Nurturing community-led development
Our population is increasing. The purse-strings are tightening. The need for social and community support is beyond the weight of what traditional funded services can meet. It’s no great secret that the answer lies in the community, that strengthening community connections and re-weaving our social fabric will yield far more for our collective wellbeing than what services can provide, and save our government support systems from going under. But what does this actually look like in practice? How do we nurture community-led development?
These questions led me to the English county of Gloucestershire, where the Barnwood Trust are leading the way in community-led development (take a moment to enjoy the irony of that statement).
Barnwood Trust is a Gloucestershire-based charitable foundation, established over 200 years ago. Traditionally, the Trust has focused on supporting people with disabilities and mental ill-health to live good lives. Historically, this has taken the form of operating day centre programs, sheltered housing, grant giving, and the operation of an institution. But in 2011, a new wave of change emerged. Service users gave a clear and consistent message:
“I want to be known for the contribution that I can make to society – Not for the label I’ve been given.”
The Trust agreed on a new strategic direction, focusing on developing a welcoming, inclusive community for all of Gloucestershire. This decision brought an end to the Trust’s direct service provision, and a new focus on community development.
A model for community development
The growth of Asset-Based Community Development internationally and the local influence of one of ABCD’s leading experts Cormac Russell (Nurture Development) led to its adoption as the guiding model for Barnwood’s community development strategy.
For those unfamiliar with ABCD:
“Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is an approach to sustainable community-driven development. Beyond the mobilisation of a particular community, it is concerned with how to link micro-assets to the macro-environment. Asset Based Community Development’s premise is that communities can drive the development process themselves by identifying and mobilizing existing, but often unrecognised assets. Thereby responding to challenges and creating local social improvement and economic development.” – Nurture Development
Cormac Russell, faculty member of the ABCD Institute at Northwestern University in Chicago and ABCD consultant, was engaged to work with Barnwood Trust to train staff and support the development of the new ‘You’re Welcome’ strategy, a 10-year plan to create more welcoming, inclusive communities across Gloucestershire.
Bringing ABCD to life
This strategy is operationalized in a number of ways, a significant part of which includes a team of Community Builders, whom I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with to learn from their perspectives and practice. Community Builders are the human vessels through which ABCD is brought to life – They are the hearts, minds and bodies on the street, striking up conversations with residents, building relationships, offering introductions, exploring and unpacking people’s gifts, passions and interests, and walking alongside people, providing encouragement, support and practical problem solving to enable people to bring their ideas to life, connecting local residents around the things that matter to them.
The role of the Community Builder is a series of contradictions – It is simple and complex, easy and challenging, visible and invisible, and powerful in its powerlessness. But it always starts from relationships, which start from a first conversation. And as I observed, not every first conversation is an easy one.
Community Builders in action
Community Builders hit the streets to start conversations. You might find them sitting on a wall, walking the footpaths, going door-to-door, dropping in on community events and spaces where people gather. I spent an afternoon with Community Builders Jane, Hayden and Ismail, hanging outside a small local grocery store, with ‘Barney’ the Barnwood Kombi van, ready and eager to chat with local residents. As you’d expect, many people walk right on by, but the few who stop for a chat are invited into some rich conversations about their community. As Jane explained to a resident,
“We’re interested in bringing people together around something they enjoy, around the things that interest them, the things that matter to them most.”
Through conversations with the Community Builders, I learned about some of these examples – A young mother starting a dance group for kids in her neighbourhood. A group of ladies who knit items for local and international causes. Young skaters who’ve come together with local residents and businesses to keep the skate park clean and litter-free. Café owners making their space available for community dinners and world café cultural exchanges. Neighbours hosting block parties. A community choir…The list went on.
What’s all the fuss about? So what?
You may be thinking, so what? New community groups, neighbourhood block parties…Maybe you’ve heard it all before, so what’s the big deal? What I want to point out is that much of what is significant here has as much to do with the “how,” as the “what.” When you look at these groups, events, gatherings – Not once will you see the name ‘Barnwood Trust.’ Not once will you hear one of these residents describe how they are ‘volunteering to help X people through Barnwood Trust.’ Not once will you hear of a group winding down because the funding ran out, nor will you hear people telling you how they’ve been ‘helped’ by Barnwood’s programs. And at the very most, the only credit you’ll hear the Community Builders acknowledge for their role in making things happen was that they were ‘simply part of the conversations.’
Why? Because this is community-led development. The Community Builders don’t come up with any ideas, make any plans, implement any projects, take the lead, take over. They build relationships (especially with those on the margins, or who have been historically devalued). They engage with authenticity, curiosity and a fundamental belief in the capacity all people have to contribute. They have conversations with residents to unearth, explore, vision and mobilise their passions as a way of connecting the individual with those around them. And the end result is initiatives that are beautifully creative, full of heart, highly impactful and sustainable beyond any organisation – Because the power truly and completely rests with the community.
When I questioned Community Builder & Guide Phillip about his practice, he explained to me that he has been in a number of community development roles in his time, but in his opinion, none compare to the ABCD-approach to community development, when it comes to lasting impact. He reflected that his previous involvements have been heavily characterised by ‘helping’ others, often taking the lead, and letting his boundless enthusiasm take away opportunities for ownership by the community, resulting in initiatives that are often short-lived. In his ABCD practice, he has learnt to ‘curb your enthusiasm,’ and to step back, in order to create the space for others to shine. He summed it up beautifully with this statement:
“What I love is seeing people step into their power.”
At the weekly team meeting, Community Builder Katie gave another great example of how rock painting, hiding and seeking has taken off like wildfire in the Brockworth community. As Katie articulated, it is not the activity, but the approach, that has yielded the result:
“If we’d sat and painted rocks and tried to get people involved, it just wouldn’t have worked. But it’s taking off because the community own it!”
Structural factors enable (or disable) community-led practice
It’s important to look too at the structural factors that enable this form of community development practice. Jane explained to me what enables her to practice in this way:
“There are no time-frames, no pressure for results, no pressure to defend your role or what you’ve achieved.”
Yes, Barnwood Trust are a bit of a rarity. They don’t apply for any funding, nor do they do any fundraising. In the mid-20th century, they sold off their biggest asset – a large mental health institution – and created an endowment fund that now yields a significant amount of interest, enough money to fund the Trust’s entire operating budget each year, with enough leftover to enable them to additionally act as a grant-maker, granting money to community members and groups for a range of individual and community wellbeing-related purposes. Such a strong financial position, combined with the Board’s support for a 10-year community building strategy, gives the Community Builders the freedom and flexibility to spend the time developing these relationships, walking alongside community members, and essentially enabling the practice that is truly community-led, without being influenced by a numbers game, conflicting objectives and short-term views of funders.
As the theory of ABCD proliferates in the sector, and Barnwood Trust becomes increasingly known as a practice leader, their support and expertise is sought by others, yet primary motivations sometimes differ between seeing ABCD as a preferred method for community-led development, versus seeing it as an answer to cutting government-funded services.
“ABCD has created a lot of curiosity, but people haven’t necessarily understood what it means. Some see it as an answer to austerity.” – Richard Holmes, Community Development Manager
This creates challenging situations for organisations, with Community Builders engaged to work in an ‘ABCD-approach’ in communities, but with constraining factors, flawed research methodologies, and unrealistic expectations of seeing health and community care cost savings in the short-term, from employing a community development approach intended to nurture flourishing communities in the long-term. These structural constraints, whilst understandable from the funder’s perspective, pose challenges to the pure practice of asset-based community development, and may mean that initiatives are doomed to fail before they’ve even begun.
Investing in evaluation
Hope for systems change and a deeper understanding of the structural factors that can enable (or disable) citizen-led community development may emerge from the deeply thoughtful impact evaluation work that Barnwood Trust are running alongside their work. Researchers Debby Watson and Roz Warden explained to me that they are just as interested in understanding the mechanisms of change, as exploring the outcomes.
“A big part of the impact is actually the process – People valuing you, your idea, and what you want to do.” – Roz Warden
The typical pattern that is emerging through the research is the stories of people who have grown in confidence, started or become part of a group, felt valued, formed friendships, much of which has simply come from people taking the time to get to truly know them.
“What we think we’re going to show is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a big impact – It’s how you spend it.” – Debby Watson
Reflections of power
As I reflect on my time with the Barnwood Trust team, I believe the core theme that runs throughout their approach is the self-awareness of the power that they hold as an institution, and the wisdom to realise that the more power they feed into the institution, the more they disempower the community. But the more that they can use their resources to create the space for people to “step into their power,” the more chance the people of Gloucestershire stand of turning the tide away from a disempowering, deficit-based, service-provision culture, to an active, connected, contributing community.
Given Barnwood’s culture of self-awareness through reflection, it seems fitting to end this post with a few questions to prompt reflection:
- Are we seeing people for their strengths, assets and capacities, or for their deficits and needs?
- Am I ‘doing to,’ or ‘enabling to do’?
- Is this ‘provider-led’ or ‘citizen-led’?
- Who’s really in control?
- What do individuals and communities lose when organisations take control and act as the experts on community?
- What are the negative impacts of organisations and institutions always being heralded as the ‘change agents’ in communities?
- Which stories are our stories to tell?
- What might it look like for communities to have true ownership and leadership over their own community?
– Nick Maisey, in Gloucester, England.
There have been some very thoughtful comments made on Nick's Linkedin page, much of which centre's on how community builders manage power tensions within their own organisations. https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6325454343592034304/?commentUrn=urn%3Ali%3Acomment%3A(activity%3A6325454343592034304%2C6325609295534792704)