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The many histories of community development

As we launch David Boyle’s essay and timeline on a history of community development, community development professional Marilyn Taylor explores three areas she’d add to a history of community development.

There are many histories of community development. The one that David Boyle explores is in many respects his own. But what this ambitious project demonstrates is that, while everyone brings their own unique memories and moments of inspiration when reflecting on the past, there is undoubtedly a rich history of community development for us all to draw on.

I have been involved in community development since 1972, when I joined what was then the Young Volunteer Force Foundation – which later became the Community Development Foundation (CDF). Living in King’s Cross in the 1970s and ‘80s, I cut my community-action teeth on several campaigns, was involved in an early neighbourhood partnership, and have been researching and acting as a learning partner for neighbourhood initiatives ever since.

This means that I’ve been around for much of the history that features in David’s project, and can say confidently that, despite his excellent work on the timeline, it would be easy to double the number of entries. However, I will confine myself to just three areas that kept coming to mind as I read through it – areas that I believe deserve a place in a timeline that is destined to become an essential resource for communities and organisers.

Women and community development

Firstly, I want to bring more women into the community development picture. Over the years I have seen so many women blossom through getting involved in community action, no longer confined to the domestic sphere. And while many were involved in the high-profile housing action celebrated in David’s timeline, play and childcare provision were equally important issues, especially in the early days. Through community action, women were able to translate the personal into the political in ways that transformed their own lives as well as those of their communities.

A good place to start might be the Greenham Common protest – a 19-year long campaign of peace encampments at an RAF base to protest nuclear weapons, beginning in 1981 and continuing through to 2000. Or one could go back further, to the first women’s refuge, established in Chiswick, west London, in 1971. Or to Jayaben Desai’s leadership of the Grunwick protest in 1976, which saw a group of film processing workers stage a walkout in protest of their treatment by management. Southall Black Sisters, formed in 1979, definitely deserves a place on the timeline and maybe Hazel Stuteley setting up the Beacon Project in 1995, a ground-breaking community-based health initiative in Cornwall. Going back in time, Marj Mayo’s book Women in the Community (1977) could usefully be cited as the first major text to highlight the significance of gender in community development.

Women – whether through high-profile action or essential work that has gone on in the background – have always been at the centre of community action, and it is essential that their histories are not forgotten.

Explore a history of community development

Community development as a profession

David’s account rightly celebrates a wide range of community action by individuals. In amongst his entries runs a parallel story about community development as an occupation or profession, and the organisations offering communities the support they need to achieve the changes they want to see.

Here I am thinking of the launch of the Community Development Journal in 1966 or the Gulbenkian Working Party on Community Work and Social Change which reported in 1968. The Association of Community Workers was launched in 1970, with its influential and often radical Talking Points, as well as a book series. The Federation for Community Development Learning and Community Development Exchange (CDX) were a significant source of support for many, founded under different names in the 1980s. However, they shared the fate of much of the community-work infrastructure in the 2010s when government funding was withdrawn.

David’s project highlights the loss of the CDF and the Association of Community Technical Aid Centres (ACTAC), and in his essay he notes the thrill he got from attending an ACTAC conference. I can relate to this. I still miss the extraordinary buzz of the annual conferences of organisations like the Urban Forum and CDX, where people from communities all around the country could come together, share ideas and experiences and be taken seriously by government ministers.

These are just a handful of examples of national community development bodies established over the years to help support communities, However, in particular I would include in the timeline the organising work of Citizens UK, which grew from London Citizens, set up in 1996, and ACORN UK, launched in 2014. Both have held highly successful nationwide campaigns – Citizens UK achieving the living wage and ACORN’s work on ethical lettings just two examples. There is also the Community Organisers Programme set up in 2011 to help mobilise hundreds of communities in England to improve their neighbourhoods, funded by the Cabinet Office and run by Locality, with its successor body, Community Organisers, taking over in 2014.

Community development before WW2

Finally, while I appreciate that the timeline can’t go back forever, I wouldn’t want to lose entirely the roots of present-day community development before the 1940s, and the role they played in shaping action from 1940s onwards up to present day.

For me, a look further back would include the working-class mutual aid societies of previous centuries; the settlement movement in the US and UK in the late 19th and early 20th century, which brought university students to live and work in poor urban areas; the Workers Education Association, founded in 1903 to offer education to communities and still running today; the women’s rent strikes during the first world war; and the community associations that developed on the interwar and early post-war housing estates.

All of this shows how far-reaching community development really is (and I haven’t even mentioned the contribution of faith communities to community development, the 1985 Faith in the City report was a key milestone here ). This work has woven its way into numerous histories, playing a part in the evolution and progression of so many different aspects of our modern lives.

David’s history doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, and neither do I. But if this project stimulates debate about the history of community development, and encourages wider discovery of a rich past that undeniably exists, it will have served a much-needed purpose.

This blog is part of a series responding to David Boyle’s essay and timeline on a history of community development. Explore more brilliant insights here.

About the author
Marilyn Taylor

Marilyn Taylor has been involved in community development since 1972, initially working for the Community Development Foundation, as a long-term member of the Community Development Journal Board and most recently as a learning partner to Community Organisers.

Her written works include Public Policy in the Community (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and, with Alison Gilchrist, A Short Guide to Community Development (Policy Press, 2015). She is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Voluntary Action Research.