Skip to Main Content
Equality, diversity and inclusion Organising and deciding Power and leadership

Challenge, choice and change: The role of equality in community development

Following the publication of A history of community development, experienced community organiser, researcher and author Alison Gilchrist explores the histories of equality and social justice in relation to community development, and why they are inseparable from both its history and future.

Equality has long been a fundamental principle of community development. It is embedded into the emerging practice, which works with, and within, communities to challenge injustice and bring about social change. Many community workers place this commitment at the heart of their work.

For me, any history of community development must acknowledge the shared practical experience and theoretical knowledge that informs and underpins the whole field. Equalities strategies are central to this practice, which has benefited hugely from thinking developed in the wider political movements.

Any history of community development must acknowledge the shared practical experience and theoretical knowledge that informs and underpins the whole field.

For half a century, the occupation of community work has grown a set of core values and constantly refined its purpose to establish a distinctly participative approach that forms the basis for a range of training programmes and standards. During this time, paid workers and community activists were supported by various networks, associations and government-funded bodies, notably the Community Development Exchange (CDX) (formerly the Standing Conference for Community Development or SCCD), the Federation for Community Development Learning and the Community Development Foundation.

What is community development?

A United Nations report published in 1955 defined community development as “a process designed to create conditions of economic and social progress for the whole community with its active participation”. In its earliest days, the main purpose of community development was to work with communities to tackle poverty, disease and so-called ‘under-development’, originally in colonialist settings and more recently in areas of so-called ‘multiple deprivation’.

Community development projects in the UK, such as the original university settlements, tended to be located in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods, which might now be termed ‘left behind’. In the post-war decades, local authority officers were deployed on housing estates to foster ‘community spirit’ and by housing organisations to encourage tenant participation, getting people involved in local activities as a means to improve services and social infrastructure.

Where did the principle of equality come from?

In the 1970s a more radical model of community action evolved, reflecting an increased awareness of structural inequalities. Initially this relied on an explicit class analysis that linked economic status with inequalities in health, education and household income. By operating ‘in and against the state’, community workers supported campaigns on issues relating to housing conditions, welfare rights, planning and access to decent services.

In the 1970s a more radical model of community action evolved, reflecting an increased awareness of structural inequalities.

This agenda was mainly driven by male community workers. However, as more women entered the profession (bringing in inspiration from second-wave feminism), attention shifted to developing or securing good play and childcare facilities, as well as challenging masculine ways of organising. Meanwhile, Black communities were demanding equal treatment and developing provision for diverse cultures. Ideas from the anti-racist movement, responding to the rise of the far right in the UK and learning from years of self-organising and urban protests, exerted pressures on community development practice to respect differences, reduce disparities and oppose discrimination.

Similar influences have arrived from other causes and minority perspectives. The social model of disability has stressed the importance of understanding (and eradicating) the barriers that prevent Disabled people from exercising their rights or participating in society as equal citizens. Campaigns against ageism have focused on prejudices affecting people at both ends of the spectrum: the empowerment of older people alongside promoting children’s and young people’s views. The greater visibility and assertiveness of the LGBTQ+ movement, through Gay Pride and coalitions around AIDS led to more nuanced understandings of sexuality and transgender lives.

Why do different perspectives matter?

As awareness of these different and diverse communities grew, it became clear that addressing the specific challenges they faced was essential for any community development work concerned with equality. Therefore, over the years, community development has quite rightly taken on board these perspectives, recognising that different dimensions of inequality and prejudice intersect in everyday life. It has a broad approach that aims – as a recent brap report for Local Trust argues – to promote equality, diversity and inclusion for all simultaneously.

The notion of social justice has been incorporated as a core value into the many statements defining the purpose, role and responsibilities of community workers. Accompanying this broad commitment and drawing on lessons from ongoing struggles for equality, community development has worked hard to promote anti-discriminatory practices and strategies. Meanwhile, it has also devised equal opportunity policies and outcome frameworks for measuring progress, such as the pioneering Achieving Better Community Development model.

What has incorporating social justice done for community development?

Community development encompasses personal empowerment, positive action strategies, collective organising and networking. It covers many forms of purposeful action designed to change power dynamics and bring about social justice through campaigning, self-help groups and regular community activities. Crucially, it includes the skilled interventions that facilitate collective actions and encourage participation.

David Boyle’s essay, A history of community development, underplays the rich body of literature produced by people involved in the field of community development all over the world. But as he says, the focus of community development has indeed shifted with passing decades, responding to both community-generated priorities as well as opportunities arising from government programmes. Community development today continues to learn from, and contribute to, movements for social change and to make connections between local actions that address global issues of injustice and exclusion, while drawing on shared experience and evolving analysis.

About the author
Alison Gilchrist

This blog is based on direct experience as well as substantial reading, research and writing on the topic. Alison has been immersed in community development since the 1980s: as a neighbourhood practitioner, local volunteer and as a community-based political activist involved in anti-racism work, the women’s movement, disability equality campaigns and various class-based organisations. She served for many years as a Trustee of the national Standing Conference for Community Development and the Community Development Exchange. Alison is the co-author (with Marilyn Taylor) of The Short Guide to Community Development (3rd edition to be published in January 2022).