Working In Community Development Today…

Wheeler Hall in Leeds was packed for this conference, as busy as I have ever seen it, which I think reflects a couple of trends:

  • the increasing interest of funders and policy makers in using community development to achieve their policy goals
  • an increasing need to turn to our fellow citizens to tackle the small and big challenges in life as the impotence of governments becomes increasingly apparent.

The conference opened with John Low from JRF providing a retrospective of his 40 year career in community development spanning major periods of work in Halton Moor, then Wrexham and finally Bradford, with an emphasis on highlighting strengths and weaknesses in different approaches to community development and importantly lessons that had been learned.  I am not attempting here to report what the various speakers actually said, as much as the thoughts that they triggered in my head with their words.

  • John was attracted to community development because it seemed to offer a means of rebellion against his middle class up-bringing
  • Work on Halton Moor, good though it was showed how the issues that caused poverty on the estate were not caused by anything on the estate.  The causes of poverty were not the poor or the places they ended up living, but embedded in the wider socio-economic system.  The work on Halton Moor was able to ameliorate some impacts but to substantially address causes
  • The lack of any city-wide approach to community development meant that while Halton Moor enjoyed some successes from the approach other similar communities did not.  How can we ensure that all communities have access to the approach?
  • In Wrexham, John was part of the City Challenge programme one of  series of top down efforts at state funded and sanctioned community development and a series of independently funded projects.
  • Long term support from the National Government, Welsh Assembly and local authority gave 15 years of consistent community development.
  • The organisation that emerged showed signs of aping the bureaucracies and losing its edge.
  • It was always contested with several councillors looking to ‘clip its wings’, I suspect on the grounds that it had the power to tread on their toes.
  • In Bradford the project was city wide, working through a network of neighbourhood management and wardens with devolved budgets
  • They worked on 6 week task and finish cycles getting reported issues addressed quickly.  This worked well for short term fixes but made little impact on longer term issues such as planning and transport
  • It also found it hard to ensure that enough resources made their way into the poorest communities
  • Lessons from this 40 year odyssey were that poverty seems to be ‘intractable’.  Whatever phase of the economic cycle, boom or bust, the same folk stay at the bottom of the social pile and the gap between haves and have not seems to widen
  • Are industry is blighted by collective amnesia – we fail to learn and pass on the lessons to the next wave of workers.  This was highlighted on out own table where we had three generations of community development workers in the BD3 area with a collective memory of the last 2o years.  The most recent incumbents were just in post and had heard little of the past or what had already be tried and learned.  But this may be a good thing…
  • Current government policy in relation to localism does little to encourage community development work, although community organisers might be interesting.

Throughout Johns talk attention was slightly distracted by valiant attempts to get a laptop (first a mac, then a pc) to connect to a data projector so that our next speaker should show us such visual delights as a can of beans and Trotsky pushing a pram, to no avail.

So next up was the indefatigable Nick Beddow of CDX, describing the slides that should have been on the screen…key points for me were….

  • Community development is in danger of losing its identity as a centred practice with agreed principles and values at its core to a set of competing brands in danger of hacking each other to pieces in a race to the bottom to win the funders largesse. (Imagined slides of Heinz 57 varieties and Trotsky pushing a pram full of babies whacking each other with rattles)
  • We must ‘test’ projects that carry the community development label against the principles and values – not everything that claims to be….
  • We have to in some way unite to make the case….(community developers – develop thyself)
  • We have to continue to help ‘authorities’ and ‘funders’ to see communities differently.  They are not problems to be managed, but potentials to be facilitated…..
  • Cuts have left many good people and projects ‘wrecked’…
  • In search of funding, community development has been bought off by the state,hi-jacked.  Much of what is called community development is just the use of community development practices to achieve objectives of the state (smoking cessation, obesity management, breastfeeding, routes into work etc).  Many of us have sacrificed our professional integrity in order to pay the mortgage.  We have allowed ourselves to be locked in the gilded cage that we ask others to have the courage to step out of…..
  • Government approved community organising is a mixed blessing – it may get bums off seats and build activism – we should welcome them in to our worlds and help them to build on what has already been done
  • Training for government approved community organisers is woefully inadequate – they will need further support from local activists
  • The best campaigners are usually not great at running organisations – these are very different skillsets
  • We need to be much cuter about the causes of problems. Start from local issues but then look out… ask, ‘Why are our lives the way they are?’
  • We need to present a much better case for investment in grass roots organising, or, we have to ‘work with what we have got and start from where we are’ and not rely on either the benevolence or self interests of others….

The elephant in the room?  That perhaps there is no such thing as a ‘community’. Just individuals, their associations and aspirations….We claim to be working with communities when in reality we are only ever working with people…

In the next session we seemed to take a bit of a weird turn as we were shown some work on an online toolkit to help learning providers to design and develop learning in response to local needs.  My own prejudices against ‘online’ and ‘toolkits’ no doubt distorted my perceptions a little, along with being subjected to the 4th, 5th and 6th speaker from the front in quick succession in a hot room with poor acoustics…..

It was at this stage that I started to think about the possibilities of a conference of community development practitioners based on community development principles…. open space or knowledge cafe perhaps?

After lunch I got completely submerged in running a session on finding power for community on emerging commissioning structures of the NHS.  Which ended with an analysis that says if yo are really bothered about health inequalities dont worry about commissioning and  health and well-being boards but rather get stuck into the economic development agenda as only through economic development that does not promote economic growth over all other factors (health, well-being, environmental sustainability and so on) will we really start to deal with causes rather than symptoms.  This was exemplified nicely by a public health practitioner struggling to development community development approaches to the reduction of dental caries while Haribo access regional growth fund money to expand production in Wakefield….

After these workshops things descended into a bit of anarchy.

The resounding answer to the question of ‘So what?’….we all shambled out into the sun….


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