Over the past decades I’ve approached community disadvantage from many different angles.
I’ve worked on the ground, delivered education projects, managed a not for profit, called myself a consultant and from that platform researched, created strategy, asked questions and observed. I’ve played a role in attracting large amounts of funding, brought entities together, produced events from very limited resource pools and learned everything I can about building sustainable social enterprise.
I’ve thought, I’ve learned, I’ve planned, I’ve brainstormed and I’ve innovated.
But no matter how hard I’ve tried the disadvantage hasn’t gone away.
With a strong focus on one particular highly disadvantaged community two years ago I asked myself what it was REALLY going to take to turn this around. I asked myself WHY things weren’t changing. And then I asked an even more important question.
Was I just adding to the clutter that enables disadvantage to survive and thrive? The clutter that plots and plans but doesn’t actually penetrate the nitty gritty of change.
The evidence was on the table. While I could clearly see measurable differences from my community interventions the indicators of disadvantage still remained.
There were two decisions that I made at that point, both will influence how I work for the rest of my life.
(1) The change that I perceived was needed wasn’t necessarily the right change to make.
I speak often about how I set out to save the community but in effect it actually saved me.
I walked into a community that I thought needed great change. Of course in some ways it did but in many it was perfectly functional, just not by the definition my eyes saw as functioning.
When I put my own ego, experiences and opinions aside I discovered a warmth, an ease about time and a rich and loving kinship. These are the things that I carry in my heart and the reason why I now ask people ‘what really matters to you’. I came to understand that the only sustainable pathway to change is one that comes from the people it is being made WITH (not at). I discovered that any program, concept or wild idea needs to aligns with the passion of the community (i.e. what they are prepared to do at the time). I learned that change must be led (truly led) by the people of a community.
I observed that this rarely happens is disadvantaged communities, at least not in my experience. And this isn’t always down to poor practice and misplaced funding. Truly engaging a community is very hard to do.
When I think of the art of engaging a community there are two people (among several I know to be fabulous at this) that spring to mind. Both of these people are unassuming characters and if you met them you may enjoy a friendly exchange of information yet never really understand what is going on beneath the surface. These people are the curators of community life. They understand how the community is thinking and feeling on a level that is beyond language. They hold the communities memories and know what did and didn’t work in the past and why. Their work is equally unassuming and it would be easy to mistake their work in practice for someone having a casual daily stroll down the street, or a gossip session at the local cafe or pub. You’ll find these people as receptionists, hairdressers, perhaps community workers (as the two in mind are) but make sure you find them as they are an essential component of the tapestry of a rich and informed community.
(2) There’s not much to be gained in consulting about fixing problems
As a society we’ve conditioned people to align with their issues. It’s a conversation people are often comfortable with, it’s measurable and it aligns in a tidy way to policy and solution kits.
But there’s a stark difference in working towards fixing a problem – and working towards an aspiration.
If I went all Tony Robbins on you I’d say that’s the difference between being motivated by pleasure – or pain.
Walk around your community and look at the posters… “Got a problem with x?” WE CAN HELP YOU “Got an issue with y” WE CAN SAVE YOU… and so it goes.
The language of pain is thrust upon disadvantaged communities leaving them with no other currency to utilise BUT that of misery. To escape is to step above the rest and who wants to be different?
I know this to be true…
When I stopped asking people what they would like to do to fix their problems and started asking them what actually mattered to them I was met with blank looks…
So I started to ask people from all walks of life – and the blank looks continue.
As a society we are so disconnected to what matters that it is almost like speaking another language.
So that’s why I became a coach (which is a story for another day).. Over the past 12 months I’ve been asking people what matters to them and recording the results. The results are fascinating and show an enormous sense of solidarity… Check it out… Contribute – share your opinions… And above all – remember the 2 points and see how it changes your practice.