In the last few months I have seen how the tragedies faced by residents in Kensington and Manchester have highlighted the importance of community based working. Close knit communities are at the heart of a thriving society and it is communities working together that can elicit vital social change. If you are lucky enough to spend some time in Europe, the States or Scotland you will see a concept called Community Development thinking and practice (CDTP) thriving, but here in the UK it is conspicuous by its absence.
CDTP applies a grass-roots principle whereby individuals listen to each other, work as an integral member of the group and avoid over-formal leadership. Sounds obvious yes? Despite applying a simple, effective principle and being an invisible glue that binds people together to enable people to work together in an effective and more helpful fashion, it is a concept that seems to have disappeared without trace.
In a wonderful recent article in the Guardian, PC Kevin Holland explained how crime spans can be reversed through imaginative thinking from a youth club on the Aylesbury estate. While the officer has probably never heard of CDTP he was explaining the principles in exactly the same way by listening to young people, avoiding over-formal leadership and working as part of the group. We can all learn these concepts in a day but, in my view, it takes a life-time to learn how to skilfully embrace them.
Social change is also dependent on pro-active and complex networking – understanding issues form a range of angles and this is soundly illustrated by The Society Pages which cover a range of sociological, historical and psychological issues. Look at how social care was so badly handled during the recent election. With layers upon layers of social administration and policy it is an incredibly complex system which has yielded so much confusion for the general public- how can we really comprehend some individuals being means tested and paying large sums for their social care while others sit in other care homes with everything paid for them? Social care and the NHS are fundamentally the same when it comes to community practice but the vast structural differences leads us to completely misunderstand any possible reforms.
Networking and mutual understanding is, however, something considerably lacking in the third sector. Thousands of diverse groups ranging from charities, community interests companies through to NGO’s and housing and building societies all too often fail to identify the middle ground and work together. This having been said, imaginative community social work practice is increasing, stimulated from as far away as New Zealand where Family Group Conference approaches are transforming theory and practice. The principle behind this is co-operative working where relatives, friends, neighbours helped by a more flexible and creative agency can largely resolve their own problems. You might notice that the principle here is the same as CDTP – working together as group rather than a top-down approach. Something that works not just on the ground with individuals, but can be scaled up to organisational level to address, major issues such as that of social care.
Hopefully, a more radical approach to social care emphasises that learning street-wise skills has the potential to move us all on. But only if we can radically turn social problems on their head and work constructively from a more inter-disciplinary and community-based direction. There may even be some space left over for us ‘invisibilised oldies’, many of us who now find ourselves living alone and who, through also learning to cope with attendant problems of loneliness and isolation, are still seeking to make a valued contribution to the common good through their life, trade and experience.