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

Cormac Russell at TEDxExeter

Cormac Russell, Managing director of Nurture Development, discusses Sustainable Community Development: From What’s Wrong To What’s Strong at TEDxExeter Conference…

Listen to the YouTube Video here: Sustainable community development – from what’s wrong to what’s strong by Cormac Russell at TEDxExeter


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.

Fortunately, it’s already happening. We’re doing some work and we’ve had the privilege of coming alongside some community builders in Leeds. Leeds is a city as you know in the UK and over the years we trained a number of community builders to the City Council but also in the neighborhood networks. In Leeds, one of the things they care deeply about is how older people can live well and age well close to home and also how they can ensure that those that are aging do not die with an experience of loneliness and feelings of uselessness.

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.

So let me just share one. This is a school where the community builder came alongside parents, people without any credentials, people who had huge self-doubt in their power to change anything but the community builder invited them to identify what they cared about enough to act upon and then invited them to take action on those issues. And they identified two things that they felt really needed to change, if their school and their village was to realize its potential.

The two issues that they took on: the first was the fact that there were street children each of their villages that were not connected to community, not connected to family and not connected to school, they didn’t gang press these kids into school. What they did was they came alongside them and they formed relationships with them and they found out from them what it would take for them to reconnect back into community life and back into school. And the kids said very clearly: we do not want to go to school and learn book.

School is boring. Hands up who thought school was boring? I certainly did. They did not want to go to school. What they wanted to learn was how they could connect with people who are interesting, people who knew how to make tables, people who knew how to fix engines, they wanted to connect with people who didn’t have any formal teacher training but who could teach them the skills that would allow them to have a life they wanted.

Today they’re in school but it’s not like any school that most of us have gone to. They are in a school that looks as much like an economic hub as it does a school. It’s a school that is focused not just on educating people but also giving people the skills they need for life.

The other challenge they had was supporting teachers who lived on meager salaries, to be able to live with dignity and pride and have a morale in teaching their children. What did they do? They sourced local produce and they created a supermarket in the school, so the teachers can use their salary to buy the food they need at reduced prices. These are ordinary people, uncredential people doing extraordinary things and we see this every single day when we start with a focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong.

Imagine what the world would look like, if we were able to take those stories and proliferate them and to look at the significance of the stories and see that the two things that mattered most was the grassroots action of citizens but also the help of community builders. In each story there was a community builder who was supporting the village and the individuals to identify what was strong within them and figuring out how to use what was strong to address what was wrong and make what was strong even stronger still.

Imagine the world, if everybody who was defined as the problem, secured the power to redefine the problem. Imagine how more inclusive, how more beautiful world we’d have, how more fruitful world we’d have. I believe that the solution to the most intractable problems that we face starts from the grassroots, from inside out and it starts with a belief of the fact that there is no two-tiered society where one group of people with all the problems are rescued by another group with all of the solutions. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’, there’s only us.

Lilla Watson, the great aboriginal elder educator and activist once said, ‘If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine and let us work together.’

So as we look to a brighter tomorrow, and as I conclude, let’s recognize the fact that we are the people we’ve been waiting for. We are sufficient on to the challenge and we are becoming a change we seek.

Thank you.