Waterford Harbour

Waterford Harbour
Cheekpoint village 1940's

Friday, 24 February 2012

Why is empowerment so hard?

 “Community work is concerned . or should be concerned – with empowerment. By empowerment I mean empowerment through consciousness raising to active analysis rather than keeping the people happy where they are, or finding ways to keep them happy where they are. I think empowerment, rather than .capacity building., is particularly important at the moment. Don’t fool yourself, they are not the same. Capacity building is about stretching the elastic as far as it can go. Consciousness raising is about kicking the ball out into the next field and getting out yourself as well after it”

 Stasia Crickley: Head of Applied Social Studies,NUI Maynooth

 I’ve been stretching the elastic I feel.  This is what we have been given, now how can we make it work.  In work, structures, funding, deadlines, communication difficulties etc all combine to make thinking creatively or radically difficult.  Time for reflection, criticism, clarifying purpose or direction is limited.  Yet to be an agent of empowerment of oneself or a resource of others is what I set out on this life path for. 

 Even in my own community I struggle.  Work time, personal time, family time, educational time for the children, crisis time with family, voluntary work, relationship time.  Where to make the time?  How to create the space? Where to find the courage?

 Although I have practiced and experienced both capacity building and empowerment in my life and work, I know that empowerment leads to lasting change. But it’s the most difficult, to experience or to support.  It comes at a price. 

For me it can be broken down into two particular areas conscientisation and participation. 

 Conscientisation is the term used by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.  Through it local communities become aware of the impacts on them.  Via his action/reflection cycle community participants:

  • Think about their problem
  • Plan what steps to take
  • Act on their plan
  • Reflect on the outcomes and think and plan the next steps.
Participation is the other key element to empowerment.  Bakers ladder of participation defines the difference between what he terms on the lowest rung of the ladder pseudo participation, to the top which he calls community participation.   Information provision is what he determines as pseudo participation.  In this information is centrally decided on what is relevant, centrally generated and then dispersed with little or no mechanism for active feedback.

The next rung is community consultation.  Here the information is circulated in a controlling manner, the community or participants are asked for their opinion but have no real control on how their feedback is used.

The third rung is community representation.  Here members of the community get to sit on the respective decision making bodies and have a say. There are numerous issues with this representation from deficits in resources, capacity, skills, experience and the access to power brokers.

Finally community participation. This builds on the previous three rungs but here the local community is centrally involved in the decisions and are there for the implementation and evaluation of such decisions also. 

Empowerment for me is about both these elements working with people where they are at, reducing or removing the barriers to a minimum and essentially actioning the issues most relevant to a community as defined by the community.  But it comes at a cost.  Time. Commitment.  Energy.  Gradual change which flies in the face of many people’s yearning for instant results.  Ultimately it challenges the existing power holders in a community or society.  Who wants to lose control?  It’s a scary place for anyone.  Thus effective empowerment is a struggle, a hard slog, potentially frightening and difficult to deliver.   


Saturday, 18 February 2012

Whats equality?

Equality is seen as a fundamental right in a liberal economy such as Irelands. Equality of opportunity allows that all may have equal access to the opportunities to get on in life whatever their station, to get on and achieve. A term synonymous with equality of opportunity is the “trickle down effect”.

This economic notion (I think it was the Chicago School of Economics, as favoured by Reaganomics and Thatcher ism) that increasing economic opportunity and money in a society is dispersed throughout the economy and that everyone will feel the benefit. In Ireland it was described by such political luminaries as Bertram Ahern and Charles McCreevy as the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Community workers had, in my circle at least, long held the belief that the rising tide certainly doesn’t lift all boats and that the trickle down effect had little or no benefits at all for those on the margins of society. That the boats that even did rise, caught a different wave to our political and business elites, and are now left in negative equity, broke, redundant, or run ragged by hawkish banks. Equality of opportunity obviously has different rules according to status!

The notion that equality of opportunity, or participation for that matter, has any benefit, is laughable surely, if you lack the resources to participate. For example what is the point in a course being organised if you haven’t the transport to access it. Where is the sense of inviting citizens to a meeting, if the time don't suit, if the venue is inaccessible to a wheelchair. How can the illiterate read a poster. What if you can't afford the price?

According to Kathleen Lynch of University College Dublin's Equality Dept “Substantive equality depends not simply on having the formal right to participate but on having the actual ability and resources to exercise that right…”

Speaking at the Community Workers Conference some years back in Kilkenny, Lynch defined fours core equality issues in Irish society- economic, political, socio-cultural and affective. She stated that “The perpetuation of inequality would not be so politically acceptable however, without a legitimating ideology, a set of ideas that continues to justify current practice and make it seem plausible...the legitimating ideology of Irish education policy is that of neo-liberalism. The focus has been on equalising opportunities rather than equalising resources. Consequently, what has been achieved in education is a minimalist type of equality of access, but not equality of participation, and certainly not equality of outcome. At best, the goal has been to increase the proportionate representation of marginalised groups in the more privileged areas of education.”

For Lynch then the inequalities inherent in the Irish political system are so embedded that the only recourse is for equality of outcome or success. By this she means that all groups within a society marginalised or not would have “…equality between these groups in terms of access to, and the distribution of, educational, economic, cultural, political and other benefits.”

I realise that people laughed at these notions during the boom times in Ireland, but perhaps now their would be some greater insight and appreciation. There are certainly plenty of examples as to where the system has failed and continues to fail.

As a local community how is equality of outcome to be achieved. How could we ensure that all benefit equally, bearing in mind that many are starting with more than others. Is it easier if we look at it in terms of what as individuals we need. Some require jobs, some require esteem, some require friendship, some may just want to give something back.

Does it start then with trying to understand and appreciate what are each persons personal needs. Or is it something more collective, a statement perhaps. As a community we aspire to..., as a community we want... we will have succeeded when we have...

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Who cares what the locals think

How do we begin to move a community towards sustainability? What role can locals play in shaping their own futures? Surely the lead role. Surely the vast majority of control. Surely their voice, words and actions are preeminent. Local solutions to locally defined problems, in words that are locally not just understood, but acted upon.

But how well do we understand the issues. How prominent are issues of global warming, peak oil, sustainable agriculture and fishing or food miles etc. As individuals perhaps, but a collective perspective?

What are the benefits to reaching outside, harvesting the expertise of others, whether resources, concepts or skills. Experts. I’ve noticed a willingness of others to place their trust in the expertise of officials, guru’s, paid workers or lofty titled individuals, even over their own common sense.

I remember a discussion some time back about the founding “fathers” of sociology. Comte, Durkenhiem, Marx and Weber were the four mentioned. All these Men! contributed to the present understanding of what sociology is. Their ideas and concepts are the foundations that we use to understand modern society. I could see the relevance of their ideas and the need to understand them but I kept returning to a point in my head that its not just the theory that is important but equally relevant is how it is used (or abused) thereafter.

Even a working class man creating theories and/or developing methods of working to allow for social change can only control what is developed in as far as they have some power over it. The reality is that these methods will almost certainly be employed by others for their purposes.

People from different social class - experiences, values, expectations, would use and interpret any sociological research method in relation to their own experiences. They have this notion of being neutral or that they can stand aside from the research but can they?

Ok so apparently this is where research ethics comes charging in to the rescue. The idea being that you put it all out there on the page, where you are coming from, opinions, limits, expectations etc so that the reader can make a considered opinion on your perspective and thus be in a greater position to interpret your research. I have real issues with this though. I mean we can claim anything, pretend to be as honest as we like, but we all carry baggage, issues we are not even aware of, prejudices that we have been reared with. These just don’t get swept aside with an ability to write down a statement of ethics. These emotions /feelings so inherent within these prejudices can take years of working through.

I like the idea though that researchers can be active participants in the project and that they can be promoters and encouragers of solutions. But I have a hang up about say an American coming to Ireland and living amongst a community for a few years and defining the communities problems. I have problems about my own ability to do this elsewhere.

If people want to seriously do social or community research then why not enable local communities to do it themselves, interpret it themselves and define their own solutions, put them into practice and evaluate the outcomes, redefining solutions in light of achievements and difficulties.

Local research of locally defined problems generating local solutions.

I like this notion. I like it for my own concept of what effective community research could be and do. Outsiders do have a role. I acknowledge the ability, experience and knowledge of outside expertise. I can see the need for technical advice, possibly funding, certainly the need to sell outcomes that would require county council approval, govt departments buy in etc. But this outside influence should not create a dependant relationship. It should be at least equal, mutually respectful and recognise the strengths and abilities on both sides. At best it should be firmly rooted in the community being researched and controlled therein too.

Wonderful weeds



What can weeds tell us about community?

My Nan was a wonderful gardener.  She would spend her days bent over picking, thinning, admiring and chatting away to her flowers, shrubs and veg.  She would curse the weeds.  Ripping them out of the ground or later when arthritis had taken over her hips whack them back with her “sticks”.

She never used weed killers.  Frowned on them.  I never remember asking her why, so I don’t know if she had concerns about damaging the earth, its water sources, or bugs and such.  As a child I was just aware that she just didn’t appear to like them.  Much later when I took over her garden, I discovered I had much to learn from her practice and from books.  The notion of a weed being a flower in the wrong place.  The importance to butterflies of having nettles around. The role that dandelions played in herbal medicine.  The fun of learning their names and their uses. 

Why was it that I could find this information relevant and worthwhile, when others merrily sprayed and poured poisons with a gay and wilful abandon?  What creates the openness in some and blocks another.   How does this translate into living communities of people?

Who in community are the weeds and pests we want rid of.  In this country we have a proud tradition of sending away – Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, mental hospitals.  We send people to prison rather than try to understand their issues.  That the largest prison in the state is peopled with men from a handful of working class neighbourhoods in Dublin is so obviously an indicator of a social/housing issue as to be practically obvious.  But we prefer to look for other reasons?  Or do we think this deeply at all?

Recently I had the occasion to speak with a child psychologist about a particular child.  She has been troubled, going through a difficult time.  He listened more than spoke.  Exceptional ability kept coming up as a potential area of exploration.  I was confused for isn’t this rare.  Not to him, of the hundreds of children he sees most are just that – exceptional, gifted, and bright.  So bright that they can process a situation and react in the time that their parents/guardians/key workers  take to get the opening lines of their thinking out of their mouths.

These children are powerless however.  They live in an adult controlled world.  Their giftedness therefore becomes a curse. Because even though they need adult support, the assistance they most regularly receive is to be told, ordered, and quietened.  They get labelled as difficult or troubled.  They get medicated.  I know these techniques in other areas of my life.  Paulo Freire called it the banking method of education.  Kathleen Lynch of UCD’s equality Studies dept calls it the deficit model of education.  In community work we call it disempowerment.  In gardening terms, I guess we call it control!

Nils Christie, a Norwegian academic, has opined that to be part of any community is a privilege.  Now that’s a very different perspective.  An example from his writing, which spoke to me on many levels, was that even a criminal in a community, is more than just a criminal, he has a history, a past, present and hopefully a future.  Community suggests caring, suggests interest in, suggests guidance.  A person may do wrong, may go wayward, may slip, may just be plain fed up with us all, but they are still part of us. 

It is perhaps easier to dismiss and to label such a person when they are not from among us.  A criminal is to be mistrusted, shunned, not given a chance.  But when we know a criminal, when we know the story, when we remember him as a boy, remember what he has endured, he becomes more than just an action.  He has an identity, a name and a place in our reality, a context.

Being in the midst of those who make us uncomfortable, who we disagree with, who we mistrust, and who perhaps we don’t think we want or need, is part of living in a community.  They don’t have to be criminals; they can be the person next door, the priest, teacher, and our family.  We are forced on some level to come to terms with such people.  We cannot escape.  We pass them on the road, queue with them at the shop, and maybe pray with them at church.  This facing of, this coming to terms with, this acceptance at some level is good for us.   

I f my garden can tell me anything about my community, it’s that everyone needs to be respected and to have a voice.  Each person has a part of the solution in them.  It’s only by creating the space for this piece of solution to be offered, that a person can take a next step.

Just like our garden, maybe I need to try creating spaces that are less controlled, managed or planned.