Community Development > Communities and Social Action

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This chapter describes community-based adult education as a social practice which seeks to address inequalities linked to class, gender and race oppression. Adult education is firmly rooted in traditions of social justice, and the work of community-based adult educators needs to be resourced, celebrated and prioritised as a matter of urgency. It is argued that the community-based adult learning that takes place in community settings is different to other forms of adult education which focus on fixed programmes of learning that are institutionally determined. Through case studies the impact of adult education around the world and in different settings is explored. The ideas of key theorists, such as Paulo Friere and Jack Mezirow, are presented alongside more contemporary thinking about adult education, such as that of Bagnall and Hodge.

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This chapter opens with a practitioner quote emphasising that arts approaches can open doors for people in a transformative way. The authors follow this thread through and build on it with strong images of change for individuals and communities and references to creative and arts-focused interventions. We reflect on activism in communities, stimulated through arts engagement, make the links between community development and culture, arts and health improvement, and harness important writing through our references. Building relationships is highlighted as essential to community work practice in general and is raised in the context of this chapter along with potential challenges of funding and policy realities in the world of community arts. Our case studies reflect international experiences and frequently reference empowerment leading to social change.

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Engagement is at the heart of what the community worker does. It is about working with communities, particularly those most marginalised, to find out what matters to them and then looking to work together to take action. This chapter follows the various stages of engagement from planning, to carrying it out, to making sure that it matters. Although it has a strong practical focus it argues that effective engagement requires a reflection on theory, particularly around power, voice and the valuing of knowledge. Too often, engagement can be tokenistic and part of a hegemonic process in which we consent to our own powerlessness. Community work needs to critically interrogate this process, bearing in mind inclusion, voice and multiple forms of knowledge.

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This chapter focuses on only two approaches to research in the community. These are narrative inquiry and action research, the latter including participatory action research (PAR). These have been selected as they are considered by the authors to be of most use to practitioners, as they are both consistent with the values of community work. Also, in the case of action research, it has a developmental and change focus as well as one of inquiry. People are storytellers by nature, we suggest. Stories provide coherence and continuity to an individual’s experience and have a central role in our communication with others; stories assist us to explore and understand the inner world of the individual and his or her identity. Narrative inquiry looks at the past (the story); the present (how it is framed now) and the future (what this means for future identity and behaviour). It is not the same as interviewing people; rather, it sees people as individual case studies of self-narrative. We know or discover ourselves and reveal ourselves to others by the stories we tell.

Action research is about collaborative and democratic practices, which make it political. It is also about change to the status quo, which is why we propose that it is so relevant to community work. PAR is not just doing research projects as a practitioner. It is more a philosophical stance that enables people to question and improve taken-for-granted ways of thinking and doing.

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Theory into Practice

Written by community workers from diverse contexts, this highly accessible guide equips practitioners and students working in a range of community settings to make the best use of theory in their work. The book focuses on the hope, excitement and possibilities that contemporary theory brings to practice and is essential reading for all those concerned with social justice, inclusion and equality.

Drawing on voices from across the world, influential thinking, both old and new, is applied to the practice that underpins work with individuals, groups and communities. The book will inform and enhance practice for a wide range of students and professionals working in community contexts such as community development, adult education, youth work, community health and social work.

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Prominent throughout this book has been social justice and the need to challenge neoliberalism. One takeaway thought is that we all need to be political. Being political is not easy and we do a disservice to our communities if we do not engage with theory and make the links. To support this work, we need community workers who are brave and politically engaged themselves. This is a profession that asks a lot of us. Our work is about identifying needs, co-designing programmes of learning, reducing barriers and addressing power imbalances. To understand why what we do matters, as community workers we need empathy, something which arguably cannot be taught. The work we do is complex and we are frequently asked to step outside our comfort zone and engage across differences. The work we do is demanding as we seek to engage with communities at times and in places that reduce the barriers for them; can be heart-breaking as we see the discrimination faced by the communities we serve and the trauma that they carry with them; it is sometimes risky and we often find ourselves working against the desired outcome of our employer or funder. But the work we do is rewarding and life changing for the communities we serve and for us as workers.

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Digital technology can exacerbate issues related to poverty and exclusion, but can also be a force for good, helping others overcome other barriers. This chapter argues that community workers can use digital tools to expand their reach and support communities to address the barriers to their full participation. It asserts that people are key to digital transformation and that community workers have a duty to help communities become digitally empowered and active digital citizens to address social exclusion and promote digital well-being. To do this community workers must have the skills and knowledge to train and proactively use digital media and technology. Diverse case studies are presented alongside contemporary theory and ideas about digital pedagogy, digital empowerment, digital transformation and connectivism.

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Employability covers work in communities and other educational settings to help individuals to move into jobs and other meaningful occupations. This chapter argues that neoliberal ideas about meritocracy, which suggest that individuals have the power to change their circumstances through hard work, training and employment, fail to acknowledge systematic and structural inequality. Increasingly, community workers find themselves working in employability contexts and in ways which are contradictory to the values with which, as practitioners, they identify. The chapter uses case studies and interviews with practitioners to explore how the sector is grappling with these challenges. The chapter suggests that the employability work in which community workers engage must seek to address the many barriers that communities face in securing employment. A more holistic, ethical practice linked to broader ideas about human flourishing is presented through the capabilities approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum.

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The environment, with climate and biodiversity crises, has to now be a major emerging focus for community work practice. Theory is needed, however, to structure this focus. This chapter explores the links between environmental and social justice. Environmental crises tend to affect disadvantaged communities more. Community voice is essential in any community response here, though the role of the community worker can be complicated by the varying interests involved, including local activists and activists from outside the community. In terms of theory, we also need to look at how extending our understanding of community to include the non-human can increase the reach of social justice. Discourses of the environment, like the climate emergency and the valuing of the natural, can be further ways of obfuscating and consolidating power.

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Community work is, at its core, about addressing inequalities to enable the full and meaningful participation of communities and individuals in any and all aspects of their lives. This chapter explores work with people with protected characteristics covered by national and international equality or human rights legislation. Such communities and individuals are often disadvantaged on many levels, and the chapter explores the duty of community workers to remove barriers and promote inclusion in all areas and at all stages of practice and community life. Relevant theory around human rights, feminism and privilege is explored and practitioners are challenged to explore their own unconscious bias to ensure equitable access and inclusive communities. The role of the community worker, it is suggested, is to break down barriers, help people to make connections across difference and challenge systems of injustice.

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