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Power and leadership

Safety, the state and public services: necessities for empowerment?

Rachel Shanks argues that community safety is a primary foundation for community empowerment, and that community workers also play a crucial role. Her blog responds to the first blog in our summer blog series, by Daniel Goodwin, which you can read here.

By Dr Rachel Shanks, Senior Lecturer, University of Aberdeen, and Empowered Communities in the 2020s steering group member

In early 2017 I was asked to say what made an empowered community. In Scotland, the Community Learning and Development Standards Council has defined empowerment as ‘increasing the ability of individuals and groups to influence issues that affect them and their communities through individual and/ or collective action’. So after I had done my short video recording on what I thought of as an empowered community, I worried that I had been too pessimistic, as I had emphasised that people need to feel safe first of all, as well as mentioning that in an empowered community people know each other and feel comfortable saying hello to strangers as they walk down the street.

In light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the terror attacks in Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park, it would seem my limited definition of an empowered community was realistic.

Before any of us can be empowered we must first of all be safe: safe in our homes; and safe in our communities. Empowered communities need empowering structures.

While the local and wider community response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy showed that people will help each other in every and any way they can, structures to allow people and communities to be empowered were missing. First and foremost, the state owes people the right to safety and security, including the right to be safe in a council-owned block of flats. This is enshrined in both Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

What the Grenfell Tower tragedy reminds us is that people and communities in the UK want to help each other, they react to people’s suffering, they want to help, and they want justice for the victims and survivors. It can seem wrong that people come together more in times of adversity than at other times. It would seem we need more help with an everyday feeling of connection to our local communities.

In Scotland, a required competence for qualified community workers (or Community Learning and Development workers) is the ability to facilitate and promote community empowerment. A professional community worker should be able to show how they can support individuals, groups and communities to, among other things, use community action as a means to achieve change, to participate in decision-making structures and processes, and to campaign for change.

As Daniel Goodwin mentioned in his blogpost, we need to enable more people to play a part in their communities, to have a greater sense of community responsibility and at the same time to benefit from a wider social life in and within their community. Skilled, professional community workers can help people to bring about change and develop a deeper sense of belonging and trust within local communities.

Our starting point should always be that people are capable of both assessing and acting on their interests. However, we cannot ignore that first of all people have to be safe and to feel safe. They need their basic housing and other needs met before they can turn to empowering themselves and empowering their communities through holding power to account.

Thus, we need structures and supports from public services to enable people to have the energy and the time to make a contribution to their communities. We also require community workers to provide support to individuals and communities, to enable them to speak truth to power and seek and achieve positive change in their own lives and in their communities.

As Daniel states, we need to remember the partnership between public services and communities, but also that public services are not a substitute for communities. We need both public services and thriving communities in order to empower people and communities.

In the 2020s, we can hope that people will share aspirations for their community and that through concerted community action they will help to bring about a caring society where everyone can be heard.

Research from the Empowered Communities in the 2020s team will help highlight how to achieve possible solutions, and propose tentative answers to the many questions we have about what our communities might be like and how we can bring about empowered communities in the 2020s and beyond.

Click to explore the Empowered Communities area of our website.