Sustainable community development: from what’s wrong to what’s strong | Cormac Russell | TEDxExeter


Translator: Monica Ronchi
Reviewer: Saskia Clauss Thank you. The question: “can I help you?”
is a question that millions of people ask millions of other people
every single day. What does it actually mean
to help another human being? Or indeed to help an entire community. I believe that helping is a powerful
and often beautiful human impulse, but I also believe that helping
has a shadow side, that certain styles or forms of helping,
are actually doing more harm than good. Rosabeth Moss Kanter,
the Harvard academic, puts it beautifully when she says
that when we do change to people, they experience it as violence, but when people do change for themselves,
they experience it as liberation. Today, I want to present
a very simple idea and the idea is this: if we want to help people in a way that does no harm to them
and their capacities in their communities, then the best place to start is with what is strong within them,
and within their communities, and not with what’s wrong. There is an abundance of evidence
that calls us to this way of helping, including the 75-year study
on ‘what makes happiness possible?’, the longitudinal study from Harvard which reminds us that it’s best
to lean into our relationships and to create community, rather than lean
into ourselves and money. And the work of the Kettering Foundation, which studies what happens
when democracies work as they should. And indeed here in the UK,
the work of the New Economics Foundation, which has helped us to see
the five ways to wellbeing. Still, despite the fact that thousands and thousands of
pieces of evidence call us to the idea that we should start with the capacities and the abilities in people
and in communities, we see this great preponderance in governmental and non- governmental
programmes alike, around the focus and the obsession
with the starting on what is wrong, what is broken, what is pathological within people. Sadly, that focus has caused huge harm
to millions of people around the world, especially poor people
and especially communities. And it has created four harms,
unintended as they may be in particular, the first of which is that it actually takes people
who we are trying to help, and it defines them not
by their gifts and capacities, and what they can bring to
the solution, but by their deficiencies
and their problems. The second unintended consequence of this top-down obsession
with what’s wrong, is that money which is intended to go
towards those that need the help, doesn’t. It actually goes to those who are paid to provide the services
to those who need help. The third unintended consequence is
that active citizenship, the power to take action
and to respond at the grassroots level, retreats in the face
of ever increasing technocracy, professionalism and expertise. And finally, entire neighbourhoods, entire communities
that have been defined as deficient, start to internalise that map, and believe believe that the only way
that anything is going to change for them, is when some outside expert,
with the right programme and the right money,
comes in to rescue them. These are unintended harms. No caring professional
wants these things to happen, but it is also clear that no community
needs these things to happen. Fortunately, there’s another way
of thinking about helping. We can begin to actually reflect
on a form of helping which starts with a focus
on what’s strong, not what’s wrong, and literally turns our traditional ideas
of helping inside out. John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, two professors at
North-Western University, in the late eighties brought
this idea into sharp focus, when they spent
over four years travelling, almost like an Odyssey, across 300 neighbourhoods
in North America, some 20 cities. And as they went into these neighbourhoods which were largely known by others
as backwaters of pathology, known by the sum of their problems, John and Jody started
a different conversation. They invited people to tell them stories about how change happens
from their point of view. They invited people to share stories about
a time when they and their neighbours came together to make things better. And the stories they shared, some three thousand stories in all
across those four years, they brought a focus,
they brought a way of seeing what actually is used by citizens,
and by people in neighbourhoods, to create change. They helped us to see
the raw ingredients that people use to make change happen from inside out. These are the six building blocks
that those communities said are the building blocks
that make change happen, when it’s sustainable and it’s endurable, and it respects the assets
that exist already in communities. Over the last thirty years
we’ve travelled across the world, and from communities
in Tallahassee in the USA, to Torbay in the UK, we have heard the exact same report
from the mouths of indigenous communities. People telling us that
these are the assets that must be identified,
connected and mobilised, if we are going to see
real change happen in our world. Imagine what would happen if our traditional ways
of helping people were flipped. If instead of focusing on
what was wrong with individuals, and indeed with entire communities,
we started with a focus on what’s strong, and then we figured out
how to negotiate a new relationship, a more respectful relationship. I think what would happen
is that we’d see transformation in a way that we could never
have imagined. Fortunately it’s already happening. We are doing some work
and we’ve had the privilege of coming alongside
some community builders in Leeds. Leeds is a city, as you know, in the UK, and over the years we’ve trained
a number of community builders in the city council, but also in the neighbourhood networks. In Leeds one of the things
they cared deeply about, is how older people can live well
and age well close to home, and also how they can ensure that those who are aging, do not die with
an experience of loneliness and feelings of uselessness. One of the things that they’ve also
come to understand, is that there is no programme
and there is no service for loneliness. The only way that we
can address loneliness, is by building community,
by building deep relationships and so traditional models,
which take older people and put them together
with other older people in programmes for older people,
will not be sufficient to end loneliness. Today in Leeds, their focus
is not on building a bridge between older vulnerable people
at the centre of their services, but on building a bridge
between older people, and the centre of community life. Take Robin. Robin was in his mid-seventies
when he first came in contact with the community builder
that we trained in Leeds. He had just lost his wife,
and he was experiencing all of the challenges, and the traumas, that you experience with bereavement. But the community builder
that engaged with Robin, didn’t just listen to those emotions,
though she listened. She also asked Robin
what his passions were, what he cared about enough to act upon, what made his eyes dance in his head. And what Robin said
when she asked those questions was, he was passionate about
making walking sticks. That was his great passion, taking branches from fallen trees
and carving them into walking sticks. Today Robin is a leader
of a group that he set up, made up of all age groups, who are learning
how to make walking sticks and sharing those walking sticks
with people in the community. The significance of the story is this: Robin is not a client in a service. Robin is a citizen at the centre
of his community, using his gifts, along with the gifts of his neighbours, to make a better community
and a more inclusive community. So often when we label
people as vulnerable, or as deficient, or as problematic,
what we actually do is define them out of community,
and redefine them, not as friend and as neighbour,
but as client in a service system. And I think that when we do that, we take some of the soul
away from the person, all in the name of helping them. Sometimes, we don’t just
do that to individuals. In many communities around the world, we’ve actually done it to entire villages, in some cases entire continents. We have to figure out a way
of lifting those labels, which obscure the gifts of communities,
the resources, the capacities, the untapped reservoir of possibility,
and creativity, and invention that exists in every single community, if only we could focus on
what was strong within them, so that they could use that strength
to address what’s wrong. Well one of the places
where we’re learning a lot about how to make
those invisible resources more visible, is in a place called Wirral,
another place in the UK. One of our community builders
has been working across the Wirral to find the hidden treasures
that exist in that community, and one of the people
that we’ve discovered is Frank. Frank is a community artist
who has such a driving passion for changing his community and for seeing the strength
in every single individual. He believes that there is nobody
whose gifts are not needed to create the kind of Wirral
that he believes is possible if we include everybody’s gift. Frank is an artist, so he sees things
through the eyes of an artist, and one of his passions is making sure that the environment looks as well
as it possibly can in the Wirral for those who live there,
and for those who visit. New Brighton beach is
one of his recent projects, and he was really disturbed by the fact that there was so much litter
and detritus on the beach. He decided that he wanted to mobilise,
so he got his community involved. Most people when they see litter, what they do is
one of two things typically: either they organise
a litter-pick with volunteers, or else they lobby the council to try
and get them to do something about it. Frank had a different idea. Frank’s idea was to create a pirate ship. This is the Black Pearl. The Black Pearl today stands as one of the biggest
tourist attractions on the Wirral. But it is also a beacon
of civic engagement, because Frank didn’t just build
that boat or that ship himself, he invited people, many people
who felt exactly like the driftwood that was coming onto the shore,
forgotten and cast aside. He invited them to bring their gifts. To bring their gifts, to create
this icon of impossibility, this tribute to the possibility that comes
when you invite people from the grassroots to identify the solution
in their own words, and to create the solution
with their own hands. You know everywhere I go, I find that when people
create things themselves, they own them in a way
that you can never ever own that which has been created for you. The pirate ship has really effected
a huge transformation in that community, needless to say New Brighton beach
is cleaner than it’s ever been, but also thousands of other,
below the radar initiatives that we just don’t see
are happening on the Wirral, because community builders are taking care
to identify, connect and mobilise the assets that exist in every community. I’m so heartened to be able
to report to you that all over the world, this back-yard revolution
which is shifting the focus from what’s wrong with our people
and our communities, to what’s strong within our communities, and how we can build that strength
to create a better tomorrow, is happening everywhere. We spent the last six years in the UK really focusing in on how we could
create demonstration sites across the UK, places that were
living evidence of what happens when you take a theory,
and you put it into practice I am proud to say that in May we are going to be working
with our partners, The Bank of Ideas, to do the exact same thing
across Australia, and there are many other countries
where we are seeing this back-yard revolution
come into reality. Just a few weeks ago I was very privileged
to spend some time in Rwanda. I started my journey in Rwanda
three and a half years ago, training community builders
in the Gasabo district of Kigali, which is the capital of Rwanda, and they’ve been working
over the last three and a half years with 49 schools
and 484 villages in Kigali. I would love to share
every single one of the stories, because each of them touches
a human emotion within us in a very, very special way, but I don’t have time. So let me just share one. This is a school where
the community builder came alongside parents,
people without any credentials, people who had huge self-doubt
in their power to change anything, but the community builder
invited them to identify what they cared about enough to act upon, and then invited them
to take action on those issues. And they identified two things
that they felt really needed to change if their school, and their village,
was to realise its potential. The two issues that they took on, the first was the fact that there were
street children in each of their villages that were not connected to community,
not connected to family, and not connected to school. They didn’t gang press
these kids into school, but they came alongside them, and they formed relationships with them, and they found out
what it would take for them to reconnect back into community life and back into school. And the kids said very clearly: ‘We do not want to go to school
and learn books, school is boring’ Hands up who thought school was
boring? I certainly did. They did not want to go to school, what they wanted to learn was
how they could connect with people who were interesting,
people who knew how to make tables, people who knew how to fix engines. They wanted to connect with people who didn’t have any
formal teacher training, but who could teach them the skills that would allow them
to have a life they wanted. Today they’re in school, but it’s not
like the school most of us have gone to. They are in a school that looks as much
like an economic hub as it does a school, it’s a school that is focused
not just on educating people, but also giving people
the skills they need for life. The other challenge they had, was supporting teachers
who lived on meagre salaries, to be able to live with dignity and pride, and have a morale in
teaching their children. What did they do? They sourced local produce, and they created
a supermarket in the school, so that teachers can use their salary to buy the food they need
at reduced prices. These are ordinary people,
uncredentialed people, doing extraordinary things,
and we see this every single day when we start with focus
on what’s strong and not what’s wrong. Imagine what the world would look like,
if we were able to take those stories, and to proliferate them,
and to look at their significance, and see that the two things
that mattered most was the grassroots actions of citizens,
but also the help of community builders. In each story there was
a community builder, who was supporting
the village and the individuals to identify what was strong within them
and figuring out how to use it to address what was wrong, and make
what was strong even stronger still. Imagine the world if everybody
who was defined as the problem, secured the power to redefine the problem. Imagine how more inclusive,
how more beautiful a world we’d have. how more fruitful a world we’d have. I believe that the solution to the most intractable problems
that we face starts from the grassroots, from inside out, and it starts
with the belief of the fact that there is no two-tiered society, where one group of people
with all of the problems, are rescued by another group
with all of the solutions. There is no them and us, there is only us. Lilla Watson, the great aboriginal elder,
educator and activist, once said: ‘If you’ve come to help me,
you’re wasting your time, but if you’ve come because
your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together’. So as we look to a brighter tomorrow, and as I conclude, let’s recognise the fact that we are the people
we’ve been waiting for, we are sufficient unto the challenge, and we are becoming the change we seek. Thank you. (Applause)




Comments
  1. This is certainly one of the main reasons why Men's Sheds are gaining such a grass roots following. Thanks for bringing it into the main stream focus.

  2. So loved this… Oh how we could change the world if only more people thought like this… yearning to learn more on how to engage in this at grass roots level… Thank you 🙂

  3. absolutely brillient.i m working on topic ;stimulate development in less developed regions.this gave me a lot of insights.bundle of thanks.greeting from pakistan

  4. Touched…. I am working on women  empowerment  by  applying concept of self help and asset based development and I agreed on the opinion given  by Cormac   We feel more empower always because we believe on abundant power ,  potential and ability of community and women . If we just invest in building what the community have , then we can see better, sustainable and  self reliant community

  5. fantastic presentation, a reality of my own experience, working over 30 years. Development brought infrastructure, but lost the happiness, prosperity and values.

  6. What a gem of a presentation! I'm busy with a community development research proposal in South Africa and your words gave me a total new perspective on my project and what 'helping' communities should entail.

  7. @Cormac Russell… I really hope many get to see this. It has inspired me to develop a video around the conversation of 'changing a country, starting with individuals bringing forth their talents…you just broadened my view…and magnified tenfold the infinite potential in my community…thank you

  8. Cormac, a really telling presentation. I am doing a Diploma course on Community Developement and you have just knocked my thinking sideways. I am an elder statesman now and how I wish I had discovered this path earlier in life. Thank you is not good enough.

  9. Hi Cormac, this video is so great. Thank you for these words.
    I am currently privileged to be living on an eco farm in Ibiza, studying an apprenticeship in Community Development. I played this talk earlier and then again to my fellow students. Really inspiring to us all.
    "There is no them and us, there's only us … We are the people we've been waiting for," raised hairs on the back of our necks!
    Thanks again, and I look forward to finding out more about Asset-Based Community Development after watching this video 🙂

  10. Wonderful talk. For years I've based my consulting on the fabulous work of Peter Block, Appreciative Inquiry and Strengths based organizations. Cormac nails it.

  11. Great stuff and although you've been in Gt Britain recently the message doesn't seem to be getting to the South. Cambridge and East Anglia for existence. As you know community development theory and practice in this country, perhaps not Scotland, is largely ignored these days. Especially when oldies like myself, and others, are still, around.

  12. Looking for a video that summarizes Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Approach! Here you go! I totally love this presentation, totally mind blowing

  13. This is good. I teach Diploma students (Community Development) and i think this will be beneficial to them.

  14. An amazing presentation of simple truths, lost to many through only following political discourse. Hope to engage in useful community activity and development in a Connemara village when I return to my ancestors heartland. Thank you for such thoughtful insights.

  15. We have new state departments that opened, and the focus by title of the departments are to community and personal problems (e.g., substance abuse)…These departments are asked to have hearings about their departments, their services, their roles with the public, and why it is that our taxpayer funds are being invested in that way (i.e., opiod crisis, of prescription medications) as opposed to such basic needs as maintenance or replacement of World War II infrastructure in fields such as transportation (e.g., bridges highways, high speed rail, subway and tramsystems).  I refer professionals today to places such as Policy Link and metropolitan development areas to assure that the needs of the "disenfranchised" (that is to be no one today in the US) can be taken into account. Julie Ann Racino, August 2017

  16. Our community groups in the disability fields include Judith Snow from Canada who recently passed (first into the community from the rehabilitation facility approach), John O'Brien and Connie Lyle O'Brien and our community psychologists, "misleading as above" our CEO classes in the community on friendships with children (as opposed to the actual public plan being reviewed as "required by law")…leaders such as Jeff Strully of Kentucky (Seven Counties) and California.  Julie Ann Racino August 2017

  17. Fantastic analysis. I have long thought that communities should have a shared vision that starts with basic needs. It's so easy for modern culture to make us feel alien to everything around us. This video was great in proving the importance of the attention to those things in which we can't necessarily put a dollar value on. Bravo

  18. Thank you. You summed up in a short time everything I have been learning and hearing while doing a Post Grad Cert in CD. I live in Queensland, Australia and would be interested in when you will be coming to Australia and where the hubs would be set up. Well done and thanks.

  19. My thought. On all the community talks is: As long as your community is made up of members afraid of the rest of the animals, you have to accept "feaux" community …

  20. OMG such wonderful presentation. For sure a gift to the society. It changes everything. Including the way I work. Amazing. Thank you very much.

  21. Cormac, I have searched for Rosabeth Moss-Kanters quote to quote it myself. But whenever I search for her I can only find you quoting her. When and where did she say "When we do change to people they experience as violence; when people do change for themselves they experience it as liberation" ??
    kind regards, peter

  22. Government has a small role to play in social change. Of course experts can't solve our problems for us but a smart government knows what it can and can't do.

  23. A very well done presentation, it has changed the way I look at thing now, thank you 🙂
    Start with what is strong, forming an interest group, connect people with the common interest. Leveraging on technologies, is there any app that could connect people with the same aim and interest together? I think that the sustainability of the project/interest group created is a challenge also 🙂

  24. Really interesting & extremely eloquent. I shall be quoting you in the charity business plan that I am currently writing, as I try to communicate & embed this approach in our work.

Leave a Reply to Fashnalight Ismaily Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *