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Empowering communities: a rural parish perspective

Many people are increasingly less engaged in community life, while government is relying on people to take responsibility for public assets but not supporting grassroots initiatives, argues our latest blogger in the Empowered Communities series. Bob Rhodes suggests that we’ll only see empowered communities once people feel more connected and supported.

By Bob Rhodes, co-founder and Director, LivesthroughFriends

Why research matters

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over 50 years in community work and public services, it is that evidence and public policy are ‘oil and water’. The simple truth seems to be that those in power quote use the evidence that suits their agenda, often ‘harvesting’ selectively from findings that fundamentally criticise their policies. Power, as Freire and Gramsci so persuasively observed so long ago, has a magician’s touch at co-opting and redefining ideas.

After half a century of living action research, I conclude that the role of research is essentially subversive. During my career a succession of inspiring action researchers have stimulated real reflective practice. Their evidence has evoked the appreciation of the deep-set social and political contradictions in our society which informs my work. They have also provided a focus for ‘against the grain’ practitioners to come together and the peer support derived, for me, has been invaluable.

It’s hard for me to imagine that research will significantly change policy. Its crucial function is concerned with keeping the fundamental debate about communities, power and democracy refreshed and in equipping both professionals and citizens to operate successfully against the grain. I hope that the Empowered Communities in the 2020s research will offer just such insight and momentum. There are two things that I see currently happening that I think must be addressed for communities to become more empowered: firstly, citizens are no longer involved in the creation of public services, they are merely consulted. And secondly, community ‘care’ has become a commodity in a marketplace.

The importance of engagement

I wasn’t long on Ruspidge & Soudley Parish Council before I understood that even our relatively small body, often by default, is compelled to devote inordinate time and money towards sustaining public assets that our citizens rarely use and, seemingly, don’t value. In our case, these are two community buildings and two playing fields. In the Forest of Dean, in common with many other communities, while people are to varying degrees making use of community facilities, those prepared to contribute to the governance and management of those facilities continues to fall.

Over the last three decades, society has fallen prey to the false idea that solutions to every need can be purchased. This has been reinforced by the marketization and commoditization of public services. Governments and professionals have consistently reinforced the idea that “we should leave our living to them”. The consequences of this have been two-fold:

  • What used to be down to us (citizens, family, friends, neighbours, etc.) is increasing perceived as their business, and
  • Large sectors of the population have unwittingly become service, professional, and expert dependent and subtly diminished as citizens.

People continue to associate, organise, and crucially take the lead, around things that really matter to them but need to be exceptionally resourceful and self-reliant. Public institutions rarely lend their support unless groups are prepared to amend their purpose to coincide with those institutions’ objectives.

Are people less involved in community now?

Many more citizens now feel under pressure, strapped for time, insecure, and/or lonely and isolated. Whether this is factually true or a consequence of the choices we make about how we use our time is debatable (on average we all work less hours than we did 40 years ago) but the simple fact remains that we are less likely to know our neighbours, less engaged in communal activities and the consequence has been a very discernible diminution of neighbourliness and informal/reciprocal ‘care’.

Contemporary community work tells us it is not that people don’t want to participate regularly, enjoy reciprocal neighbourliness, feel safer, live more sustainably, or benefit from enhanced social capital; because they do! And it is not because people don’t have lots of exciting ideas about things they would like to take part in. Essentially, it seems, that, for many reasons, people feel less confident and competent than was the case in the past to assume a leadership and coordinating role.

Presently, in response to the impact of austerity and public services cuts, community work is back on the agenda. Unfortunately, it is likely to stutter given our public institutions unfailing incapacity to understand that it is not a great idea to set out to co-opt citizens to deliver the government’s programme.

Effective community development takes place where people are supported to enact initiatives based upon the things they care about and it is the spin-offs from the community cohesion and reciprocity that results that, while difficult to measure, have the greatest impact on lives.

And so, to that end, our Parish Council has resolved to employ a Community Worker – initially for 20 hours a week for an exploratory year. The worker will, among other things, act as a catalyst for linking up local connectors and projects, promote community use of our facilities and help people associate and participate around activities that matter to them. We will see how it goes, but my hunch is that this kind of ‘slow burn’ community work remains crucial in creating a more empowered future.

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