Communities

One word that has come up a lot in the last few days are discussions about communities.

Whether is it ‘affected communities’, or ‘community leaders’ or ‘rebuilding communities’ and it has made me wonder about what the meaning of the word is.

build community

whizchickonabun@flickr

Also in terms of the work I do, I think about the word and the way it is used in the personalisation agenda about ‘building community capacity’. The government uses community in terms of the ‘big society’, volunteering, giving power to communities, but they don’t really explain exactly what this means excepting the idea that ‘community’ is somehow a Good Thing. Strong communities are good.

So what is a ‘community’?

This is the definition given on Dictionary.com.

1.a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.

2.a locality inhabited by such a group.

3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually preceded by the )

The first two definitions base the term on a geographical location. Your community is the people who inhabit the world around you. The community might be all the people who live within this local area or it might be people of a specific cultural/historical heritage who live within this local area.

I wonder if the idea of splitting apart ‘community’ on the basis of cultural heritage is helpful sometimes.

What is clear is that the meaning of community is very different in Tottenham from  how it is in Chipping Norton.

The word is used in the context of building communities ‘online’. Obviously that comes under the third part of the definition. A community exists within a forum or even within readers of a blog. A community can be a Facebook group or a Twitter stream. We can belong to a range of communities. Some communities though, take more effort to join and be a part of than others.

Some communities we are born into by virtue of location and/or culture and history.

Some communities we move into through geographic location.

Some communities we actively choose to join.

The government talk about community as if it is the answer to every solution but I wonder how they feel the answers will come in areas where communities are not as cohesive as they know and are used to or not as homogenous in nature.

This is a part of the detachment I feel of the government from the people who are governed.  Cameron’s ‘community’ doesn’t feel and look like my ‘community’.

My community has different needs and concerns. My community doesn’t have the resources, either in time or money that his community does.

What gives some communities more ‘value’ than others? That’s the question that I ask myself frequently. When government leaders seek out ‘community leaders’ do they prescribe value to the communities on the basis of the loudest voices or the largest numbers?

Are those who are isolated or who don’t have families or voices detached from any kind of community? I suspect they are and sometimes people don’t want to be a part of a community.

Community is always seen in terms of being a good thing, but the people involved in the riots and mass destruction across London as well as other cities, they were part of a community too. Why is community always positive? Perhaps because the experiences of those who ‘rule’ is that they come from communities, yes, that word again, where there is hope and aspiration. Communities can drag people down as well as pull people up and when we talk about ‘community building, we can’t ignore the uglier aspects of some communities.

As Cameron talks of ‘pockets of sick society’, I think we know where he is pointing the finger.  He is pointing the finger at ‘other communities’. He is pointing the finger away from himself and people like him. This is not his problem because this is not his community. Are those ‘pockets’ communities within themselves? It seems to me that they are and there needs to be a recognition that community is far broader in scope than the ‘let’s all help each other’ model.

The sooner we broaden communities and build communities across economic and cultural lines the more we improve society. If we, like the Prime Minister states, see this as a problem with ‘pockets of a sick society’ we isolate and abandon those elements and detach them from our own more mainstream society.

That is dangerous.

The sickness of society is that there are ‘pockets’ within it.  This is not simply about poverty. This is about the difference between building exclusive and inclusive societies and yes, communities.

Communities have to reach out and build bridges across them. We have to build more inclusion. We have to take responsibility and those that wish to push us into communities have to understand better the way the networks are interdependent.

My community is hurting. The only way I can see to rebuild it is to involve myself in it.

If anything indicates that there is a role for more macro social work. A role for community work  but an inclusive type of community that doesn’t self-select and is able to reach out to those who might not naturally seek to be a part.

I have felt fear this week, in a way I haven’t felt fear before. I’ve also felt anger and sadness. Now, I’m trying to find hope and I have and I will.

But I still despair of the politicians who purport to ‘lead’ us and the desperate isolation and detachment I feel between my world and the world I see and the worlds in which they move.

Community has a better hope of existing when some of the barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are challenged and broken down.

That’s the real challenge for communities in these days ahead of us and we can no longer leave it in the hands of detached politicians who live in their own privileged communities.

We need to build. As the world moves on to the next News story, those of us left need to hold our attention on those around us and see what we might not have seen if we didn’t choose to look.

So what does community mean for you? Is it a useful word or has its lost it’s use through overused dullness?

I’d be interested in the responses because it’s been vexing my mind for a while.

Bullying

Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, the first c...

Image via Wikipedia

Bullying – it’s a very loaded word. As adults we’ve been through the school experiences where, if we didn’t experience it and weren’t perpetrators, we’d probably know people who were in one or the other camp.

School is just a community where identity takes hold and is shaped and as such, with children growing and developing there personalities and thrown together merely on the basis of age and location or wealth(in the case of private schools) there is no reason to believe that everyone will get on and live happily together.

Fortunately, there are some wonderful resources and help available for children who might experience bullying. Often parents will be very supportive.

Let’s turn that perception on its head though because this week, I have been discussing and processing the implications of bullying in a residential care home for adults with dementia.

This is not bullying by managers of staff or bullying of residents by staff.

This is bullying of residents by other residents.

In some ways, I’m surprised that there isn’t more debate and discussion about this. After all, in some cases, people who require residential care and who have dementia may not have many decisions about where they live. Adults are proverbially thrown together merely on the basis of age (and diagnosis), location and wealth (in the case private homes).

Why is it more surprising that the tribal nature of the human condition becomes any less apparent than it would with children?

We are still working with and alongside people who are vulnerable but are there any resources available for adults who are bullied in these circumstances or the families of adults who are bullied in these circumstances.

As mentioned above, I am involved in various safeguarding processes for an adult in a residential home who is being unfairly targeted by another resident.

Without too many details, the decisions that are taking place around the people involved  relate almost entirely to series of best interest meetings and discussions.

Should we move the target who is not even necessarily aware of what is going on around them but who is settled and has already moved a couple of times?   Or should we move the perpetrator who is adamant that they do not want to leave?

At what stage does this ribbing and teasing or just two people who don’t get on, become an imbalance in power that is usually present in ‘bullying’.

While we have come to a solid and I think, acceptable decision that is protective for both parties (and as the care coordinator for the ‘target’, she has been my primary responsibility), this case has led me to reflect on and consider other cases that I’ve been involved with where abuse has taken place between older adults in residential care settings and day centres.

I’m very surprised there isn’t more research and information about it and some of the staff in these settings seem to be constantly amazed that all people regardless of background, culture and history don’t just ‘all get on’ in the lounge to sing ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’.

Are we denying the humanity of older people by trying to pretend that they are somehow less human because they are not succumbing to some of that most human activity in ‘community environments’ of picking off the weakest or the most ‘different’.

I think by not actively and forcefully discussing issues of bullying and having plans around them, we are doing a disservice to all older adults for whom we, as a society, have a duty to care.

One day, newspapers, communities and the public will be as interested and as horrified by the stories of bullying in older people’s communities as they are in schools.

It shouldn’t really surprise us when you think about it. As I’ve said many times in person over the last few days, this is what happens in communities of humans – and there are various almost tribal elements at play as communities form into ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ elements. Why should this be different when we age or become unwell or a memories begin to fade? We don’t stop being human.

As a service and as a profession, we need to have plans that are as strong and protective for older adults experiencing bullying as we do for children as often there aren’t the forceful parents around to protect and defend. It is left to us, as professionals, to take that advocacy role.

There also has to be a broader understanding that things don’t always happen in the way we would like them to and more care homes and placements need solid guidance and frameworks for managing and working with communities where sometimes people don’t get on or choose to be and particularly where were a very different power balance elements at play due to differing physical and mental health needs and differences of dependencies – dislike can lead to bullying within the environment if it is not addressed.

Bullying is about power differentials. That doesn’t cease to exist when we leave the playground or the workplace. It is the unfortunate aspect of community building and the human condition and it can’t and mustn’t be swept under the carpet.

One day I want to see the same resources, organisations and policies around bullying within care homes and sheltered housing communities as exist around bullying in schools.

Big Society Revisited

I am still having trouble understanding exactly what Cameron means by the ‘Big Society’. I am really trying. I have read up on it on it’s own website and I looked on Wikipedia (doesn’t that count as substantial research?). I attended a debate  last week at LSE (now available as a podcast and highly recommended) but just when I thought I had a grasp of the basic ideas, my thoughts take me down another path.

Liverpool Town Hall

It is about increasing the ‘civic responsibility and civic responsiveness’ of communities. It is about communities taking more control of issues that affect them. It is about volunteerism and increasing social capital.

Or it is about cuts and replacing central and local government responsibilities with people willing to take part and take action.

It can’t just be about active volunteering communities. That is not a new idea.

Perhaps it is about payment for volunteering in different forms – the Japanese idea mooted by Burstow a few months back about helping older people with some care in order to ‘bank hours’ for ones own care in the future.

But there have been forms of time banks for years where someone might offer a hour of gardening in exchange for an hour of French tuition. That isn’t ‘new’.

Is there going to be more government money to promote the rolling out of the State? No.

Is there going to be any additional time to plough into some of the ideas which form the base of the ‘Big Society’ ideal? No.

I see a potential for social work to transform into more a community based profession. We have the potential as social workers. We know the areas we work in and we have a chance to see areas and people who would benefit from both input and volunteerism. Sometimes I wish I had a more ethereal role in building community capital.

One of the roles of my work is what I would see as ‘building systems of support around people who are isolated’ so I might look at what groups exist – self-help as well as more formal day centres and lunch clubs – I look around online as well as off-line groups. Given a little more flexibility to grow and facilitate (and then withdraw, if necessary) from these groups – I can see some worth in the idea of community building.

There is not much scope or time for these roles at the moment.

Earlier this week,  Lord Nat Wei, who drives the Government’s Big Society agenda – ironically reduced the time he was able to spend on the project because he needed to spend his time, well, earning money and being with his family. On a human level that is completely understandable. I couldn’t give three days of my life up for voluntary work – it was, after all, a voluntary post.

But it is an indication of the difficulties that face the promises that have been made about the ‘Big Society’.

As discussed at the debate I attended, Big Society, is in danger due to demographics. Volunteers tend to be middle class and middle aged. There are ‘pet’ projects and charities. No doubt libraries in Surrey will do very well – but what about hostels in Brixton?

As if to emphasise this point, Liverpool, one of the ‘pilot’ areas for ‘Big Society’ pulled out yesterday with the leader of the council saying that when voluntary organisations are having their funding cut by reductions of grants to the council from central government, he is in no position to roll out the programme.

That leaves the pilot in a difficult and untenable place in my view. Liverpool was the ‘test site’ in a poorer, urban area. The other ‘test sites’ are

Eden in Cumbria – which by no means ‘richer’, is a large rural district. Arguably communities in small rural villages will be naturally more cohesive by the nature of geography.  Now, last week, the MP who represents Eden was present at the debate – Rory Stewart. He was an engaging speaker but he seemed very focused on the rights of residents to have more control over planning applications and the building of affordable housing (a key issue in rural areas). Fine. That’s all well and good but it sounded as if these projects were run by the voices that shouted the loudest. That is my concern about the way the projects and the ‘Big Society’ will pan out.

Sutton in London is another test site for the Big Society. Sutton covers leafy suburban areas and the borders between London and Surrey. Sutton is focuses on citizens ‘having a say’ about transport in the borough. Hm. I wonder how that fits with bus services being cut throughout the country. See, we can’t quite get away from the cuts agenda. Sutton fits perfectly into the ‘middle aged middle class’ band of ‘volunteers’ who might have time to attend meetings about which bus service might go where.

In fact, as the website says

Sutton is one of only four local authorities announced as ‘Big Society Communities’ because it’s regarded as having one of the country’s most vibrant communities with a very active voluntary sector, plus a track record of devolving power to our neighbourhoods.

In other words, lets just do what we were doing anyway and call it ‘Big Society’. That’s one way of guaranteeing success, Cameron.

And the last ‘test site’ after the withdrawal of Liverpool?

The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. Ah, maybe the Queen – an erstwhile resident of the aforementioned borough – wanted a go at ‘Big Society’. Hardly a representative area on income bases and types of community though.

Well, she could certainly pump some additional money in her own local community.

Boys from Eton visiting elderly widows to ‘take tea’. Yes, that might be it.

No, I have it wrong, Big Society isn’t just about volunteering – it is about community groups taking collective action. But it does seem to fall into the ‘middle aged middle class’ demographic again where it is expected that people will have more leisure time to devote to community building.

Reading through the proposals for the Royal Borough, I see some worthy suggestions about residents having greater influence on budgetary decisions and ‘adopting a street, park or library’. See, libraries again. Who is going to adopt the libraries in Toxteth though?

Which brings me to Liverpool. The only ‘test area’ that I personally felt gave the pilot some credibility. The other areas are overwhelmingly mono-cultural. I had to check my figures there regarding Sutton – as a London Borough, but I maintain my position as I found that

the proportion of BME residents living in LB Sutton, at 15.2%, is
significantly lower than for the South West London Sub-Region (27.0%) and for London (33.6 %).

So while the government can point to a pilot project ‘in London’ – Sutton is hardly representative of London or the communities that live therein.

So maybe I have the Big Society all wrong. Maybe it isn’t about increasing volunteerism per se, as much as increasing participation. The problem is that whichever it is both participation and volunteerism need leisure time and in order for people to engage they need to feel engaged and that this idea – these ideas are ‘for them’.

I don’t want to dismiss all the ideas behind community building and grass-roots activism but this is nothing new and unfortunately the ‘Big Society’ label rests too heavily in the lap of this Conservative led government.

Liverpool was the chance for me to be proved wrong. How things worked in Liverpool would have more relevance to me and the communities I live and work in than how things worked in Sutton.

So the withdrawal of Liverpool from the project is very significant. Much more than the tittering about Lord Nat Wei’s ironic inability to have time to devote to the project.

I want live in communities that are actively engaged but then, you see, I think I already do. I don’t want to ‘take over’ my local library. It runs very well with professional library staff. As for planning permission – well, everything around here is built up to the max so there aren’t many decisions to be made.

For me, if I were let loose on the project it would be one about increasing social capital and engagement but working in different ways and using social networking but not only that because that would exclude those who don’t have the same access to computer services.

But for now, I see Big Society as pleasing those who shout the loudest. Everyone else and anyone with any issue that might impede their own motivation or participation – be that a disability, a mental illness, a frailty, a lack of time, an alienation from the ‘mainstream’, a language barrier, a cultural barrier – is at risk of being swept along by the wishes of the loudest rather than the majority.

At least local authorities have some kind of democratic mandate regarding the decisions they make. Groups of communities may have no such responsibility.

Just to finish with a quote from Nat Wei’s blog. He says

I have also recently been working on online and other tools to help establish a community of activists who can champion and help create Big Society where they live. More on this will follow in the coming months

And a word to Nat Wei. Isn’t that by definition, ‘top down’.

Where is this community online?

Someone in the comments mentioned that it is a closed site to invitees.

Surely the ideas could be open to a broader forum of any interested party so that concerns and yes, ideas, can be moved beyond those who work in policy planning or are directors of voluntary organisations. Where do I, or those like me, who have been working in communities for years, go with our ideas?

Maybe the Big Society is an opportunity to fragment. Maybe we find our own spaces in the virtual worlds to play out or ideas. Maybe the concept of the Big Society can be linked to the networked world we live in where trying to impose from above will always be doomed to failure.

Maybe, just maybe, we are seeing the Big Society in Egypt.

It uses twitter to network and build alliances and share ideas and it won’t be owned by the government.

Maybe it is grass roots activism which needs to take on the models of a new media but remain inclusive to those who lack access across the digital divide.

The sad thing is that I see a massive role for social work in building a more engaged society, just as the government seem set on destroying it and removing the bases and protections on which our civilised society has stood.