It is an easy mistake to make. The argument for it goes something like this…
If we want to make Big Society work we have to get more citizens ‘connected‘ to ‘place’ and ‘people’. We have to encourage civic pride and a culture of helping for the common good. We need to get more of us running libraries, volunteering and generally being good eggs. We need more people to be more selfless.
But I think this is wrong thinking.
The primary challenge is not about connecting us to ‘people’ and ‘place’. This maybe necessary but is certainly not sufficient, and if done without the right pre-conditions will only result in rustling up the usual overburdened suspects and urging them to ‘do more’.
The challenge is to tackle apathy and hopelessness. To help people who currently see themselves as ‘victims of a broken society’ to become active architects of a better one.
To connect more of us to our own sense of self: our own sense of potential, aspiration, vision and possibility. Armed with a sense of agency and purpose in relation to our own lives then association, mutuality and cooperation, all of those factors that lead to the emergence of community will surely follow, as we realise that our own progress is tied up with the progress of our neighbours.
It is when we have given up on ourselves that we also give up on our communities.
How does this wrong thinking manifest itself in practice?
Well, for example, when we ask ‘communities’ what they need. Almost inevitably they will agree on a lowest common denominator project that makes a little difference to a lot of people but ducks the real issues that really blights lives. So we get a community group lobbying for a new playground instead of tackling the real challenges that they face – like how to put breakfast on the table every morning, or how to get their children to study at school, or how to escape from violence. These things are just too painful and personal to talk about in group meetings with well-meaning strangers.
We have to recognise that communities appear when large numbers of individuals are working on what really, REALLY matters to them, working collectively in pursuit of their own self-interest, rightly understood.
When we get the balance right between looking after yourself and looking after your neighbour.