An introduction to strengths-based practice (a video lecture)

I teach a number of online courses (or subjects) at the University of Newcastle about working with communities and families in the Graduate Certificate of Family Studies and the Master of Family Studies. At the heart of my teaching is strengths-based practice and the above is an introductory lecture introducing students to some of the ideas we will explore over the semester.

In it I suggest 8 principles underpinning strengths-based practice:

  1. Recognise that individuals, families and communities have many strengths and the capacity to learn, grow and change
  2. Focus on strengths and aspirations
  3. Look for, and build on, the many resources that can be found in a wide range of social environments
  4. Take care with the language you use because it changes how we see people, situations and possibilities
  5. Collaborate and support self-determination
  6. Work in ways that promote empowerment
  7. See problems and challenges as the result of interactions between people rather than within people
  8. Keep a commitment to social justice

It isn’t a highly polished recording but hopefully it will be useful to some people. I’d love to hear what you think.

Here is the script for the video and at the end, there are some other posts that are related and a list of the references and photo credits.

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Reflections on the election

As you can tell from my last post, my 15-year old daughter is quite involved in the Student Strike 4 Climate movement and worked hard in the lead up to the election. On the day, she spent six hours at a polling booth trying to get people to think about climate change when they voted. My elder daughter also spent a couple of hours handing out how to vote cards.

Polls had consistently predicted a narrow win for Labor but, once again, the polls were wrong, and the conservative coalition (who have failed to take serious action on climate change) are back in power for another three years.

Besides the lack of strong leadership on climate change and some of the policy implications, one of the things that worries me most about the result is the message it gives the students who had worked so hard to make it a climate election. Alexa, and I’m sure many of the other students, felt they were actually making a difference. Whenever there was a story about climate change and the election, there was usually vision of the student strikers, and there was a sense they were really helping to raise awareness about the impact of climate change on future generations.

The election results, however, suggest that adults weren’t listening and that they really don’t care: other issues were seen as more important. For the young people (and others) who understand the potential impact of climate change on their future; this is very hard to comprehend.

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School Strike 4 Climate: Make it a #ClimateElection

Alexa holding a poster advertising the School Strike 4 Climate on 3 May 2019

We are facing a climate emergency. Through the School Strike 4 Climate, children and young people, who will pay the greatest price for climate change inaction, are finding their voice and demanding that politicians start showing leadership in responding to this global crisis.

Alexa (my 15 year old daughter) is helping to organise Newcastle’s action as part of the next Australian school strike on the first Friday of Term 2 (3 May). The students are calling for the national election, 15 days later, to become a #ClimateElection and demanding that our politicians think beyond the next election and consider the impact of their decisions on future generations.  

The last Student Strike saw around 150,000 people attend rallies around the country making it one of the largest, if not the largest, climate action in Australia. The student organisers are calling on everyone to come out and support them on Friday 3 May to make it even larger.

The student strikers may be too young to vote, but they are making themselves impossible to ignore and are ensuring climate change is kept in the spotlight as a major election issue.

The average age of the 2019 federal members of parliament is 52. In 50 years, most of them will be dead, but the consequences of their inaction on climate change over the last few election cycles will continue to impact the students of today.

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An interactive exercise exploring parenting styles

Parenting style compass

The Alternatives to Violence Project in Newcastle has been exploring workshops on nonviolence and conflict resolution with parents and partners. The following is an exercise Gener Lapina and I have developed (with input from Anne Hoffman) to explore four parenting styles:

  1. Authoritarian
  2. Permissive
  3. Uninvolved
  4. Active (often called Authoritative).

The styles are based on a combination of two dimensions: how responsive (or warm) parents are and how demanding and controlling (or strict) they are. For the workshops, we are using the dimensions of warmth (from very warm to harsh) and expectations (from having high expectations in regards to your children’s behaviour to having very low expectations).

Before the workshop, we prepared a large compass (using four sheets of flip chart) with the labels Warm and Harsh on the vertical axis, and Expectations on the horizontal compass(see above).

The process:

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Interested in postgraduate study in family studies?

The Family Action Centre at the University of Newcastle offers two online postgraduate programs in family studies:

You can do up to three subjects in each of three 12-week trimesters a year, and can start in any Trimester. (In 2019 Trimester 1 started on 4 February, Trimester 2 starts on 20 May, and Trimester 3 starts on 2 September.)

If you could be interested, we are offering an online, interactive information session on Wednesday 10th April, 2019 at 7.30pm, Newcastle time. (Click here for other times in Australia and around the world.) At the information session you will hear from Alan Hayes (the director of the Family Action Centre) and Jennifer St George (the program convenor), learn more about both programs, be able to ask questions, and hopefully be inspired to study with us!

You can book (so that you receive the link to the free Webinar) and found out more at

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My current projects (April 2019)

I’m employed as a lecturer at the Family Action Centre (FAC), University of Newcastle (Australia) which is a great place for somebody with my interests as the FAC incorporates teaching, research, and the delivery of family and community programs. (Before moving into a more academic role I was employed as a community worker supporting permanent residents of caravan parks.)

There is always something interesting going on. Here are some of the projects I’m currently involved in.


In 2013, the Family Action Centre introduced the first Australian postgraduate program in family studies (a Graduate Certificate of Family Studies and a Master of Family Studies) and we also offer a range of undergraduate subjects, focusing on family studies, in the Bachelor of Social Science and available as electives in other degrees.

This year I’m teaching three online subjects (all our teaching is done online to allow students from anywhere in Australia or even the World to study with us):

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Strengths-based measurement and collective impact

Sign - Changed Priorities Ahead
(Photo: Addison Berry )

Data driven approaches like collective impact often prioritise shared measurement and collecting data, particularly quantitative measures, and do not consider the impact of what questions they ask, how they collect data, and who is responsible for interpreting the data.

If we adopt a strengths-based approach to collective impact it is important that we think about strengths-based approaches to measurement. The questions we ask in collecting data and measuring impact, not only give strong messages about how we see the communities and people we work with, but they also actually shape how we see them.  

The questions we ask in trying to measure the impact of our work can send messages about how we see the community and, if we are not careful, they can help reinforce negative perceptions. Here I will consider the difference between two youth surveys used in collective impact initiatives (one which is clearly deficit-based and one which is more strengths-based) before discussing some other issues relating to a strengths-based approach to measuring impact.

A deficit-based survey

The first, a youth health survey, is a 114 question survey used as part of a collective impact initiative in the USA. Only 20 of the questions (18%) were positive, 16 (15%) were neutral and 78 (68%) were negative. Continue reading

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A strengths-based approach to collective impact

A word cloud based onstrengths-based collective impact. Other key words include change, power-with, people and community.
(Created with Wordle)

Collective impact is an approach to addressing complex social problems. As discussed in the previous post (Collective impact and community engagement), community engagement needs to be at the heart of collective impact, but the (sometimes subtle) message underlying too many initiatives is that the community is part of the problem. When initiatives take a top-down approach and do not involve the community from the start, they are implying that the community has little of value to offer.

Adopting a strengths-based approach to collective impact fundamentally changes the questions we ask and the way we relate to the people affected by the issues being addressed. Although the focus of collective impact is on creating change that will help address complex social problems, thus starting with the problem, it is still possible to be strengths-based. In addressing the issues involved, we can discover what is already working in the community, what their vision is for their community, what resources they can contribute to creating their vision, and who is passionate about helping to create change.

Dan Duncan 1, in discussing what collective impact can learn from asset-based community development, suggests that:

Professionals often believe that we have achieved community engagement when we ask people, “What do you need and how would you like it delivered?” Then we change our service model based on the input received. However, I believe we have the opportunity to make an even greater difference in our communities when we help the people we serve to move beyond their roles as clients and advisers to become producers of their own community’s well-being. My experience tells me that if we truly want to make a difference, we need the people we serve to act as co-producers. We cannot do it without them. (p. 5)

If we do not actively engage community members in creating change, it leads to them being the objects of change (having things done TO them) rather than them being the subjects of change (where they are the ones DOING something).

Asset-based community development and other strengths-based approaches to working with communities:

  1. Focus on community assets and strengths rather than problems and needs
  2. Identify and build on individual and community assets, skills and passions
  3. Are community led
  4. Are relationship driven.
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Collective impact and community engagement

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Kania and Kramer 1 argue that collective impact involves “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors.” There can be a great deal of variation in how these “important actors” are defined and identified. Some collective impact initiatives are quite top down with a focus on government agencies and professional community services rather than adopting a more bottom up approach that starts with community members.

As a range of authors and practitioners have argued, community engagement needs to be at the heart of collective impact 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Wolff 8 argues that collective impact emerged from a “top-down business consulting experience and is thus not a community development model” and does not necessarily “set a priority of engaging those most affected by the issue in their collaborative impact processes” (p. 3). While this may be the case, collective impact initiatives can, and I argue should, effectively engage the community and ensure that those who are most affected by the change are involved from the start. The following provides an overview of ways in which collective impact can have a greater focus on community engagement.

Rethinking the 5 conditions of collective impact

Cabaj and Weaver 2, 9 propose changes to the leadership paradigm underpinning collective impact and the five conditions, that place community engagement at the heart of collective impact.

The start by arguing that the approach to leadership (or the leadership paradigm) should change from “management” (which they suggest is the current approach) to “movement building,” and that this requires a fundamental shift in the way in which many collective impact initiatives are managed. According to Cabaj and Weaver 2:

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What is collective impact?

A word cloud based on collective impact. Key words include collective, impact, community, change, engagement, backbone, approach and shared.
(Created with Wordle)

Collective impact is a multi-sector/multi-agency, collaborative leadership approach 1 to large scale social change in communities 2 that is usually place based 3 (i.e., it is focused on a particular town, neighbourhood or community). In simple terms, collective impact aims to get the community, local organisations and external agencies (e.g., government departments) to work together to address an agreed priority. Proponents of the approach argue that the five conditions of collective impact (discussed in more detail below) elevate it above simple cooperation and collaboration.

According to John Kania and Mark Kramer, 2 who proposed the approach in 2011 in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, collective impact involves “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem” (p. 36) and that it is “distinctly different” (p. 36) because it also involves “a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants” (p. 38).

Collective Impact Australia (quoted in Howard4) described collective impact as

A framework for facilitating and achieving large scale social change. It is a structured and disciplined approach to bringing cross-sector organisations together to focus on a common agenda that results in long-lasting change. (p. 18)

Dawn O’Neil and Kerry Graham 5 suggest that:

The Collective Impact approach is premised on the belief that no single policy, government department, organisation or program can tackle or solve the increasingly complex social problems we face as a society.  The approach calls for multiple organisations or entities from different sectors to abandon their own agenda in favour of a common agenda, shared measurement and alignment of effort.  Unlike collaboration or partnership, Collective Impact initiatives have centralised infrastructure—known as a backbone organisation—with dedicated staff whose role is to help participating organisations shift from acting alone to acting in concert. (para. 10)

Collective impact is often describes as a data-driven approach 3, 6, 7 because of its focus on shared measurement and the way in which “data plays an essential role in understanding the social issue and in monitoring the outcomes of interventions.” 3, p. 17

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