Respecting the importance of emerging community enablers

One of the interesting side discussions sparked at the workshop we ran last week – on how community enablers can use digital tools – was with Eileen Conn, who has developed a very illuminating model of how local residents, groups and agencies interact. Eileen is a little unusual in being a community activist, in south London, who also worked for many years in Government.

Eileen suggests that agencies and organisations that have paid workers operate mainly in vertical, hierarchical mode, because of the accountabilities and procedures inevitably involved, while citizens and small groups operate more horizontally, through relationships. Here’s one of Eileen’s slides:

Trying to work together can be challenging. In my experience residents can get pulled into formal committees and panels where they may be uneasy and end up cut-off from those they are meant to “represent”, while “officials” can find the way groups operate rather frustrating. After an earlier interview – which you can see here – I wrote:

Eileen suggests we should consider the distinction in physics between matter and energy waves – where organisations with staff are the matter, and informal groups are more like energy. Drawing on complexity theory, Eileen suggests thinking about a “social eco-system dance” in which some relationships are primarily vertical hierarchical, and others horizontal peer-to-peer. That may be more useful than bottom-up and top-down.

The problem is that community development workers may be co-opted into the hierarachy – a charge made by Nick Massey of Forever Manchester, who I reported here … which led to further discussion and rebuttal here.

Anyway, the issue surfaced again last week when, as part of the workshop, we invented some local community enablers. That was a generic term I used to cover the various types of community organisers, builders and development workers increasing operating in neighbourhoods. Background here on different models.

One group invented enablers who were “home grown” – that is, they emerged from the local community rather then being part of an external intervention. Eileen makes the point in this interview, after the workshop, that in developing models for community enabling we should pay attention to this emergence. As I reported in my earlier post about the workshop, there’s a bit difference between the development of action in an area that emerges naturally over time, and that which may be accelerated/imposed by external interventions. Anyone who is being paid will have targets and timetables to meet.

This may be also be important when we consider the role of digital media. As Eileen remarks towards the end of the interview, once we came to that part of the process in the workshop there was a tendency to throw in all sorts of tools … even though we had spent a lot of time focussing on the need to be clear about the tasks, and the preferences and capabilities of those involved.

Perhaps thinking about media ecologies in relation to the social eco-system will be helpful. There’s an interesting blog on that here.

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