Is a question that millions of people ask millions of other people every single day.
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. 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.
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. 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 programs 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 neighborhoods, entire communities that have been defined as deficient, start to internalize 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 program 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. 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 neighborhoods in North America, some 20 cities. And as they went into these neighborhoods which were largely known by others as backwaters of pathology, known by the sum of their problems, they 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 neighbors 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 neighborhoods, 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 mobilized, 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. Someone 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.