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A community development approach to empowering communities affected by gang violence

November 2017

Following Julia Hines’ Big Local perspective of empowering communities at risk of knife crime and gang violence, Paul and Sian offer four key ways community development approaches can help empower communities affected by these issues.

By Paul Bragman and Sian Penner, Big Local reps. Paul Bragman is a member of the Empowered Communities in the 2020s steering group.

We are living in times where turbulence is the new norm and parts of our communities feel increasingly pressured by everyday life. There is a growing lack of trust between communities and agencies, exacerbating feelings of insecurity and isolation. In addition, there has been a withdrawal of local services, and a growing gap between ‘decision makers’ and those whom decisions are impacted on.

All these elements, raises the question ‘Is there a role for community development?’


So how does empowerment work with people who are increasingly feeling under siege? Or has community development become part of an ‘industry’ that comes in and ‘does to’ and then leaves when funding runs out? Or is it a quick fix for the aftermath of a riot or a disaster? Do the notions of ‘talking shop’ with the ‘usual people’ that meet for discussions, often with very little action, perpetuate the feelings of disaffection? Can we really empower communities when wider public services continue to contract and are cut throughout the UK?

Why community development is important now

With shrinking public services and increased funding challenges, there is now a steadily increasing need for communities to ‘fill the gap,’ especially in reducing group and gang related violence. How can we think more radically about how community development can support communities to empower themselves and support them to build their confidence to step up to this challenge?

For a community affected by group and gang violence, empowerment is the ability to feel safe, to trust and not fear services locally; to access services when needed and ‘voice’ when services don’t work properly.

Empowerment for the individual in this community is the ability and confidence to re-connect and embrace neighbours, embracing difference in others and working with them.

There are four key ways that community development can play an active role in empowering communities affected by gang violence:

1. Establishing strong community networks and a local voice by:

  • Establishing who is who in the community
  • Engaging in dialogue about group violence with all, including the perpetrators
  • Identifying and championing practices that have proved successful not because a policy or politician ‘knows better'
  • Building grass roots connections that work to help challenge and reduce group violence
  • Relying on open and honest conversations and relationships being built, recognises much of the informal work taking place “below the radar” and its impact

2. Facilitating capacity and ability to develop the voice and role of voice within decision-making processes locally through:

  • Credible information sharing
  • Provision of local ‘intelligence’ within and across the community to support confident responses within the community to both existing and emerging challenges and opportunities. This has the potential to pre-empt need for enforcement approaches

3. Supporting and brokering change in local organisations; community networks; decision making processes around group & gang violence which requires:

  • Acknowledgement from statutory partners that they need to work differently.
  • A willingness to listen and learn, an openness and lack of defensiveness, and strong local leadership to work with communities as trusted and equal partners at all stages of the process.

4. Capturing the impact of working in a community focused way using a voice to:

  • Co-design the delivery of effective services;
  • Provide a transparent and accountable approach to funding.

Empowered Communities in the 2020s can step up to this challenge, however there is a growing need for investment in grass roots community development in neighbourhoods most affected by group and gang violence. This will include time to ‘grow’ local responses alongside community responses to building trust and connections.

There is a critical need at this time to provide targeted community development support for local communities to reduce group and gang violence; embedding development skills and facilitation in residents as an essential building block to develop robust intelligence, resilience and partnership responses to group and gang violence; independent unbiased facilitation brokering partners and communities together to work to understand the benefits that partnership working bring to all stakeholders.


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