, will tell you, plainly, that you are doomed to fail. Looking at these challenges through the bio-medical lens has led to catastrophic failures, where racial inequity and the pathologising of poverty have been endemic. The evidence is clear on this: social engineering from the extremes of Stalinism to neoliberalism, with its hallmark of command-and-control monopolism, does not work and, in fact, causes more harm. I predict comparable poor results for most initiatives aimed at addressing the climate crisis for the same reason: even when the few are on the side of the angels, if they are intent on imposing their version of salvation on the many, they will fall foul of this so-called tragedy of the Commons. Why? Because the few responding on behalf of the many (and not always in their best interests) are travelling faster than the speed of trust and will, therefore, leave most behind. The hazards of travelling faster than the speed of trust should be self-evident, but let us list some of the more obvious hazards of trying to push ahead to convert the many to the will of the few:
· Increase of strong-man politics
· Increase of polarisation and extremism
· Any issue that requires widespread citizen consent and contribution will, in effect, eventually grind to a halt
· Health and economic inequalities/inequities will continue to widen
· Further degradation of local biospheres and recurring annual/seasonal climatic catastrophes will increase
· More wars, geopolitical destabilisation
· Burnout will increase among public services and civil society professionals as we ask them to take on more and more functions that belong in citizen space, and retention and recruitment of key professionals will become more problematic
· National voting in countries around the world will reflect growing schism between younger and older people
· Racial inequity will continue without meaningful reckoning and reconciliation
· Economic disparities will accelerate and manifest in for example water wars.
· Social Isolation will become normalised.
Not Only the Lonely
Speaking of social isolation and loneliness. Loneliness and disconnection have become high profile in 2023, as evidenced by the stance taken by United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, where he has called for action to address the issue as a profound Public Health crisis:
“Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. Disconnection fundamentally affects our mental, physical, and societal health. In fact, loneliness and isolation increase the risk for individuals to develop mental health challenges in their lives, and lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily.”
To address loneliness and the unravelling of the social fabric, reconnecting people through reciprocal relationships based on their capacities rather than deficits or labels is key. The research of Myrra Vernooij-Dassen, an academic from the Netherlands, is important here because she emphasises the importance of avoiding stigmatising terms like loneliness and instead focusing on reestablishing connections among individuals. In other words, if we want to reduce loneliness, we must sidestep “loneliness” as an issue and emphasise increasing the valued social roles of those who currently feel isolated. This involves flipping the narrative from you are needy to you are needed. Many lonely people would tolerate social isolation to avoid feeling like a burden to others. Our message to them is, “You matter; you have a contribution to make to the wellbeing of this community, and we cannot build community without you.”
The Genie is Already Out of the bottle
Whether people feel lonely, economically marginalised, subject to racial inequity, or dissociated from their environmental surroundings, the pivot that is needed is from mass production that lines the pockets of the few to the production of the masses that enhances the public health of the many and ensures that everyone has enough to enjoy the Good Life.
Such a profound pivot cannot be done all at once, in a mile-wide, inch-deep sort of way. We must go inch wide and mile deep towards anti-monopoly localised community alternatives. If we are to address poly-crises, we must reboot democracy, where institutions support and collaborate with citizens rather than displacing and replacing them. Here are just some of the many examples of what more community-centred institutions can look like.
· The Welsh Prison and Probation Services, through the Grand Avenues Projects and their Community Justice initiatives, are accompanying community returners on their journey from prison towards interdependence at the centre of community life, where they become known for their valued social roles.
· Yishun Health, in Singapore, through an initiative called Caring Communities: Production & Participation by People. A collection of 38 community initiatives supported by Yishun Health’s Population Health and Community Transformation (PHCT) team but led by local communities, which have benefited around 10,000 participants since 2011. You can find a link to a book that curates the journey here. The belief that underscores the professional posture is one where they view individuals as capable of taking charge of their own health and contributing to supporting other residents in the community’s health. In essence, they recognise communities as being key actors in the creation of wellbeing, not just passive consumers of clinical interventions.
· We have worked with numerous municipalities in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Canada, and we are committed to recognising neighbourhoods as primary units of change. The City of Calgary has committed to investing in precipitating more connected communities. Leeds City Council, Working in partnership with local Not-For-Profits, Leeds City Council has supported ABCD (Asset Based Community Development) community builders in 17 neighbourhoods across the city. Bomlo Kommune in Norway has supported schools across the Island to integrate asset-based community development into their approach to community-school partnership development. Surrey County Council, UK have done a fantastic job of reimagining their commissioning process by looking at their various investment in communities through an ABCD lens.
· Gros Morne Institute of Sustainable Tourism has been pioneering an asset-based community development approach to tourism in Newfoundland and beyond.
· Active Essex Local Development Partnership has been reimaging sport and physical activity through the lens of ABCD.
· Alberta Health, Health Excellence Canada, and Health Quality BC have pioneered community-centred approaches to health in Canada.
· Strathcarron Hospice has reimaged end-of-life care and support through a community development approach.
· Naomh Breandan Credit Union, in Loughrea, Co. Galway, Ireland have been working with the principle of ABCD to support community in the communities they serve, and in navigate a just transition to the climate crisis.
We at Nurture Development have the pleasure of working across 38 countries with organisations committed to working in more genuinely community-centred ways. While I make mention of the above organisations that we are collaborating with, I do so not to the exclusion of others that we are equally inspired by. They will feature in future newsletters. It simply is not possible to share all the examples that continue to inspire me, but the above sampling should at least demonstrate that we are seeing the genie emerging from the bottle.
This work is ongoing; there is no defined destination, no clear summit for which to aspire, it occurs in daily moments of promising practice. The change we seek requires an ongoing commitment to opt for community alternatives instead of more conventional instrumental approaches. But if the challenges we face require the responses and contributions of the many, not just the heroic efforts of the few, then we have little option. An alternative sustainable future will not be attained by the inventiveness of the few, however well intended, but when those who have been previously defined as the problem secure the power to reposition the problem outside of the biomedical model and the neoliberal compact. We need and celebrate and honour the passion and courage of the few the challenge and possibility that “carefronts” us is to neighbour with them in growing a diverse base of support and active contribution towards wholeness and just transitions towards a preferred future.
In 2024, we at Nurture Development will accompany professionals working in citizen space to precipitate more citizen-led responses to our modern and perennial challenges; why not join us or invite us to join you? You will see in our announcements section that we are launching a new programme called Train the ABCD Facilitator/Trainer Course. We are also launching another public online introduction to Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) course starting January 19, 2024.
To arrange a partnership conversation, just email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Cormac Russell, Dublin, Ireland, 2023