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What’s in a name? Exploring the language of community development

Responding to David Boyle’s essay and timeline on a history of community development, community consultant Steve Skinner explores ideas at the heart of resident-led initiatives and considers why their core values and language have such an important role in their success.

David Boyle’s timeline paints a vivid picture of many events and initiatives over the years that fall under the umbrella term ‘community development’. Having worked as a community practitioner for over 30 years, I’m keen to trace some of the different approaches to community development and consider how they might shape a future beyond COVID.

Defining a framework

David’s timeline begins in 1940 but I’m going to start in 2000, when an important framework for community development was published by the Scottish Community Development Centre, and for many practitioners, a landmark moment in defining a single approach to community development.

Originally called Achieving Better Community Development (A.B.C.D.), it was based around four key themes:

  • Building people – skills, confidence, abilities.
  • Developing organisations – so that community and voluntary groups are better organised and more successful.
  • Increasing participation – so that communities have real influence over decision-making.
  • Strengthening equality – where issues of exclusion and discrimination are addressed.

The emphasis placed on developing people, improving participation and strengthening equality was a clear commitment to enhancing community empowerment. This approach aimed to give people the tools to make change happen on their terms and the environment to help make it happen. A key element was enabling and cultivating change from the grassroots up, while ensuring the involvement of marginalised and excluded groups.

For me, it was these values and the language of empowerment that helped to define the core of community development, upon which the whole approach was underpinned.

The nuance of language

Community capacity building was another important approach to community development that originally arose in the 1980’s, defined as ‘activities, resources and support that strengthen the skills, abilities and confidence of people and groups to take effective action and leading roles in the development of communities’.

The emphasis was on developing the skills, knowledge and abilities needed by members of community groups, taking place through both individual learning and organisational change, and always participant led.

This concept of strong communities became widely used in the Blair years, although exactly it meant was rarely defined.

But there were aspects of community capacity building that faced criticism, including the idea that the community sector needs to ‘shape up’ in order to collaborate with local agencies and make change happen. Intriguingly, the term ‘building community strengths’, has garnered a more favourable response over the years for its emphasis on valuing the existing qualities and organisations that communities have, with a focus on developing and supporting these.

Today, we hear the idea of ‘strong’ or ‘resilient’ communities discussed all the time, and often identified as a priority – particularly in times of crisis. This concept became widely used in local government during the Blair years, with many councils setting up partnerships to build ‘strong and safe’ communities – although exactly what a ‘strong’ community meant was rarely defined!

Explore a history of community power

7 key features of strong communities

After years of informal consultation with communities and councils, I suggested in my book Building Strong Communities: Guidelines on Empowering the Grassroots that strong communities would embody of seven key features: active, organised, participative, resourceful, accepting, connected and fair.

Interestingly, some of these features have proven particularly important during the recent pandemic and I have experienced them in my work with community groups. Being connected has been a key feature of areas that have coped well during the COVID crisis. For example, I have seen the crucial role local links play in food distribution projects through my experience in supporting resident-led Big Local partnerships in Leeds and Salford.

In organised neighbourhoods, support and activities for local people have continued, often through creative approaches to online engagement.

Additionally, organised communities with well-established and confident networks of residents, have generally coped better during the pandemic than those without this infrastructure in place. In these neighbourhoods, support and activities for local people have continued, often through creative approaches to online engagement.

Participation in communities – neighbourhoods where people and groups contribute to decisions that affect their lives and have a real say in the issues that concern them – can enable local people to make a real difference where they live. Areas do vary a lot concerning levels of participation and whether the barriers to participation are engaged with and overcome. Other limitations involve the degree to which local residents hold genuine influence over decisions made by local agencies – as one community activist in Bradford put it: ‘We have a greater say about the cake, but the cake remains small!’

So what does a strong community really look like?

So, through describing and discussing a set of such features, are we closer to capturing the essence of what a strong community might look like? The true meaning of strong communities is continually evolving and shifting, but it’s possible that the pandemic will have helped crystallise what it takes to be a strong neighbourhood.

A further change over the years has been the growing interest in what is called asset-based community development – an approach that again starts by focusing on assets and strengths, rather than on needs and problems.  A key early publication in the U.S.A. on asset-based community development by Kretzmann and McKnight, describes it as a ‘community-building’ process, starting with community groups but also including ‘institutions’, such as schools, colleges, public services, housing associations and businesses. Connections between residents are a building block in this set of ideas and the emphasis is on self-help and a bottom-up, community-driven approach. Confusingly asset-based community development was also abbreviated as A.B.C.D.!

Establishing a framework based on core values and language is a crucial step in enabling resident-led change to happen.

So, approaches to and definitions of community development have varied over time. Does it matter if, through use of different language, community development appears to change its branding every few years? Well, I think it does. As David Boyle mentions at the start of his essay; ‘so little has been written on the history of this idea’ that it’s ‘hard to tell’ what community development really is. Establishing a framework based on core values and language is a crucial step in defining community development and enabling resident-led change to happen. It is also this framework that can, importantly, inform local and central government decision-makers and funding policies. In practice, as we move on from COVID, community development needs to be an empowering experience for all those involved.

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
Steve Skinner

Steve Skinner is a writer, trainer and community consultant working across the UK. His latest publication is Building Strong Communities – Guidelines on Empowering the Grassroots.