Your Vibe Attracts Your Tribe (With Hillsborough On My Mind)



Your Vibe Attracts Your Tribe

(With Hillsborough On My Mind)


It was a privilege to be invited to facilitate a three day residential training event recently for the multi-talented team of 14 ABCD Community Builders in Torbay.


The event was hosted by the Torbay Community Development Trust and we were all delighted that Cormac Russell and Shaun Burnett were able to join us.


When describing to us his ground-breaking ABCD work in Scotland, Shaun shared a fascinating insight. He likened his role as a community builder to that of a “Linebacker” in American football.


This is not a game I know much about but his comparison made complete sense and motivated me to look at other comparisons between the world of sport and the art of community building – and subsequently to write this blog.


But first let me share Shaun’s insight:



Linebacker is a playing position in American football. Linebackers are members of the defensive team, and line up approximately three to five yards (4 m) behind the line of scrimmage, behind the defensive linemen, and therefore “back up the line.” Linebackers generally align themselves by standing upright. The goal of the linebacker is to provide either extra run protection or extra pass protection.


ABCD community builders also “stand upright” and “back up the line” and by doing so they make it possible for local people, (the linemen), to play their ‘game’ more effectively. The presence of Community Builders means residents can occupy a space that is better suited for social action. Their goal is to provide extra protection so that the residents can move forward, make new connections and take action to bring about social change. Stories of success will attract the attention and approval of other residents, (new supporters and fans,) and inspire them to join in and participate. Everyone contributes whatever they can and together achieve extraordinary things and a deeper fellowship, (a willing coalition, a team.)


This analogy between sports and community building is worth exploring further.


In nearly all of our team sports (and in informal sports clubs across the nation) a very real “culture of community” exists among fans, players and coaches.


This solidarity amongst ordinary folk is self-perpetuated, despite an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession on the part of the media and others on cultivating celebrities and sensationalism in the pursuit of money.


These “communities of interest” amongst fans now stretch out across continents, even though their governing bodies are exposed as self-serving, out of touch or even corrupt. Such irresponsible and disreputable lapses by those who are financially and structurally in charge makes little difference, the love of the fans for their chosen sport remains true. Take the case of soccer fans in the UK and across the world, (think FIFA.) Whatever happens, it is and always will be the “people’s game” and the emotional leaders remain the fans.


There is a collective identity, a joining together, a celebration of unity among soccer fans. It is tribal. It is competitive. But so are human beings. And this has a lot in common with the aspirations of those practising the art of community building.




A comparison between soccer and community building is particularly apposite as the verdict of ‘unlawful killing’ at Hillsborough was announced in the news this week.


The heartbreak felt by the families, friends and communities of the soccer fans who lost their lives is now formally acknowledged by the establishment. After 27 years.


The disgraceful cover up of the criminal negligence and perjury on the part of the South Yorkshire Police Force and many of the Civic Officials in Sheffield was only made possible by a closing of the ranks of the ruling elite. False allegations of “drunkenness”, “mindless fighting” and the “deeply unattractive psyche of football fans” were repeated without question by the highest and most influential in the land.


The victims of the Hillsborough tragedy had no alternative but to organise and stand shoulder to shoulder to rebuff a constant stream of abuse and ridicule. They had to fight for years for justice to begin to be done.


Remember, that at the time the gutter press regularly referred, indiscriminately, to all football fans as hooligans. It is claimed by some that the Government at the time purposely manipulated and stirred up anger to pave the way for a more brutal approach to policing “the enemy within” at Orgreave and during the Miners Strike.


Be that as it may, community building is all about consensus, about progress not protest. It builds on the assets and hidden treasures that are in every neighbourhood and football fans for us are among those assets.


We object to the use of convenient labels like ‘undeserving poor’, ‘lone parents’ or the ‘frail and elderly’. We turn all this empty rhetoric on its head and reject the deficit thinking that defines a community only in terms of its needs and deficiencies.


We help people build their communities from the inside-out, using people’s strengths and their wisdom to guide us. Our opponents maintain that we are naïve. They say that only self-interest and materialism motivate people these days. That consumerism is the chosen path of the many and that most people are quite content with this most of the time. To our critics, community life is a pleasant enough indulgence to be enjoyed at a weekend fete or festival but can never and should never be seen as a potent force for social change.




In the world of ABCD we will do ourselves a disservice, therefore, if we ignore any manifestations of the community life we want to encourage and emulate. Particularly one that is right there in front of us in the common place world of the fans of Association Football, (and all other examples of associational life among informal sports clubs, faith groups, art groups etc. – the list is a long one.)


We need to bring attention to the fact that associational life is alive and well on the football terraces. There, people come together to freely associate, to experience the joy of association.


Let us no longer leave unchallenged a media driven fantasy that football supporting is just another success story for big business and that the people involved merely compliant, mindless consumers. I am one and I am not that, nor are most others.


Every time I go to a match I enjoy a genuine and obvious affection between fans, despite all the commercialisation. “Soccer-talk” is by far the favourite way of pass-timing for millions of us. Fans spontaneously vie with one another to be first to share their hopes, fears, dreams, tactical insights and frustrations whenever and wherever a group of them come across each other.


The media may employ its pundits but the conversation is owned by everyone. These conversations are nearly always about local topics and they even extend beyond football and people decide to do stuff. Honest.


ABCD reject the value of formal meetings, a gathering or a party are preferred.


What is more, we Brits, are regarded by social action strategists and cultural thought leaders as reserved, even cold. I invite them to come to a match. There those labelled as subservient and docile can be seen and heard on the terraces every match day declaring out loud an unconditional love for their team, often at the tops of their voices.  The passion runs deep and the loss of a game of football can reduce both adults and children to tears, in public. This is so out of character!


An important win can transform the whole atmosphere of an area. (Think Leicester City.) People cheerfully greet each other in the street and exhibit a shared optimism for an ever brighter future for days, even weeks after a match. Businesses appreciate that these positive attitudes increase production among their workers.


There is an obvious entry point here to reach out to people on and after successful match days that we in ABCD might be neglecting. This is an opportunity for community builders to make new connections and tap into a passion for change.


What makes this untypically positive and optimistic behaviour even more improbable is the fact that the ownership of the top soccer clubs has long passed on from local custodians to a handful of remote and distant billionaires. In addition, most of the players will have been shipped in from abroad so that the connections with a particular physical place, the team’s original hometown, are minimal.


(The team’s name may still represent its origins but little else, the stadium is likely to be named after a corporation which has paid for the rights.)


No matter, the entertainment value provided by 90 minutes worship at the feet of the god of the people’s game each week and the  memories and stories that grow exponentially around the club’s performance and history, ensure that a deep felt loyalty, an unforced and unpaid-for loyalty, is passed down enthusiastically from generation to generation.


This is a living testament to the importance ABCD theory places on older people in communities passing on to young people the stories of the times when people came together to make life better for all. It is how culture itself is passed on, or not.


ABCD theory also asserts that we need to intentionally welcome those at the fringes of society. A warm welcome awaits any supporter of “our team” on match day, in the street, clubroom or pub. No-one is surplus to requirements, no credentials needed. A caring attitude prevails on the terraces most all of the time.


Soccer supporters who have hardly spoken will hug one another when a goal is scored. Fans are in it together for real, good times and bad.


They have almost no power to influence the running of their clubs, except for a few co-operative ventures among fans in places like Wimbledon and Manchester.


This apparent powerlessness makes no difference to the authority and sense of ownership that the fans continue to claim and take for granted. Again the comparison with ABCD is a fundamental one.


A critical task of every community builder is to work to relocate the authority for what happens in the community to those who live in the community and away from agencies and professionals. Studying how it is done by and between football supporters might be a very fruitful avenue to explore.


These supporters almost expect to be at odds with the powers that be – the owners and the referees. (Meanwhile, the owners do pretty much as they want – strip the assets for personal gain or pour millions into the club.)


The supporters have few opportunities to voice their opinions formally or through the media but when they do they do so with power and confidence. These are the same people who we want to mobilise to take up issues with local service providers and politicians. We need to watch and listen.


It would useful to ask fans straight out how they think people might best transfer their belief in their own power to influence change in their club to empowering themselves in the places where they live. Community organising teaches us that it is not necessarily the power you have that matters, but the power your opponent thinks you have.


The connection between the players and the fans and between fans themselves is always a close and powerful one and has little to do with egos, it’s much more ecological than that. The fans wear the different names of their heroes on their shirts but the badge and colours are the same.


For a few hours each week personal cares are forgotten and concern for duties elsewhere suspended. If the game is good people lose all sense of time. If the playmaking is poor there are plenty of opportunities to judge, complain, encourage and commiserate. This is community.


When walking home after a particularly good game, strangers enjoy each other’s company in good humour, it feels great to be alive. That’s entertainment.


In ABCD we have our entertainers, our story tellers. We have drama and intrigue. We have lots of fun and powerful stories to share – and meaningful questions to ask.


Community building is a commoner’s art form, so let us learn again how to do it even better from a bastion of community life that is alive and well.


Recent research into Timebanking revealed that the more informal and unstructured a time bank is the more people will participate and feel free to be creative.


Building strong, resilient and caring relationships happen under the statutory radar in neighbourhoods every day. People do it for themselves with little connection with conventional community development, with the land of services and formal organisations.


Follow what ordinary folk do. They are our teachers.


Martin Simon (@TBUKmartin)

April 2016

Community Builder and ABCD Mentor

Founder of Timebanking in the UK



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