Home » Transcript: Cormac Russell on Sustainable Community Development: From What’s Wrong To What’s Strong at TEDxExeter

Transcript: Cormac Russell on Sustainable Community Development: From What’s Wrong To What’s Strong at TEDxExeter

One of the things that they have also come to understand is that there is no program and there is no service for loneliness. The only way that we can address loneliness is by building community, by building deep relationships and so traditional models which take older people and put them together with other older people in programs for older people will not be sufficient to end loneliness. Today, in Leeds, their focus is not on building a bridge between older vulnerable people and the center of their services but on building a bridge between older people and the center of community life.

Take Robin. Robin was in his mid-70s when he first came in contact with the community builder that we trained in Leeds. He had just lost his wife and he was experiencing all of the challenges and the traumas that you experience with bereavement. But the community builder that engaged with Robin didn’t just listen to those emotions, so she listened. She also asked Robin what his passions were, what he cared about enough to act upon, what made his eyes dancing his head. And what Robin said when she asked those questions was he was passionate about making walking sticks. That was his great passion taking branches from fallen trees and carving them into walking sticks. Today Robin is a leader of a group that he set up, made up of all age groups who are learning how to make walking sticks and sharing those walking sticks with people in the community.

The significance of the story is this: Robin is not a client in the service, Robin is a citizen at the center of his community. Using his gifts, along with the gifts of his neighbor, to make a better community and a more inclusive community. So often when we label people as vulnerable or as efficient or as problematic, what we actually do is we define them out of community and redefine them not as friend and as neighbor but as client in a service system. And I think that when we do that we take some of the soul away from the person, all in the name of helping them.

Sometimes we don’t just do that to individuals. In many communities around the world, we’ve actually done it to entire villages, in some cases, entire continents. We have to figure out a way of lifting those labels which obscure the gifts of communities, the resources, the capacities, the untapped reservoir of possibility and creativity and invention that exists in every single community, if only we could focus on what was strong within them so that they could use that strength to address what’s wrong.

Well, one of the places where we’re learning a lot about how to make those invisible resources more visible is in a place called [Werl], another place in the UK. One of our community builders has been working across the Werl to find the hidden treasures that exist in that community. And one of the people that we’ve discovered is Frank. Frank is a community artist who has such a driving passion for changing his community and for seeing the strength in every single individual. He believes that there is nobody whose gifts are not needed to create the kind of world that he believes is possible if we include everybody’s gift. Frank is an artist, so he sees things through the eyes of an artist and one of his passions is making sure that the environment looks as well as it possibly can in the Werl for those who live there and for those who visit.

New Brighton Beach is one of his recent projects and he was really disturbed by the fact that there was so much litter and detritus on the beach, he decided he wanted to mobilize. So he got his community involved. Now most people when they see litter, what they do is one of two things typically: either they organize a litter pick with volunteers or else they lobby the council to try and get them to do something about it. Well, Frank had a different idea. Frank’s idea was to create a pirate ship. This is the Black Pearl. The Black Pearl today stands as one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Werl but it’s also a beacon of civic engagement because Frank didn’t just build that border, that ship himself, he invited people, many people who felt exactly like the driftwood that was coming onto the shore forgotten and cast aside, he invited them to bring their gifts, to bring their gifts to creating this icon of impossibility, this tribute to the possibility that comes when you invite people from the grassroots to identify the solution in their own words and to create the solution with their own hands.

You know, everywhere I go, I find that when people create things themselves they own them in a way that you can never ever own that which has been created for you. The pirate ship has really affected a huge transformation in that community. Needless to say, New Brighton Beach is cleaner than it’s ever been but also thousands of other below the radar initiatives that we just don’t see are happening in the Werl because community builders are taking care to identify, connect and mobilize the assets that exist in every community. I’m so heartened to be able to report to you that all over the world this backyard revolution which is shifting the focus from what’s wrong with our people and our communities to what’s strong within our communities and how we can build that strength to create a better tomorrow is opening everywhere.

We spent the last six years in the UK really focusing in on how we could create demonstration sites across the UK, places that were living evidence of what happens when you take the theory and you put it into practice. I’m proud to say that May we’re going to be working with our partners, the Bank of IDEAS to do the exact same thing across Australia and there are many other countries where we’re seeing this backyard revolution come into reality.

Just a few weeks ago, I was very privileged to spend some time in Rwanda. I started my journey in Rwanda three and a half years ago training community builders in the Gasabo district of Kigali which is the capital of Rwanda and they have been working over the last three and a half years with 49 schools and 484 villages in Kigali. I’d love to share every single one of the stories because each of them touches a human emotion within us in a very very special way, but I don’t have time.

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