Reclaiming the gifts of “serviced” people

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Thanks to those who came to our first Faith in Action Reading Group today as we looked at a chapter from “When Helping Hurts”. Thanks also to Dear Daisy for allowing us to all but take over your cafè.

I was really stimulated by the conversation around the table I sat at. Among many other things we discussed the challenge of reclaiming lives in all their giftedness and worth when they have (and continue to be) served for their needs by a system set up to help them.

So many in our society have become “serviced” people. Labeled for what they need from our community rather than what they have to offer it.

As one person around our table shared; many people have come to understand they will “get more” from a service if they talk up their needs, talk up their brokenness and talk up their deficits. Do this too long and it becomes a habit of talking down gifts and contributions and value- a soul-sucking, life-destroying habit. And then we are surprised (as people hoping to do things a different way) when we are faced with people who seem to have no inerrant sense of self-worth, no goals, no sense of their own giftedness and who can even seem just to be out to get what they can from us.

And it will continue to be hard for us to do things differently because we are not doing them in a vacuum. While we work hard to help an individual or group to re-discover those gifts that they have to contribute to our community; the other handful of services they are likely also connected with (“serviced” by) will continue to work in the opposite direction spurred on by their output measures and department KPIs.

None-the-less I was encouraged today by a group of people really desiring to do things differently. Not just to create a different client assessment questionnaire but to allow the guiding principles of strength-based community work create a new road to travel on. A road that sees the “over serviced” and “over labeled” individual, group or community as a treasure hunt. That our role is not to decide what that treasure is but to support the person or people in the messy, creative, never-ending task of re-discovering gifts and passions and knowledge.

The tools for this “treasure hunt” are available to all of us- you don’t need a social work qualification to do this work. These tools include:

  • asking powerful and valuing questions (one person today suggested that they have found it powerful to ask of someone who sees themselves as one “cared for” about who or what they “care for”. It may be a dog or a garden.)
  • allowing the other person to guide the direction of the “treasure hunt” without predetermining what you believe the “right” answer to be (the COACH approach is good for this)
  • taking what one person today called a “lateral understanding of gifts”- seeing gifts as more than just what a person can DO.
  • connecting people. People can not discover or share their gifts on their own and often the most important task in this treasure hunt is in the connecting of people, groups and communities. This also allows for a culture of mutuality to develop which in itself fights against the “serviced” culture in which one person is the provider and the other the provided-to.

Thanks again for sharing today and I hope to see you at our next reading group when we look at this text from Paul Born.

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Working TOGETHER for better outcomes for Hackham

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While community development may be well lead by one group; good community development can never be done by one group/organisation/Church alone.  Diversity is a (never to be underestimated) necessity of healthy, thriving community and it therefore needs to be deliberately fostered in any development process.

But how do you get highly diverse people striving towards a common purpose?

Obviously one key work is to ensure good communication and transparency at all times.  For more on facilitating this read my previous post on community consultation.

Another key is to focus on ensuring the work is equitable and mutually beneficial.  My experience is that often one group is acting only as a venue or a service to others.  Watch for this- because, while this can still be a positive experience, I believe the true benefits of collaboration can only be experienced in mutuality when all groups are pulling towards a common goal.

I experienced a great example of this yesterday when working with a small collective  in Hackham (one of the most disadvantaged suburbs in Adelaide’s southern suburbs).  All groups represented had a specific interest in working towards better outcomes for children in the area and I was impressed by how quickly the group was able to make the important first step of establishing a common goal.

The group was also able to quickly establish how, in its initial steps, the partnership could fit with existing organisational activities.  They were able to name each others strengths and consider how these assets might all be well utilised towards a broader collective impact.  Parties responded with generosity, not holding back on what assets could be contributed towards the success of the project.

In the short term we focused on something small and specific that would allow us to have a quick win towards our goal while we began the broader (and arguably more significant) works of developing effective relationships, building trust, and testing the limits and arrangements of the partnerships before moving to more ambitious plans.

What are your experiences (positive and negative) of highly diverse people striving towards a common goal?  Do these principles (in bold) sit true for you?

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Reflecting on my garden and community development

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As the first Adelaide heatwave of this summer broke last night into a steamy thunderstorm I look out over my yellowed lawn, the burnt leaves of my pumpkin plants and the still panting beaks of my small flock of chickens and though- this is going to be a long summer trying to keep this lot alive!

All of the garden, without exception, looked a little sad and battered around the edges.  For the most part, however, those local indigenous plants recommended by my native-veg botanist of a father (while not always the favourite, prettiest or flashiest in the garden) had certainly fared the burning sun the best.

While I sat under the porch and watched the rain I read a long, drawn-out article about challenges in international aid and development.  The article (and I am warning you it is quite long and a little depressing) focused a lot on our seemingly unabating desire to find the flashiest, sexiest and “pluckiest” new start up idea for tackling the big evils of poverty and then roll that idea out to every struggling corner of the world.  It criticised our want a magic bullet or big idea that will solve the ills of the world.  One idea to fix everything certainly sounds like a great idea and an even greater TED talk.  The proven effect, however, is similar to me trying to grow mangoes in Adelaide (if only!)

Call it biomimicry if you like but I certainly I saw the similarities between my two reflections.

Like wanting to grow mangoes in Adelaide, so too it can be very tempting to see a successful Community Development project really flourishing in a community and think- “my community faces similar needs and therefore we could perform that same project in our area and experience the same results”.

Much like unseen soil PH levels- so much of community development comes down to tiny nuances and personalities.  The alternative, then is to stop looking enviously at the roses of England and the tropic fruits of South East Asia and determine small indigenous local solutions.

HOW?

  • Measure our PH level of your soil by mapping the strengths and assets of your local community. (here are some ideas on how to do that)  Every community has more assets that anyone knows.
  • Know what is indigenous.  Let the project be lead by people who have lived and invested long term in the community.  The wisdom of the community always exceeds the knowledge of the experts.
  • Find what already grows well and cultivate more of it (like I discussed in my bright spots blog) “What have we got? what has worked? and How do we get more of it?”
  • Be willing to grow deep roots first- start really small and scale really slowly and to evaluate as often as possible.

It’s not as glamourous or fancy but the long term results, particularly in tough times (like 42degree heat waves) prove this the more valuable approach.

Anything else you would add to this list?

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Good mental health for congregations – without getting clinical

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Peter and I had a great conversation this morning at Corromandel Valley Uniting Church with a number of Church leaders interested in how we can walk alongside people in our congregations and communities who are struggling with bumpy roads in their mental health. (Notes available here)

Those who came did so with some really powerful questions around the role that a community (such as a Church congregation) can have in supporting the work done by medical and other professional services (such as Baptist Care and Uniting Communities).

We shared about times when we had seen genuine flourishing of people experiencing persistent and chronic mental health concerns.

Some of the characteristics that we recognised across all of these experiences were:

  • People experiencing ongoing mental health concerns were connected with others in the community in areas of mutual strength and passion (golfing, fishing, gardening) rather than out of areas of one person’s deficit and need.
  • These individuals were encouraged and supported to contribute to the community in a meaningful and rewarding way.  Often a great deal of flexibility was needed to support this and growth in capacity was very often witnessed over time.
  • A culture in which a spectrum of mental health could be experienced became normalised.
  • Individuals were seen as people and friends rather than projects or clients.  Along with a recognision that we are doing this alongside mental health professionals rather than fulfilling this role ourselves.
  • Specific individuals (or small groups of individuals) stepped up by becoming informed friends but of equal significance were deliberate community frameworks (ie. intentional meals and gatherings) existing around these individuals to help support and sustain these friendships over a long time (knowing that this is not about short term “curing”).  These frameworks supported individuals so that they didn’t feel like “it will all come down to me”; “I’m doing it on my own”.
  • A true culture of risk-taking and a willingness to accept what otherwise might be deemed as failure. (More about that here).

If you are interested in participating in a similar conversation we are hoping to facilitate more gatherings like this one in the northern and western regions of Adelaide in the new year.  If you would like to host us please contact me.

Baptist Care will also be providing training in the area in 2015.

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Advent, Community and #IllRideWithYou

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At risk of being accused of jumping on the bandwagon I couldn’t give up the opportunity to celebrate the beautiful example of community that was expressed in the “I’ll Ride With You” hashtag last night.

My heart truly soared.

Yesterday many of our neighbours would have had due reason to feel frightened of how strangers in the community might respond to them.  Could have felt concerned that they would be ostracised purely because of the way they dress or the colour of their skin.  And yet the steady stream of #IllRideWithYou offers presented an alternative to this fear.

It didn’t offer a program or money- what it did offer was to stand alongside in friendship and solidarity.

And in the middle of Advent I, with many others, was struck with the resonance this holds with the birth of Jesus; the incarnation.  God choosing to set aside power and privilege in order to get alongside us as an equal- to become less than our equal -to walk alongside us in our suffering, to experience life as we do, in the ultimate #IllRideWithYou

This is what we need more of- walking alongside those who are most vulnerable in our community.  More people willing to walk alongside those at risk of being marginalised, isolated or victimised.

Of course we need to go further and work towards a culture in which marginalisation, isolation and racism are no longer present- but in the meantime we must walk alongside.

And not just for the length of a train ride or a bus route but in general and for life.

In the current climate our Muslim and middle-eastern neighbours will continue to need offers of walking (or riding) alongside and I hope that rather than being a one-off offer it might be (as Father Bob tweeted) our finest communitarian hour.

I also wonder to whom else we could extend this offer to ride alongside?
And what might that riding alongside look like?

…your thoughts?

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The Challenge is to Start NOW!

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One of the most profound lessons I have learned in my time working with communities is this:

Whoever comes are the right people.

Sounds simple, but so often it goes against our natural instincts.
It certainly goes against my natural personality type in every way.
But it is true.

When planning a workshop or a community consultation/co-creation event we often have an idea of who should be in the room- whether that be specific names of individuals that we want to be there or just a number of people present that would signal success for us.

Quite often I have had events that I was arranged to facilitate canceled because either the number isn’t right or a key individual is unable to attend.

I understand the desire behind this.  We really want our key leaders involved; or we really want a wide cross section of the community involved.  And often we do need to work toward this… at subsequent meetings or alternative gatherings.

The challenge with this delay is that, in my experience, often this false start has happened not just once but a number of times.  Then the momentum fails, people get disheartened and nothing happens at all.

That why I love the image at the top:

Sometimes the most important thing we can do, is it to begin.

And to begin with whoever shows up, whoever is available, whoever is present (be that 3 or 200).

I have come to believe this is the right things to do for a number of reasons:

  • This is honouring of those who have made themselves available (who are often those most passionate, ready and willing for the task anyhow).
  • It sets the activity in motion which then allows for others to get on board.  Sometimes those reluctant-joiners (who may even be those we, as leaders, are most keen to have on board) need to see something begin, to know you are serious, and then they will jump on board.  Often they have experienced false starts in the past and are (even subconsciously) skeptical.
  • Busy people will always be busy.  If you wait for all the busy people to be free you will never begin.
  • If we wait for the “right” people we often do not allow people to become the “right” people.
  • Starting small is good.
    Smaller groups of people create energy faster than large groups.
    Small groups are scalable (if asked to invite only one person to the next meeting
    you have instantly doubled)
    Smaller groups, if managed well, take greater personal responsibility for tasks
    and have greater potential for accountability.

So next time you arrange a gathering, call together a group, start to dream…. and then people begin to cancel (sickness, holidays, other commitments) or just don’t show up.  Don’t stop.  Don’t postpone.  Don’t worry or become disheartened.  Remind yourself: Whoever comes are the right people.

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What ELSE did I learn from our conversation about working with refugees and asylum seekers?

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Last week I posted about the challenge I felt from Brad Chilcot’s call to appreciate the polarities in people by starting out from areas of mutuality rather than adversary.

But this wasn’t all I learned from that conversation.

My other big take away could be summed up in the words of one of our participants:

“We are one community standing together- not two groups trying to understand one another” -Karen

This language of reciprocity (a willingness for authentic exchange) and of mutual hospitality (offering what is most valuable to me; to you) came out in all the stories we heard on the day.  Rather than being seen as “other” or “person in need” the significance of being appreciated, honoured and empowered to contribute in and to community were hugely significant elements.  These were stories of movements lead both in voice and deed (not just consulted) by those they are seeking to empower.  This can not be underestimated.

The most challanging words of the day (for me) came when one participant voiced:

“At what point do people stop being ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’ and … any other label?”

It was a brilliant question and I think the answer we came to was: people only stop being “other” when they become friend.  When “they” gain a name, an identity and a significant place in our lives, our homes and our community of belonging.

What does this mean for your community?

If you were at our gathering were there any other significant learnings that stood out for you?

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