Knitting up a stronger community – starting with its strengths

Several interviews and articles have given me further insights into the asset-based approach to community development – one of the main philosophies I’m reporting in the exploration of community enabling. Here’s a round up, with links to resources at the end. It reinforces earlier insights from our People Powered Change exploration.
Last week in Surrey the Lower Green Community Community Association, which is part of the NESTA Neighbourhood Challenge programme, organised an ABCD workshop with Cormac Russell.
Jenny French, LGCA secretary, had been impressed by Cormac’s approach at a workshop in Manchester which I reported last year.
Cormac gave us some great stories and presentations – including reference to the work in Thornton Heath – and in this interview Jenny explains how the approach has worked in Lower Green. It’s about finding what people need, what others can offer, their aspirations, and then making the connections.

In a class to learn English, the teacher asked what people liked to do in their spare time … they said knitting … so this led to the Knit and Natter group where people both learned the language and produced some great knits. These could have been sold, but the group decided to offer them to men in a local hostel as a way of giving back to the community.
The arts group took off well, learning to make things together … then decided they would join in the knitting. As Jenny said you can knit up a new set of relationships all for little more than the price of a ball of wool. “It’s been fantastic – that people knitting together is actually knitting community”

At the end of the event I asked Cormac if he could summarise the essence of ABCD. He emphasised starting with what you have, welcoming new people into the community, taking a citizen-led rather than professionally-led approach, building relationship power … all things demonstrated very practically in Lower Green.
Cormac also said that he felt there was great scope for the various community building and organising approaches to find some common cause.
Earlier I had spoken to Matthew Bowcock, who is chairman of the national Community Foundation Network, as well as deputy chairman of the Community Foundation for Surrey

Matthew says that we could do a lot more to share stories in communities by using social media. When I asked what stories he was hearing, in visits around the country, he said that on the one hand people might be pessimistic if they were relying for change on traditional approaches of agency-led development and funding.
On the other hand, he found people optimistic and energised when they looked at the strengths they already had in their community … and sought funds only when they could do no more themselves.
He said that many community foundations were changing the way that they operated – shifting from administration of national funds, to the development of communities of engaged local philanthropists. Overall this was part of a tide of change, where people recognised a contract between themselves and their community, with rights but some obligation to give back.
In a blog post for New Start Magazine, entitled The Big Sobriety, Nick Massey applauds the asset based approach to community development – while warning that funding is also essential.
Nick is chief executive of Forever Manchester, which is a community foundation that raises money and distributes it to local people and groups trying to make a positive change in neighbourhoods across Greater Manchester. It has the first team of ABCD community builders in the country – as I reported here. Nick writes:

Traditional public sector and foundation-led funding have succeeded only in creating dependency among targeted communities. Providing resources on the basis of need simply underlines the perception that only outside experts can provide real help. Therefore, the relationships that count most for our local residents are no longer those inside the community, those neighbour-to-neighbour links of mutual support and problem solving. Instead, the most important relationships have become those that involve the expert, the local authority, the health provider, the funder.
This virtually ensures a cycle of deepening dependency, particularly with funders, as problems must always be worse than last year, or more intractable than the next neighbourhood, if funding is to be renewed.
It’s a ‘find it, fund it, fix it’ culture. It’s unsustainable and it’s time to change it… it doesn’t work.

Nick adds:

Traditional community development is driven through formal meetings, is agency-led and engages with at best 20% of local people in their communities, usually people who work within established, well-organised and properly constituted groups. This leaves over 80% of people remaining on the outside who would never engage in this way. ABCD is about new ways of working that appeal to this wider audience.
Three months into community building in Lostock, Manchester we have engaged with 100 local residents whom we had never met before, all now talking about what they can do together. That is ten times more people than we engaged with in the local area partnership there in the last three years.
We are already seeing that local people are starting to think about what they can do for themselves. But still while they wouldn’t think twice about raising money for Children in Need or Comic Relief, it remains out of the norm for them to think about raising money for themselves, for their own simple yet exciting ideas.
ABCD is about conversations and talents, and we see our role in coordinating these, connecting neighbours and looking with them at future ways of funding their ideas, often from within. This is where our community building team are starting their work.

I’ll be gathering resources and interviews about other community enabling approaches. Meanwhile, Tessy Britton has a valuable analysis of participatory paradigms here, leading towards her Creative Collaborative approach.

Update: James Derounian responds in a guest post Joining forces for community enabling

  1. James Derounian

    😕 I don’t recognise your portrayal of community development CD: “driven through formal meetings, is agency-led and engages with at best 20% of local people in their communities, usually people who work within established, well-organised and properly constituted groups. This leaves over 80% of people remaining on the outside who would never engage in this way. ABCD is about new ways of working that appeal to this wider audience.”
    ABCD – all for it….but it’s been around for some while; don’t dismiss CD which also has a lot of wisdom, experience, expertise and contacts to help communities help themselves

  2. Agree with James. CD is not “driven through formal meetings…”
    CD works with people where they are, to help them develop themselves. As with everything in life the style of CD used depends on who, what, where and varies across roads, groups, towns, neighbourhoods etc
    ABCD is a fantastic part of CD world but not the only one 🙄

  3. Thanks James and Emma
    The portayal of CD is one to take up with Nick Massey 😉 , who I was quoting. I didn’t want to start community development/community building wars … but maybe this is an opportunity to tease out what’s the same and what’s different in the approaches. How best to do that?
    The original article The Big Sobriety is commentable, but requires registration. There’s a pdf on the Forever Manchester site, but not commentable.
    I’ll alert Nick to your comments. Maybe one of you would like to guest post a piece to further frame discussion?

  4. James Derounian

    Still seems to me, at root, a simple winning formula to explore:
    CD + CO = a DIY brighter community future;
    Join forces – don’t reinvent or schism!
    (CO – comm organising).
    James 🙄
    David…happy to blog for you/please advise

  5. Thanks James – yes please do a post. If it’s not too much – how about reviewing Nick’s article in full, and also listening to the interview with Cormac, where I ask him about the essence of ABCD and other approaches. He emphasises what he sees as similarities, and suggests some common movement around those.
    You might also like to look at the open discussion doc we are developing as part of this exploration – available here. Do of course add there too if you wish.
    I’ve also included a link in the post above to Tessy Britton’s analysis, which is one framework for looking at different models.
    So – what’s different and what’s the same? Is there scope for collaboration between different “tribes”.
    And most importantly, how do we help non-professionals understand what’s going on, and what may be appropriate for them? Could be a series:-)

  6. James Derounian

    David – e-mailed to you = 400 words to post up

  7. Wow that was fast! Now posted here – many thanks.

  8. Sophie Pryce

    I agree with James. I am a Community Development Officer and would challenge Nick Massey’s comment…’80% of people remain on the outside…and would never engage’. The groups I work with carry out extensive consultation with their parishioners…the issues raised are turned into a questionnaire which is therefore tailor made to fit their community….sometimes resulting in an 80%+ return rate, the findings of which are turned into an Action Plan – to be implemented by the community, for the community. All this through INformal, non-agency led community development!

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