Where were you when they compressed the atom?
We are delighted to host the reflections of fellow traveller Gareth Hooper. We found this blog to be an incredibly thoughtful and honest reflection of a journey we all share, wrestling with Asset Based Community Development in practice. Thank you for sharing this with us Gareth. We hope everyone enjoys it as much as we did.
It began in January 2013….
I first heard Cormac at an event in January 2013. Typically in the public sector, we were just told to attend and there was little in the way of explanation what it was all about. At the time I was working as an Environmental Health Officer with my weekly routine dominated by noisy neighbours, barking dogs and air pollution. But, at this time I had also been given the task of managing a project to encourage people to make healthy lifestyle choices in one area of the City. I’ll come back to this later.
So, picture the cold post-Christmas January morning on which I am entering a building with around 200 other people to hear someone talk about community development. I am sat on one of about 20 tables in a hotel, with the Leader of the Council to my left and a manager from Environmental Health on my right.
This particular January was also quite grim. About 3 weeks prior my mother had been given months to live after she discovered she had a pretty aggressive form of cancer. So the Christmas of 2012 would be the last one with either of my parents around.
Cormac opened with a story. I have no recollection as to what that story was. I can remember almost none of the detail of those two days other than one sentence uttered by Cormac. That one sentence was just before lunch on day one. Up until that point I was not interested. I mean SERIOUSLY not interested! Cormac would have been talking about the power of communities and the abilities and skills that people in communities have. The ability to come together and share these abilities would underpin the true needs of people. And that agencies are displacing this community bond.
All I kept thinking was “if people have such ability to help themselves, why on earth are they bombarding me with e-mails and phone calls all day?!”
But then Cormac uttered the line which switched me off completely! It was 11:56am on January 7th, day one of the two-day course. He quoted Muriel Rukeyser (I only know as I later looked it up):
“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
Well, that was me done! If I thought it was nonsense before, I now thought it to be ridiculous nonsense! I genuinely wanted to leave at lunch. I was appalled at the idea that 200 people were away from their desks listening to such heresy.
Later in 2013
Moving forward to say June 2013, Mum had shuffled off this mortal coil, and I was in a very philosophical state of mind. Still working as an Environmental Health Officer and still managing this healthy lifestyles project.
I couldn’t quite shrug off this ABCD talk from January. I couldn’t agree with it, but I couldn’t disagree with it either. At this point I had nowhere to discuss my thoughts on it or seek answers to my questions. If I did hear it mentioned it was nebulous or sound bite: “ABCD is about people doing more for themselves” or “It’s about people coming together.” From these replies I took it as people knew as little as I did, but were afraid to admit it. I wasn’t. I didn’t get it, but I wanted to pursue it.
The Tipping Point
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point, talks about when a few things happen simultaneously they create large scale unpredictable change. So, here’s the small things the lead to my tipping point. Noisy dogs, a lonely mum and pizza.
The noisy dog story
I received a call one day about another case of dog barking. But this time I heard a different story.
Caller: Hello, my neighbour’s dog is barking all the time. Can you investigate please?
Me: We can do, but you are much better placed than me to deal with it. You know all the details and you know your neighbour. Does your neighbour know their dog is barking?
Caller: No. It’s when they’re out at work.
Me: OK, well I would totally recommend you knock on their door and tell them, as if it happens when they’re not in they’re never going to know it’s happening and can never resolve it. Plus, if the first they hear about it is a letter from the Council it creates them a lot of anguish and can make them feel very isolated and exposed that they have been monitored by neighbours in the past, and may be monitored by the Council in the future. A letter from us can really cause friction between neighbours. Are you sure you don’t want to have a go yourself first?
Caller: We don’t know them and we don’t want any trouble with them. Please write a letter.
I heard this call in a new context. The Council can possibly solve the dog barking, but the wider notion is that neighbours are not working together to help each other. One neighbour knows when the dog is barking, the other neighbour needs to know this to resolve it, but the only way this communication can happen is via me? I’m someone neither party knows or has any emotional stake in their lives.
The tale of a lonely Mum
I was reminiscing about my mother in the summer of 2013, and remembering her life over the previous few years. She’d moved house in March 2009, the year after Dad died. She moved about 5 miles from our family home and though she loved her new house and the area, she quickly became lonely. A naturally shy woman with low confidence at times I knew it would take quite some effort for her to break out. So, I put quite a lot of pressure on her to do something about it. Anything!
One day she called and was pretty jubilant! She told me how she sucked up all the courage she could muster and popped into the local church. 5 minute walk from her house along one quiet road. She said how lovely the people were there and how over the moon they were when they learned she could knit. So, she joined the Knit and natter group where they knitted hats for the local premature baby unit at the hospital. She joined the Womens Institute. Attended regular events at the church and made friends who introduced her to other things.
I was so relieved she’d found something. Her voice sounded upbeat for the first time in a year. Probably too prematurely she started accompanying the vicar when he visited families who were recently bereaved. She felt a calling to help others and knew only she could speak authentically about it. Her skills of knitting and surviving loss were in high demand. And it was her community demanding them. She felt needed and loved by the people around her.
The unwanted but healthy pizza
And then there was the pizza. Remember the project about trying to get people healthy? Well, one day I asked some mums if they would like some healthy eating classes. We’d come along, bring all the food and help them make some food. They thought it was a great idea. Fantastic, my health programme would have them indulging in Okra and Beetroot instead of chips and pies in no time. I thought.
Each week was the same. We turned up with all the food, some colleagues from work who knew a thing or two about cooking. We all made healthy pizza together and then the children ate it. Some took it away for their evening meal and we washed up. After 6 weeks my colleague said they didn’t want to keep doing it and they wanted to pass their skills on. I chatted with the group and said we need to move out of the cooking and would they take it on. They said they would, but 3-4 weeks later it had stopped. We didn’t have the time to do it each week so I put it down to a bad job. Tried and failed. There’s no shame in that.
I pondered that group a few weeks later and realised I knew nothing about those mothers. What they were good at. What they liked doing. What their ambitions were. What ambitions they had for the children. I saw them as numbers of people I needed to eat more fruit and vegetables. That’s all. “Please eat more fruit and veg, say I gave you the advice and sign this to confirm. Thank you!”
I never took the time to get to know those mums and work with them on their ideas and passions. Despite my great intent I walked in with a clear agenda and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of that.
So first hand I’d seen some of the issues in community life where neighbours would rather use the Council to solve an issue only they really could. I saw how an inclusive community was the only antidote to a socially isolated woman. And I saw the damage done by agencies needing boxes ticked, rather than communities built.
Being paid to help others find a tipping point
In early 2014, the Council for whom I worked created a small team to lead the organisation in seeing the city it served through an ABCD lens. There would be a post to lead this team. I felt very unqualified for such a role as by now I am starting to get what Cormac was saying back in January of the previous year. He was the sort of person I thought would be required to lead a team in ABCD, not an Environmental Health Officer. But I figured Cormac must have once been at the door of the un-read library. The room that contained all the knowledge he needed. And all he needed was a passion to learn. I found myself in that same library. I had met the Barnwood Trust and made some other contacts that were passionate about ABCD and had started their learning.
I succeeded in the interview. And that has changed my life forever. This meant I was now being paid to do a job that opposed the rationale of the existence of the organisation that was paying me. Well, I’m going to be popular, aren’t I!
I’m probably somewhere along the timeline that you’re on right now. Understanding our personal roles within the communities we live and work in. Working out when to step back or step in. When inappropriate compassionate help can destroy something, despite all your natural desires to tell you to get involved.
I’ve spent a lot of time with Cormac learning some of these arts and have been very fortunate to have spent a lot of time with other like-minded people too, to learn from and challenge and be challenged. People from agencies and communities, but all of whom want to create the space for a connected and interdependent society to exist. This doesn’t stop at 5pm by the way. I no longer see any difference between what I do at ‘work’ or at home. I am someone that has some skills that someone else needs. And thankfully I know plenty of people that have skills that I need. It is this mutual exchange that underpins our lives.
In my next blog I will tell the stories of how I connect with people now. But for the time being, I hope you’ve enjoyed this story.
As an Environmental Health Officer I was an expert on noise and sound waves. I know that sounds waves are made from compressions of air that stimulate the ear drum. What I also know now is that when atoms are compressed into that sound wave, it is the story that sound wave carries that really matters.
Who’d have thought 11:56am on January 7th could be so significant, eh?