What processes are required to ensure that the diversity in local communities is both valued and mobilised to achieve a better future for all?
In discussing earlier strands in this series, we have explored the importance of working across agency, professional and other boundaries in order to achieve a ‘whole systems’ approach to addressing local challenges (Strand II) and actively engaging local people so as to co-produce a better future (Strand III). Experience, for example in the Transition Towns movement suggests that ‘ensuring that initiatives reflect the greatest range of voices and experiences….is vital to their success’ (Rob Hopkins The Transition Companion Green Books, 2011. My review of this excellent guide is at: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/the-transition-companion.html )
But we know that achieving this wide and meaningful participation through traditional means isn’t easy. There is a classic training film, starring one of Britain’s best comic actors, John Cleese, Meetings, Bloody Meetings which captures in its title what is a common experience of group working. Borrowing from the movie Casablanca, another phrase, the usual suspects is often used to describe who turns up in citizen engagement exercises. What we are exploring in Strand V is how to get beyond these characterisations so as to create processes for working together – both in shaping the agenda and taking action – which genuinely welcome diversity and make a positive space for everyone’s participation.
In facing complex challenges, we need ways of relating to each other which improve shared understanding across this diversity, promote adaptive learning and encourage the will to act. Fortunately there has been a flowering of methods (‘social technologies’) which help with these objectives. Margaret Wheatley identifies the essence of many of these methods in her thoughtful book Turning to one another: simple conversations to restore hope to the future (Berrett-Koehler, 2002).
In our Conversations about sustainable and inclusive communities: Six practices for creative engagement (available at: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/six-practices-for-creative-engagement.html ) John O’Brien and I have tried to illustrate how a variety of these methods might be drawn upon to assist partnership between citizens and their local authority in shaping a more desirable future. This pamphlet describes each of these six practices (I have added another to make it seven) and where to find further information. I summarise here some of the different issues arising in the effort to work inclusively and identify an inclusive practice which is useful in addressing each:
1. People bring different interests, perspectives and experiences to the table in any exploration of community problems. A lack of mutual understanding can make progress difficult. It is helpful sometimes to make a little time for participants to try to see things through the eyes of others by the simple practice of carefully listening to each other, perhaps using the mindfulness discipline of ‘quiet mind and open heart’.
2. On a larger scale it is often important to bring a variety of people together to generate a richer shared picture, for example, of what is good about the local neighbourhood and what could be better. The ‘World Café’ offers a structured approach to hosting conversations that matter and drawing out common themes in a style (i.e. like table discussion in a café) which seems quite natural.
3. Participants may need opportunities to make sense of complex and perhaps disruptive information before they can join in with commitment and imagination. It can be useful therefore to take some time to map these sense-making opportunities and consider how they can be extended and involve more people.
4. Where lots of things are going on, or being planned (perhaps by different groups or agencies), it may be important to check – and indeed improve – the contribution each is making to achieving locally-agreed strategic outcomes. The practice here requires plotting current activities against agreed outcomes and critically reviewing where there is scope for greater impact.
5. Similarly, it may be useful to involve a wide range of people in identifying ‘assets’ potentially available in the locality (e.g. in existing local associations and the skills people bring to these, in the businesses which make up the local economy, in the natural environment, etc.) so as to examine whether these assets might have more to offer in advancing the strategic priorities.
6. Most fundamentally, working inclusively in diverse communities requires that we ask the question ‘Who’s not here’ (or more precisely, whose voice and contribution is not being fully recognised) and how could we better engage them? The relevant practices focus on how we invite people to participate, express hospitality, make adjustments which enhance accessibility, identify what each person has to offer, encourage contributions and show appreciation.
7. The one we missed in the pamphlet is a continuation of this last point: to sustain ourselves in this challenging work we need to invest in celebrating what we are doing and meeting our common human need to have fun! Stories from the Transition Towns experience (referenced above) include lots of examples of local initiatives using food, music, art, theatre, story-telling…and carnival to share a positive sense of place and enjoy each other.
A core task of civic leadership involves the judicious selection and use of practices like these so as to ensure the widest possible mobilisation of local people and agencies in making a positive difference.