Hi everyone! Thank you again for all of your reflections and commentary. It has been very enlightening! Here is my final essay which you are welcome to read if you wish. It is 2,500 words so some points had to be cut short sadly, and some important areas were also omitted for space. Just a side note: I am very self conscious posting this so please be kind!
TOPIC: In light of your study in this unit identify some of the major challenges for community development work today? How is it possible to address or manage such challenges?
Saviour-complexes, power imbalance and burning out. Is Asset Based Community Development the answer?
The development sector experiences, to varying degrees, a higher level of worker burnout than other industries. This could be one of the greatest challenges facing community development, a practice which requires long-term, consistent and holistic practice – something which is difficult to deliver without ongoing staff. Most workers who leave community development cite work pressure stress as a strong motivating factor, but what is causing this intense stress and how can it be mitigated? This essay will propose that the needs/deficit-based approach to community development exacerbates work pressure stress due to the power imbalance it creates, whereby the worker feels directly responsible for an individual or community in crisis. Conversely, the Asset Based Community Development (henceforth ABCD) approach acknowledges and promotes the power inherent in both the individual or community and the worker to collaborate to solve the concern at hand. Embodying the ABCD role of a “fellow traveller” (Kenny 2006, p. 425) will decrease the pressure of misplaced responsibility and increase worker retention.
Problematic power structures within community development
Employee turnover in the community development sector is high with most workplaces experiencing up to 30 per cent turnover per annum (InSync Surveys 2014, p. 3), this is well above the Australian average of 16 per cent (AHRI 2015, p. 5). This creates a situation whereby organisations experience decreased efficiency and effectiveness, as well as decreased ability to consistently and holistically cater to clients. As well as impacting on services and outcomes, high employee turnover in community development organisations consumes already stretched human and financial resources. But what is causing this worker exodus?
InSync Surveys (2014) profiled exiting community development employees and found that work pressure stress is cited as one of the top three motivating factors for leaving a job (p. 4). InSync Surveys highlights that this is not something referenced by workers in any other sector. What is it about the current community development context that exacerbates work pressure stress more than any other industry?
One answer to this question could be discursive frictions present in current needs-based community development approaches. Traditional needs-based roles are characterized by case management and direct service provision; a worker or series of them, paired with a client/consumer to provide a service. This has an inherent power structure which, without due process and reflection, can become problematic. The community worker, due to their specialized training or education, possesses knowledge, skills and language that can be highly influential or suggestive to the person or community they are working with (Ife & Tesoriero 2006, p. 335). As explained by Hanson & Ogunade (2016, p. 43), power is “defined simply as the ability to influence or impact the actions of others”. These needs-focused roles are in the perfect position to inadvertently co-opt the voice of those they are tasked to serve, thereby further disempowering their clients. This often happens when the worker makes assumptions of the people or person they are aiming to serve. Even the language ‘to serve’ has within it insinuations of power; one side has the power to give, the other side needs help to be given. They are not meeting as equals but as service provider and consumer, which perpetuates neo-liberal and managerialist approaches to community development (Kenny 2006, p. 426).
Within this dichotomy is the demand that the worker will provide the services needed to help that individual overcome their current concern or crisis. This role alone is what stands between the client and their suffering. How can the person fulfilling that role not experience high levels of work pressure stress? The power structures have imbued them with the belief that they have the power to save or inadvertently harm someone’s life. The total result of this approach is that the person or community feel disempowered and dependent (Gloucester Partnership 2013, p. 6), and conversely, the worker feels inescapably depended upon, increasing the work pressure stress.
“We just assume that the mission is more important than our personal needs.” (Bryan quoted in Shields 1991, as cited in Kenny 2006, p. 418)
Starting with the perception that someone is existing at a deficit, or requires saving, means that you are working with the assumption that “everybody we’re serving is half-empty” (Michelle Obama as cited in Gloucester Partnership 2013, p. 7). This creates a power imbalance where we, the one’s with glasses half-full, are stronger and better equipped to help others. This creates functionalist assumptions about a person’s aptitude but also places undue pressure on the worker as it is their responsibility and duty to help this individual. Freire explains that we rationalise this guilt through paternalistic treatment of our clients (Freire 1990, p. 33). By way of example, to paraphrase Mansfield (2000, p. 60), once a person presents for help at a needs-based organisation, they cease to be an individual, but rather an object of study and analysis; what caused you to be in this situation? What personality traits predispose you to hardship? What cultural factors have created your predicament? This type of “needs talk” (Kenny 2006, p. 181) creates an arena through which political power is constructed and applied. The Marmot Review (as cited in Gloucester Partnership 2013, p.12) reported that this type of rhetoric has been an ongoing frustration for communities as professionals use it to continually exert their power to control the types of issues that could be discussed, excluding some communities and stereotyping others.
“Here, the ‘individual’ is not free and autonomous, but the focal point of larger forces, analysed by systems of knowledge in what they claim is an impartial quest for truth.” – (Mansfield 2000, p. 60)
In this situation of unequal power, it is near impossible to rebalance the scales without further deepening the divide. As Freire (1990, pp. 39-40) explains, any attempt to soften power within an oppressor/oppressed interface will almost always manifest itself as a form of false generosity which only serves the oppressor – in this case being the development worker. We heard reference to that earlier by Bryan (quoted in Shields 1991, as cited in Kenny 2006, p. 418) who graciously gave up their personal needs for the mission at hand.
In addition to this, there is little interrelation or interdependence of the client/service relationship. Once a client has received services, they may never see their worker again, further compounding work pressure stress and dissatisfaction as the worker rarely experiences a conclusion or a physical outcome of their work.
How can the ‘glass half-full’ approach of Asset Based Community Development improve worker retention?
“Job fulfilment is inextricably linked to being empowered and supported to genuinely help disadvantaged clients. A constructive culture assists in delivering better results for clients which in turn reinforces job satisfaction and commitment to the organisation.” (InSync Surveys 2014, p. 3)
The above quote from InSync Surveys is their definition, based on interview data, of a successful working situation in the development sector which, will in turn, experience low worker turnover. The emphasis on a constructive culture is particularly pertinent when we talk about the impact that an ABCD approach has on workplace wellbeing. Asset-based work defines the community and the development workers as “fellow traveller(s)” (Kenny 2006, p. 425) who have a shared responsibility, mission and aim. This is in stark contrast to the needs-based model that we have discussed previously which starts with a question on what is lacking and what needs supplementing or replacing, rather than what strengths are already present. As S. Johnson (personal communication, 26 May 2017) explains, the flipping of the needs-based approach results in a sense of positivity:
“Community work can be pro-active and project-centred, rather than problem-based. It is a different way of approaching the issues communities face that is focused in a way that creates positives in otherwise difficult situations.”
Within this perspective, there is an acceptance and acknowledgement of power on both sides of the divide. Each person’s role is different, but each holds a piece of the total sum of knowledge that makes each community or sub-community work effectively together. This union and its shared power can construct a synergy to catalyse real change. With this comes a feeling of shared purpose and therefore shared labour as working with people as friends, acquaintances or collaborators is less stressful than dealing with bureaucracies and often yields quicker outcomes (Field 2008, pp. 2-3).
Asset-based methodology is participatory by nature, with community members and workers collaborating on different projects and utilising diverse knowledge sets that contribute to the health of the entire community. Freire would see this collaborative approach as indicative of “co-intentional” (Freire 1990, p. 56) practice, which he sees as the only way to create revolutionary change in an oppressor/oppressed relationship:
“In this way, the presence of the oppressed in the struggle for their liberation will be what it should be: not pseudo-participation, but committed involvement.” - (Freire 1990, p. 56)
By applying ABCD, workers are actively committing themselves to sharing the power of their positions and the projects. If a community worker is seen as a member of the community, and that the two are inextricably linked, then the power paradox is resolved (Ife & Tesoriero 2006, p. 336). To provide an example of how projects can be mutually enhanced by a member of the community’s unique knowledge set, coupled with organisational support, community development worker S. Johnson used a current example from their work with refugees who had comprehension skills in English:
“…Those (refugees) with English (skills) would use their interpretation skills to provide programs in the multi-lingual community ... Shortly thereafter, many would get… professional training (from S. Johnson’s organisation) as interpreters and move on to roles in local schools, hospitals, and care agencies... The non-prof (sic) budget would not have been able to account for a higher-paid interpreter in so many languages and the community member would gain skills” - (S. Johnson personal communication, 26 May 2017).
This quote highlights how one organisation collaborated with community members to resolve a need in a mutually inclusive and beneficial way. The outcome for both the worker and the community is a sense of achievement by providing a positive solution to a pressing community need and a new set of skills that will continue to benefit the individual and community at large.
But how does this improve worker wellbeing and subsequently retention? The old saying that a shared load is a lighter one seems to be highly applicable in this instance. Two current development workers; S. Johnson and J. Hamerlinck highlight the empowerment of sharing leadership and successes as being highly important to the maintenance of a healthy workforce and decreasing work pressure stress:
“Shared successes and empowerments create a healthier space for both the worker and community member.” - (S. Johnson personal communication, 26 May 2017).
“For me, the key to successful ABCD is the emergence of shared leadership by people who are doing the work because they are passionate stakeholders, not because they are getting paid by an NGO, or government agency to implement a policy, project, or program… Shared leadership, shared risk, and placing some trust in the wisdom of well-informed amateurs might be the best way to keep anyone from getting burned out.” - J. Hamerlinck (personal communication, 31 May 2017)
As these two practitioners have highlighted, collaboration is deeply important to them and the longevity of their work. A feeling of connection to both the community and the issue at hand is essential to the ABCD model but also to ensure that the power remains within the community itself and not held by external individuals (Ife & Tesoriero 2006, p. 335). It’s also a clear example of how wellbeing is fostered through social capital, higher levels of which has been linked to positive health outcomes and resilience (Gloucester Partnership 2013, p. 11).
According to ‘The Six Essentials of Workplace Positivity’ (Cabrera 2012), a healthy and happy workplace needs; positive thinking, positive relationships, realizing potential through strengths, empowerment to do your job well, meaning and wellbeing. By starting with the positives, or assets, as you would with the ABCD approach, you are better equipped to achieve these ‘essentials’ and to therefore create workplaces that are characterised by strong human connections, decreased stress, ease of work, accessible and visible outcomes. All of which would make anyone’s job more enjoyable and satisfying.
The burden or work pressure stress is intense within the needs-based community of the development sector, but is borne of inaccurate and unsustainable power structures which make the worker feel responsible for the wellbeing of the person or community they are tasked with serving. This approach is not only exacerbating stress and worker turnover, it is also impeding robust development work from taking place. In addition to this, starting with a deficit, is blocking workers from accessing the social capital inherent in a collaborative approach which would, in turn, give them more tangible evidence of their work in action.
If the development world is to create a situation where high worker retention is the norm, development organisations would be best advised to take a leaf from the ABCD approach and begin sharing the power with those they work with and for. Relinquishing this power may be uncomfortable at first but will, in the long-run, decrease the work pressure burden experienced by workers as they will have located their own liberation as bound up with those that they are working with (Watson 1980, publication unknown). This understanding will encourage practitioners to work side-by-side to create mutually beneficial and long-term outcomes.
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Freire, P, 1990, Pedagogy of the oppressed, Continuum, New York, pp. 19-56
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Mansfield, N 2000, ‘Foucault: The subject and power’, in N Mansfield (ed.), Subjectivity: Theories of the self from Freud to Haraway, New York University Press, New York, pp. 51–65.
Watson, L. 1980, publication unknown