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A Networking Approach to Community Development

There is growing recognition in practice and policy of how networking contributes to the vitality and cohesion of community life and civil society. The Well-Connected Community provides theoretical insights and practical guidance for people working with and for communities.

This updated edition takes account of the changing political and economic context, including rising social inequalities and community tensions. It considers new approaches to well being, such as social prescribing and the use of social media for local and global organising. This model of community development explains and promotes networking as a skilled and strategic intervention and provides recommendations for good practice.

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Tomorrow’s communities need to be resilient and optimistic. Yet many of today’s most challenged communities are operating ‘at the edge’: socially, economically and geographically. In many ways, this puts them at a disadvantage – vulnerable and fragmented, as described in Chapter 1. Tomorrow’s communities must find ways to overcome these fringe ‘dis-benefits’, using internal resourcefulness and cross-cutting connections to become resilient and more integrated despite a manifestly uneven distribution of wealth, power and life chances. A decade of austerity cuts in public spending, coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent recession, has further exposed inequalities, leaving many feeling ‘left behind’ compared with others; just about surviving but certainly not thriving (Baldwin et al, 2020). Left-behind areas are characterised by Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion as having ‘high levels of need, multiple deprivation and socio-economic challenges’, along with ‘poor community and civic infrastructure, relative isolation and low levels of participation’ (OCSI, 2019).

Recent research discovered that areas of particular ‘community need’ tend to be located around the coast, on the peripheries of more prosperous cities and out-of-town estates (OCSI, 2019). While the study distinguishes between deprivation and lack of collective assets, there is clearly an issue arising from poor connectivity and reduced access to public services or fast broadband, causing poor health and shrunken life opportunities, especially for urban dwellers without secure jobs or living in rented accommodation. Many are also vulnerable to energy poverty, unpredictable weather conditions and severe flooding.

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You have to go by instinct and you have to be brave.

Whitney Otto, How to Make an American Quilt, 1990

There are a range of approaches or models of community development practice. While being susceptible to changing political and economic contexts, they are by no means mutually exclusive and all have featured at least for a time in UK practice, as well as being applied in different circumstances internationally.

As much as laying out a set of methods, community development has consistently emphasised its values and principles. Practitioner-led organisations have argued that these commitments are vital aspects of shared definitions and expected standards. In recent years, though, programmes have tended to specify outputs and broader outcomes, only some of which (such as increased confidence and community capacity) might suggest the adoption of community development processes.

The models described in the previous chapter incorporate various processes, skills and outcomes that are involved in community development. In order to distinguish this from community activism or voluntary work, it is useful to think about the role that the paid community worker plays in:

  • enabling people to become involved by removing practical and political barriers to their participation;

  • encouraging individuals to contribute to activities and decision making, and to keep going when things get difficult;

  • empowering others by increasing their confidence and ability to influence decisions and take responsibility for their own actions;

  • engaging with groups and organisations to increase community involvement in partnerships and other forms of public decision making;

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There is no greater service than to help a community to liberate itself.

Nelson Mandela, 2003

If society needs ‘community’, and community doesn’t necessarily just happen, what is needed to help bring it about? How does community work support networks and promote greater connectivity? Chapter 3 provides an overview of community development. It traces the history of community development as a form of funded or external intervention over the past century and up to the present day. The role of community workers in supporting networks is highlighted briefly, in preparation for a more detailed consideration in the following chapters.

This book generally views community development as a professional occupation, a paid role with established values and skills, and associated responsibilities to achieve certain outcomes. I fully acknowledge that many factors contribute to the development of communities, most importantly the time, energy and expertise of local community members themselves, as well as resources, technical expertise and activities offered by partner organisations. Many communities function well without professional inputs, although all can benefit from even small amounts of support, for example advice, facilitation, mediation and reflection.

Community development in the UK has tended to emphasise a generic approach to strengthening community capacity and tackling broader issues around equality and social justice (Gilchrist and Taylor, 2016). Processes and principles are regarded as paramount and this is reflected through an emphasis on working with, rather than for or on behalf of, people. In this book, the term ‘community development’ is used broadly, encompassing a number of approaches to working with communities, and these different models will be explored further in this chapter.

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To understand is, as ever, to put choice in place of chance.

Charles Handy, Understanding voluntary organisations, 1988, p 113

Networking involves the creation, maintenance and use of links and relationships between individuals and/or organisations. Networking itself is a neutral tool: it can be used for a variety of purposes – selfish, political, altruistic – or simply to get things done. Networking for community development is obviously influenced by key values around equality, empowerment and participation. It may also seem a popular, albeit mildly manipulative, means of gaining personal and political advancement.

The evidence used in this and the following chapters was mainly gathered from my doctoral research, which included a case study of the coordination of the Bristol Festival Against Racism (Gilchrist, 1994) and a Panel Study involving 11 community workers. Over a two-year period in the later 1990s they were asked about their involvement in networks and encouraged to reflect on their own experience. In particular, the enquiry aimed to unpack the principles and processes of networking to examine how this contributed to their work and what made them ‘good’ networkers. The initials after each quote refer to the panellists, all of whom were happy to have their identity revealed in the acknowledgements. (For details of research methodology, see Gilchrist, 2001.) This evidence is supplemented in this edition with observations and insights from my own practice and more recent research in this field, notably projects investigating the habits, profiles and practices of ‘change-makers’ (Social Change Project, 2018) and smart urban intermediaries (Durose et al, 2016; www.smart-urban-intermediaries.com).

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One must have chaos inside oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus spake Zarathustra, 1878, p 9

Networking can be used to develop the well-connected community, but why are networks such a ubiquitous and useful aspect of community life? We have seen that networks are especially effective modes of organisation in managing change in complex situations. Community networks are based on relationships, not simply connections, which are sustained through interactions and reciprocal exchanges between individuals. The personal, emotional dimensions are important. So are flexibility and informality. Networking is a holistic process, involving a strategic interweaving of knowledge, skills and values. It is a vital aspect of community development, as well as supporting multi-agency partnerships and alliances. This chapter uses complexity theory to present a model of interactive networks creating the conditions for the evolution of new and adaptive forms of organisation.

Networks serve an important function in society, as we saw in Chapter 1, and patterns of interaction and connection are strongly related to what is generally understood by the term ‘community’. Thriving communities are characterised by informal interactions across many-tiered and multifaceted connections in a mobile, often delicate lattice of diverse relationships and serendipitous encounters. This has important implications for community development as an intervention for managing social complexity and strengthening the web of interpersonal connections. The idea of ‘community’ continues to reflect core values associated with a socially just and sustainable civil society, namely respect, equality, mutuality, diversity and, more recently, cohesion. Why does the desire for ‘community’ persist and seem so prevalent across all societies (Somerville, 2016)? How does networking contribute to the development and survival of a well-functioning ‘community’, equipped with the capacity for organizing collective responses to shared problems?

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In life, the issue is not control, but dynamic inter-connectedness.

Erich Jantsch, The self-organizing universe, 1980, p 196

Interpersonal relationships within communities and between organisations need to be given greater significance to ensure that they are developed and maintained in ways that contribute to overarching outcomes such as collective resilience, social justice, cohesion and sustainability. Networking clearly involves both common courtesy and good communication. It is about maintaining a web of relationships that can support a useful and empowering flow of information and influence. This chapter will examine how community workers facilitate the networking of others, whether colleagues, partners, policy makers or members of the communities they work with. It looks at what community workers actually do to establish and maintain connections that are useful to themselves and others, what aptitudes are required and what strategies are deployed in a networking approach to community development and how these might be improved. There will be particular emphasis on the creation and use of links that span organisational and community boundaries in order to promote partnership working, release social capital and foster community cohesion. The idea of meta-networking is introduced, looking at the role of community workers in devising opportunities for people to meet and work together.

Community development often feels somewhat nebulous, fostering collective capacity and stimulating social action from unpromising beginnings. Good networking practice requires both planning and proficiency; it can fairly be described as work. It supports community organising and sustains mutual cooperation, especially during periods of dispute and demoralisation. Many of the difficulties and frustrations faced by community workers derive from their position on the edges of organisations.

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Where do we go from here? Chaos or community?

Martin Luther King, title of book published 1968

Community development is not a straightforward, linear process; change can happen suddenly and unevenly through shifts in consciousness or an influx of resources. Serendipitous encounters can lead to rapid alterations of course, with new connections being made, catalysing conversations, and the discovery of possibilities which did not seem to exist before. Informal networking complements formal liaison mechanisms by creating the conditions that support effective coordination across boundaries. The connections themselves appear to provide a foundation for collective and individual empowerment. Sound working relationships are vital for joint action and collaboration. They create a collective power base that enables individuals and groups in communities to influence the decisions of more powerful bodies. This emphasis on networking raises a number of questions concerning the position and function of the community worker and which have implications for policy and practice. This book has sought to demonstrate that networking should usually count as work, in the sense that it takes time, effort and practice, using a range of skills and strategies. When deployed for community development purposes, proactive interventions are needed, and so should be valued and supported. This chapter outlines a few key implications for this approach.

We have seen that internal connections and interactions are absolutely crucial to the functioning of vibrant and resourceful communities that support their members, show solidarity with others and are able to deal with differences and challenges as they arise. But, for communities to change things in order to improve their environment, services and opportunities, locally and in wider society, they need to be influential and to access resources.

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I refuse the prison of ‘I’ and choose the open spaces of ‘We’.

Toni Morrison, Mouth Full of Blood, 2019

Community brings many benefits to us as individuals and for society. This chapter looks at how community networks support collective arrangements that enable people to live and work together. It will also explore the negative aspects of community networks that can lead to stress, exclusion and corruption. Networks enable us to meet personal and social challenges, seize opportunities and deal with some of the problems facing communities in this increasingly global, yet fractured, world. Over the years, governments of all persuasions have sought to harness the power and knowledge to be found in communities, and the chapter considers how policy making has incorporated these functions to the advantage of both state and society.

Low-income communities, struggling with hardship and uncertainty, are often praised for their resilience, despite what Dobson (2018) calls ‘frenetic neglect’. But resilience doesn’t necessarily challenge social injustices; for those affected, it tends to be associated with communities ‘getting by’ and ‘just about managing’ (Hickman et al, 2014). The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) ‘liveable lives’ research revealed the patterns and traditions of often mundane, subtle and unnoticed ‘everyday help and support’ in three neighbourhoods of Glasgow (Anderson et al, 2015). There were a number of components to this arrangement, not least the levels of trust and solidarity. Residents felt that the city’s reputation for friendliness gave them a ‘licence’ to act in kind and generous ways, maintaining a ‘moral economy’ (Anderson et al, 2015, p 41) of mutual sociability involving favours, swaps and helping hands that enabled people to ‘stick together’ while valuing both privacy and reciprocity.

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When the stranger says: what is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle together because you love each other?

What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together

To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?

T.S. Eliot, Chorus from ‘The rock’, 1934

Despite its varied definitions and applications, community development is fundamentally about the development of ‘community’; but what do we mean by ‘community’? It makes sense to begin by examining what we know and understand about the concept. This book is based on a belief that the experience of community is generated by and manifest in the informal networks that exist between people, between groups and between organisations. Community provides a crucial dimension to our lives and is a persistent theme within policy making. Throughout history, people have lamented the decline or eclipse of community (Stein, 1960) and the associated weakening of local social ties.

The idea of community is generally regarded as a force for good: a means of survival and progress. Lack of community is considered a present-day ‘social evil’, confirming an apparent yearning for community spirit and mutuality (Duerden, 2018). A survey carried out in the UK indicated that the presence of strong community spirit came fourth in people’s wish list for what made an ideal place to live (Nextdoor, 2016). The majority in this sample also reported that they felt there had been a loss of ‘community belonging’, as compared with their grandparents’ generation, resulting in a sense of loneliness and vulnerability in the face of criminal or anti-social behaviour.

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