Some colleagues and I have recently started using a great asset-based community development (ABCD) training exercise—Community A and Community B—to explore how the questions we ask can shape how we see the communities we work with.
There is a bit more about the exercise below, but first a bit about the communities.
I’ve been working in the community for over ten years and it’s a ‘community in crisis’. It’s in an urban location that has multiple layers of disadvantage. You know what these dimensions are: high levels of intergenerational unemployment; increasing rates of illiteracy and truancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and spiralling levels of child abuse and domestic violence.
There are very few thriving businesses in the community. The locals don’t support the small strip of shops, preferring to go to supermarkets in neighbouring suburbs
Because it has been identified as one of the most disadvantaged communities in the region, a lot of money has been poured into the community. Really, government benefits are the main source of income for many, if not most, of the families. And this has led to a culture of dependency in which apathy and learned helplessness are the only things that seem to be flourishing. Any source of initiative or entrepreneurialism has been stifled. There seems to be a real handout mentality.
Even Wikipedia describes it as “a lower socio-economic area consisting largely of public housing homes, and has historically been known for its high rates of alcoholism, crime and unemployment.”
Government recognises this and so it’s tried hard to improve people’s lives. Over the years, there have been various programs to address the multitude of problems. Some of these programs have been tested in other communities, and have worked well. Some have done OK here, but others have been a failure. But none of this seems to be making a real difference. I don’t know what it is. The people who live here just don’t seem to recognise that we’re trying to help them and that they’ll benefit from the programs we’re implementing. We just can’t seem to shift the community mentality.
As an experienced community worker who has worked hard to try and help the community, I can’t understand why residents don’t do something to improve their situation. There are lots of programs and initiatives they could get involved with, but they just don’t seem to bother. Ok there are a few good ones that do try and we have some great volunteers. But on the whole, it’s like they’re pathologically incapable of improving. We have given them so much and received so little in return.
They just don’t learn –and some of them just don’t seem to care.
What would it be like to live and work in this community?
I was born in this community and hope to stay here till I die. There’s always somebody around to keep an eye on your kids, give you a lift to town, or give you a hand. When I broke my leg and couldn’t mow the lawn, one of my neighbours did it for me till I was back on my feet.
I know lots of people through the local footy club. I was in the Hawks, the under 7s, and went from there to the under 18s and I ended up playing second division for the Falcons. When I finished football my sons played down there and I was the manager of my younger son’s team for six years. Both of my sons and me are life members at the club. Even though my sons have moved away, I still I help out with the grounds and watch some of the games most weekends.
Recently one of our players, who started footy with the club, played his first match with the Knights. We watched the match in the big screen at the bowling club. It was packed-out, and people were yelling and cheering every time he got the ball.
It feels like everybody knows me and I know everybody else. Some firm friendships have been formed over the years in the area. Although some of them have changed, a lot of them have been here for quite a few years. We aren’t a group of neighbours who spend a lot of time in and out of each other’s’ houses, for the most part, but we always know that we are there for each other if anybody needs anything. One of my neighbours, who had lived next door to me for 25 years, died recently in a car crash. It was a real shock, but the community really came together.
Everywhere has some troublemakers – you know, you don’t leave your house ‘cause you’ll get broken into, that sort of thing. But I’ve never been broken into or had any trouble, and we own a four-wheel drive, a Nissan Patrol, so you would think they would be interested in our house.
Last weekend the primary school had its annual fete and it’s always a great day. Most of the community comes along to support the school.
I couldn’t ask for anything more. I’ve got everything that I could want: family, friends. I’m as poor as the next person but you don’t need money to be rich. I’m happy, I’m healthy, and I’ve got people who care about me.
What would it be like to live and work in this community?
Of course they are both the same community. If we ask questions that highlight the problems and barriers in a community, we create a picture of the community closer to Community A. If we ask questions that focus on the strengths and potential of a community, we create one closer to that of Community B. The way we see the community can then have a big impact on how we work with the community.
I first came across the exercise when reading about a workshop run by Ninnette Eliasov in East London (South Africa). She described the exercise as follows:
The group were told a story about Community A – described as lacking in motivation, skills and resources. Community B on the other hand was described as abundant and self organised. In pairs, the group was asked to discuss how they would feel if they were living in either Community A or B and to suggest the kind of projects that they might initiate… Those in ‘Community A’ said it was depressing, hopeless and even an affliction to live in Community A. The people were oppressed. Those in ‘Community B’ said that they felt motivated, blessed and fortunate to live there and some felt they could extend a generous hand to Community A.
The group were then told that both scenarios are in fact the same community through a different lens/ perspective of the observer. The exercise reinforced that the asset based and needs based paradigm are lenses we choose to use look at ourselves and our reality.
In a workshop I ran with colleagues (Jenny Cameron, Paul Hodge and Amanda Howard) we tried a version of the exercise and it worked really well. I have since adapted the stories we used for a presentation I gave for the Marg Barry Memorial lecture and in a range of other settings. The above is my revised version.
Please let me know if you have used this or a similar exercise and how it went.
Community A is based on a range of communities. We don’t want to stigmatise communities further by specifically referring to them. I based some of Community B on “Life stories of Windale women” by John de Frain but I want to emphasise that neither script is representing Windale. This exercise is meant to promote discussion and reflection, not encourage the identification of communities which fit these descriptions.
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