I met up again with Justin Foxton, founder of The Peace Agency, a month or so ago.

Contrary to the intensity of our first encounter – a workshop at the Ilembe Chamber of Commerce on racism, freedom of expression and the state of our democracy – a weekend away with friends and family in the untamed African bush of northern Zululand provided the perfect setting to explore our respective angles on community development. 

Justin recently set out some of these thoughts in his column in Independent Newspaper’s The Mercury. Our thinking was that they need urgent consideration for anyone working in or near communities: 

One of the aspects of the work I (Justin) do would broadly be referred to as “community development” work. Typically, this involves going into peri-urban or even rural communities on behalf of neighbouring businesses or other concerned stakeholders and meeting traditional leaders, youth or women’s groups, trustees of local trusts, school governing bodies etc. to talk about their democratic rights and responsibilities, sustainable alternatives to violence, how to organise themselves into cohesive entities, or how to start a business.

Now, when I refer to “communities” in the context of community development work, I am talking about areas that are under-developed and experience high levels of unemployment and poverty and the resultant ills. They often border developed and even affluent areas that attract large investment into local business. The general picture? A booming, productive, haven of economic vibrancy on one side of the street and a desolate, poverty-wracked haven of social ill on the other. The obvious – but unfortunate – effect of this picture is that the word “community” becomes a euphemism for lack and deficit. Of course, communities often take on this negative identity and live into it as a means of survival. This creates an unhealthy cycle in which a protest is followed by business, government, NGO’s etc. swooping in to save the day and quieten everyone down. Until next time.   

So this perception of communities as lacking leads us to a “fix them up” approach to community development. But we must acknowledge that – given the escalation of community tension and violent flare ups in our country – how we define communities and how we work with them, needs a radical rethink. The general approach is not working because it is premised on several “us” and “them” assumptions.

For anyone who has worked in the types of communities referred to here, you will know just how dangerous these assumptions can be.  This is because they can lead to us parachuting solutions into communities. These are usually “our side of the street” solutions to “our side of the street” problems. This leads to community anger because the benevolence is perceived as arrogant and self-serving – often rightly so. I must confess that I have learnt this lesson the hard way. Along with my colleagues some of our best intentions have resulted in death threats, being held hostage, damage to property including arson, theft and hijacking. You get this work wrong at your peril!

Justin offers an alternative construct, based on an approach to community development advocated by Peter Block in his book Community – The Structure of Belonging. Central to this approach is engagement; engagement that builds communities that are accountable and take ownership of their own destiny. This is the key ingredient that we have largely been missing when it comes to the building of community economies. To whet your appetite, here are a few of the steps that create this level of engagement:

Dialogue is key

Block suggests that all transformation, including a community’s economic prosperity, occurs through language. Engagement through dialogue allows community assets to rise and gifts to be offered freely. This causes a shift from community problems to community possibilities. Potential is unlocked as we listen to what people are saying, respond to their input and become prepared to change our plans and prioritise new possibilities, projects and activities.

Think small

Deep and effective engagement is an ongoing process that leads ultimately to transformation. Its building block is small group conversations that do not in themselves aim to provide solutions but rather focus on listening and asking the right questions. This allows community members to be heard and respected and to arrive at their own answers to their own problems. Block suggests that inviting people into a room and dividing them into facilitated conversation groups of 5–8 people is the basis of the transformation process and the container for the experience of belonging.

Take time

A community self-focus, where social and cultural nuances are not ignored or undervalued, is an important angle from which to explore community assets and possibilities. As Justin acknowledges, this approach takes time but the investment will pay off in the long run as communities become self-reliant and productive.

Have the ownership conversation

Communities won’t energise their own economic well-being if they don’t progress from blame to ownership; ownership that stifles entitlement and dependency. Such community building workshops should begin with questions like: What have I/we done to contribute to the very thing I/we complain about or want to change? How has my community contributed or reached out to stimulate enterprise and job creation?

 The offering of gifts

Block maintains that communities must stop defining themselves by their lack and begin to focus on what they have to offer; their gifts; what is present and presented. Our job as community builders is to move the conversation away from deficit towards assets. He advocates that communities choose their destiny when they have the courage to acknowledge their own gifts and opt to offer these gifts to society at large. In the community economy context, how does a community use their gifts to stimulate enterprise and job creation, even in the smallest way? This question must challenge the view that the future of communities can only be improved with new laws and policies, more oversight and stronger leadership.

Finally, Justin and Cobus will be hosting a dialogue session around this approach to community development. Please contact us if you would like to be a part of that conversation. 

justin@peaceagency.org.za or ceo@ilembechamber.co.za

By Cobus Oelofse – CEO Ilembe Chamber of Commerce