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August 14, 2019

Community work – what’s that?

Years from now we may find ourselves wistfully reminiscing about this era of community empowerment – ruing the fact that we let these opportunities to invest communities with real power and resources slip away from us. And if we find ourselves doing that, one of the reasons will be that we were focused too much on the policies, strategies and legislation, and too little on the question of who was doing the work in communities and what that work should consist of. It’s a debate we need to have. Noel Mathias of WEvolution provides a starter for ten.

Noel Mathias, WEvolution

Several years back I interviewed candidates for a community worker’s  role in a Church in Ayr. When I asked ‘what will you have achieved in the first three months of your role?’ I was quite taken aback by the answer: Lots and lots of teas and coffees.

This was pretty early on in my career here in Scotland and it took me by surprise. Having come from India, where the scale of issues means that community organising is pretty serious business, it’s not an answer one would expect in an interview. I certainly get the emphasis on building relationships and trust capital in our roles but somewhere along this trajectory we have started to forget the difference between doing ‘ministry of relationships’ and a ‘relational ministry’. 

So here’s the problem as I see it. Over the years of my work within the third/voluntary sector, I have come across three kinds of community workers .

1.            Gatekeeper – here’s a passionate worker who keeps his/her flock close and protected. Words/phrases that showcase this personality are ‘my groups/girls/boys aren’t ready for this yet’ and ‘don’t come to steal my groups’. Note the nuanced emphasis on the sense of control over people and their choices and destiny.

2.            Regulator – this is a well-intentioned person who is risk averse and ends up protecting the very system which keeps people/communities behind the rest and more affluent in the society.

3.            Messiah – here’s a kind hearted and compassionate worker who is constantly in ‘fixing’ and ‘lifting people up’ modes. A number of community workers fall into this category – at the same time as paying lip service to the value of people figuring out life and solutions themselves. Examples of this are words like “but how can the poor save?”

Introducing new community development approaches – dime a dozen these days, it would seem and more like a rehash of words I think  – like  Appreciative Inquiry, Assets Based, Strengths based, Place based, etc. isn’t really shifting what we need most: a change in the mindset and skills sets of community workers.  A number of workers come in to a job to run a project or a programme and get caught up in funding cycles and mimicking the lingo of the era (“our work is strengths based”; “we do lived experience”). 

To mark the mindset shift, we need to develop a new culture, principles and a national framework to educate and accompany a new breed of community workers in Scotland. Accompanying is an important part of the process of change, one we probably haven’t paid much attention to. Coaching and/or mentoring have to be essential parts of people’s professional development alongside appropriate support and supervision from line managers.

What are the kinds of workers we need for our current times and for the near-future? We need community workers to be economists, entrepreneurs, environmentalists and activists. Or we need economists, entrepreneurs, environmentalists and activists to become community workers. This means new forms and curriculums within academia training, benchmarking salaries so they are amongst the best (after all we need to attract good talent both in the field and management) and solid performance matrixes (as I love say: great relationships and high productivity, not one without the other).  Poverty, mental health, isolation/loneliness etc. are very serious issues for our society and ‘teas and coffees’ aren’t going to do it for a lot of people who find themselves at a cliff edge in life. 

Further, we need to build, encourage – and fund – an appetite for serious reflection and research among community workers. This could take the form of sabbaticals, study leaves or even research days as part of a working week as many university lecturers have. At the end of which, depending on levels of responsibility, one should be expected to write or publish papers/blogs. This is how we make sure that praxis and theory go hand in hand.

What are some of the fundamental principles that we need to build within any new framework? To my mind these are key:

1.            Every single person we work alongside with, regardless of their location and circumstances, is more than just a consumer, service user, beneficiary and client. He/she is a producer of value – economic, social and what have you.

2.            Stop fixing and above all, stop fixing parts. We, human beings, defy compartmentalisation.

3.            Trust people we work with as our equals who are capable of figuring out solutions themselves.

4.            Practice hard empathy (or, carefronting )

5.            Stop hand holding and, rather, tend to the space/contexts/environments around people. 

6.            Focus on creating collectives built around inter-dependence.

7.            Start with people’s resourcefulness: Start savings in every single group we run in Scotland.  

Any new framework for Scotland has to understand the complexities and gifts of our current and future times and its impact on the local. These will, hopefully, define not just a new style of working but, I dare say, a new kind of person taking up the role of the community worker.

Twitter: @Matsnoel