The idea of People Powered Change is appealing – that citizens should be helped to collaborate among themselves, and with agencies, to improve their neighbourhoods, meet local needs, and realise the creative capacity there it in any community. Maybe mount a campaign where necessary.
But putting that ideal into practice is more complicated, and there are many different models for action, and tribes of professionals and activists promoting them. There’s seldom one right way of doing things, but how do you work out what’s appropriate as a citizen, for your are area, or what to support, as a funder?
And if you want to share your experience and learn from like-minded people, how do you find them on the landscape of community action?
Do you favour Asset Based Community Development, Community Organising as promoted by Locality and funded by Government, the rather different model promoted by Citizens UK, small local councils promoted by NALC, the Transition Towns model, community development and campaigning, social enterprise, or socially-responsible business? I know I will have missed several other approaches.
When we started working with Big Lottery Fund on this project, we included the idea of some mapping. That might be where to find online resources and discussions, or discovering who connects with whom, and who may be missing out. I’ve started to develop an online dashboard, and Drew Mackie has lots of experience in developing network maps. You can even do that quickly at events, as we did last year at a Big Society Network event. As you can see from the summary of past posts on this blog, we have covered a number of the models.
One purpose of our explorations here is to help BIG review how to be more than a funder, and to promote more learning and collaborations. It is therefore important that there is some lens through which to view these different approaches – not , I should think, for BIG to play favourites, but to become a well-informed participant in the complex conversations that surround community action.
Why are they complex? Isn’t it a matter of people of local people identifying problems, then getting together to do something, and enlisting support? Not necessarily, and the importance of different models was brought home to me the other day when I attended a workshop to help a national programme develop plans for a challenge fund. Under this, individuals groups or companies could pitch innovative ways to support local action, get together to work these up a creative two-day session, and win support from a challenge fund.
What was needed from us, in advance of the challenge process, was a list of typical problems from neighbourhoods, and the typical barriers that people might face in taking action. On the face of it that seemed very sensible, but only a few days before I had been to an excellent event on Asset Based Community Development, as you can see here.
There Cormac Russell did a very good job of arguing against starting with “needs” – but instead focussing at the start on the strengths, assets, resources in a community. That’s because successful action will almost certainly depend upon building new relationships and – particularly in these hard time – finding as many resources as you can close to home.
I argued, at the challenge workshop, that asking a group of people from different places to describe “needs” would just give a list of the usual issues: litter, dog poo, graffiti, noise, young people hanging around … This wouldn’t be very helpful because solutions depend very much on local circumstances, a process of finding assets, building relationships etc. Then presenting “problem” might mask deeper issues. I was surprised how strongly I felt about the different methodologies.
The organisers took my objections in good part, and I felt that if we were looking at local challenges that could be seen as opportunities or problems, the process would not be too skewed.
However, it did reinforce the point I raised in my interview with Russell, that is is relevant to to BIG: if the grant application form starts with “what are the needs in your community” you will be nudged into one model, while “what strengths might you find ind your community to tackle people’s concerns” could take you in a different direction.
So – it is important for a funder to understand the models in order to develop the funding offer, and also to more beyond funding to help people share experience. Just helping people tell stories from projects may not be useful unless it is clear what are the underlying approaches values.
Fortunately Tessy Britton has been thinking about this for some time, informed by her travels around the country running workshops (Travelling Pantry) and developing an engaging series of Community Lovers Guides. As Tessy explains here, she has found many of the models unrewarding, and instead is promoting one based on creativity and collaboration. There is a really useful matrix analysis of different models, and a further post on the issues that emerge in creating new knowledge for the creative/collaborative participatory paradigm.
I can’t do justice to Tessy’s analysis in a summary, so I do encourage you to read it as the most thoughtful contribution I have seen to this field recently.