Cormac Russell, Managing director of Nurture Development, discusses Sustainable Community Development: From What’s Wrong To What’s Strong at TEDxExeter Conference (Transcript)
Cormac Russell – Managing director of Nurture Development
Thank you. The question: Can I help you? is a question that millions of people ask millions of other people every single day. What does that actually mean to help another human, or indeed, to help an entire community? I believe that helping is a powerful and often beautiful human impulse. But I also believe that helping has a shadow side, that certain styles or forms of helping are actually doing more harm than good.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Harvard academic, puts beautifully when she says that when we do change to people, they experience it as violence, but when people do change for themselves, they experience it as liberation.
Today I want to present a very simple idea, and the idea is this: If we want to help people in a way that does no harm to them and their capacities in their communities, then the best place to start is with what is strong within them and within their communities, and not with what’s wrong.
There is an abundance of evidence that calls us to this way of helping, including the 75-year study on what makes happiness possible, the longitudinal study from Harvard which reminds us that it’s best to lean into our relationships and to create community rather than lean into ourselves and money. And the work of the Kettering Foundation which studies what happens when democracies work as they should and indeed here in the UK, the work of the new economic foundation which has helped us to see the five ways to well-being.
Still despite the fact that thousands and thousands of pieces of evidence call us to the idea that we should start with the capacities and the abilities in people and in communities, we see this great preponderance in governmental and non-governmental programs alike around the focus and the obsession with the starting on what is wrong, what is broken, what is pathological within people.
Sadly, that focus has caused a huge harm to millions of people around the world, especially poor people and especially communities. And it has created four harms, unintended as they may be in particular, the first of which is it actually takes people who are trying to help and it defines them not by their gifts and their capacities and what they can bring to the solution but by their deficiencies and their problems.
The second unintended consequence of this top-down obsession with what’s wrong is that money which is intended to go to those who need the help doesn’t, it actually goes to those who are paid to provide the services to those who need help.
The third unintended consequence is that active citizenship, the power to take action and to respond at the grassroots level retreats in the face of ever-increasing technocracy professionalism and expertise.
And finally, entire neighborhoods, entire communities that have been defined as deficient start to internalize that map and believe that the only way that anything is going to change for them is when some outside expert with the right program and the right money comes in to rescue them.
These are unintended harms. No caring professional wants these things to happen. But it’s also clear that no community needs these things to happen.
Fortunately, there’s another way of thinking about helping. We can begin to actually reflect on a form of helping which starts with a focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong, and literally turns our traditional ideas of helping inside out. John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, two professors at Northwestern University in the late eighties brought this idea into sharp focus when they spent over four years traveling almost like an odyssey across 300 neighborhoods in North America, some 20 cities.
And as they went into these neighborhoods which were largely known by others as backwaters of pathology, known by the sum of their problems, John and Jody started a different conversation. They invited people to tell them stories about how change happens from their point of view. They invited people to share stories about a time that they and their neighbors came together to make things better. And the stories they shared — some 3000 stories in all across that four years. Well they brought a focus, they brought a way of seeing what actually is used by citizens and by people in neighborhoods to create change. They helped us to see the raw ingredients that people use to make change happen from inside out.
These are the six building blocks that those communities said are the building blocks that make change happen when it’s sustainable and it’s endurable and it respects the assets that exist already in communities. Over the last 30 years, we’ve traveled across the world and from communities in Tallahassee in the USA to Torbay in the UK, we have heard the exact same report from the mouths of indigenous communities, people telling us that these are the assets that must be identified, connected and mobilized if we’re going to see real change happen in our world.
Imagine, what would happen? If our traditional ways of helping people were flipped, if instead of focusing on what was wrong with individuals and indeed with entire communities, we started with a focus on what’s wrong, and then we figured out how to negotiate a new relationship, a more respectful relationship. I think what would happen is that we would see transformation in a way that we could never have imagined.