Wednesday, 05 June 2013

Community development theory to be completely rewritten: it turns out, 'the softer sides of place matter' Here’s a curiosity. In a guest blog post on PPS, one Katherine Loflin explains that ‘I often see tearful reactions in my audiences.’ It could be laughter awkwardly disguised. At the top of the post we’re offered a picture of the author as demure wanna-be-a-celebrity-pussy-cat-model. Stop laughing at the back there. She says she’s been a community practitioner all her life. But has not learned enough to avoid prefacing her name with ‘Dr’ on an ordinary blog post: is that likely to intimidate the peasants I wonder? I can imagine what kind of reception Dr Katharine might get on some English estates where community action is taken seriously, and Putnam’s opinion on her dissertation won’t count for anything. In case you suspect this stuff might not be academically robust, we get an early reassurance: ‘We had no preconceived notions about what we would discover. Today, I think that fact contributes to the power of the findings.’ Oh you bet. And we’re all gagging to hear about the findings that 'for many seemed counter-intuitive—even radical at times' and how the brave author recovered from the shock of their significance. Wait, stop rolling about on the floor, pull yourselves together, there’s more. You have to have a list of no more than nine items, even when you present findings of such astonishing galaxy-reconfiguring significance as Dr Katharine has to offer, findings which she wants you to know are ‘so groundbreaking and surprising’. Yup, the Knight Foundation and Gallup have funded this work and it will send shock waves through the community development world. You have to have a list. No list, no credibility, those are the conditions. Dr Katharine has nine ‘key lessons’ and I bet you can’t wait to hear some of them. Oh, you can? OK. Among the gems you might miss, I admired the following: ‘We have seen places in the findings where attachment increased even when the local economy worsened.’ ‘The best ideas often come from the residents themselves, who are really the true keepers of the soul of their community.’ ‘The most powerful path to change for people and places is to leverage strengths to address challenges.’ You need a PhD to really grasp the nuances, so don’t worry too much if it’s beyond you. I too feel inferior, we all do. We’re also told that attachment is not the same as engagement. I could repeat that stunning insight; or you could read the sentence again and learn it by heart. And then comes THE total dismiss-anyone-delivery, the fierce 95mph inswinging leg-cutting yorker (I’m using slightly obscure cricket terminology because I can’t resist, sorry) - apparently the killer academically-researched finding is that ‘the softer sides of place matter’. I’m exhausted, I can’t take any more in. The ‘softer sides’ – why, of course, why didn’t we think of it? All these years. At first I thought it was an April Fool spoof: the date is given as 11 April so a deliberate misprint could be part of...
Care in the community - it has to be reliable A couple of weeks ago, with reference to the case of Ariel Castro, I was wondering if ‘Maybe we need to put more effort into pre-emptive services for all kinds of mental ill-health; and to normalise or de-stigmatise the idea of consulting them.’ It's critical that people who fear they could harm others should know that help is available. Care in the community has to mean genuine formal and informal support, and not just one or the other. And as this poignant story in Saturday’s Guardian illustrates, it has to be genuinely available. Sean Clifton, who has a history of schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder, apparently obeyed commands in his head ‘to seek out the "prettiest girl in the mall" and go and stab her.’ We are told that earlier that day, ‘He went to the emergency ward of the local psychiatric hospital and asked for help. "But they didn't take me seriously. I asked if I could just sit down and have a cup of coffee and talk a little and get it off my chest. But they were all too busy to listen."’ Years later his victim said: ‘If I have any anger, it is that the system failed him that day.’ As I’ve said, I think future societies will look back on our primitive disinterest in mental health with distaste. The full story of Sean Clifton as told illustrates a wonderful support system (carefully hidden from public view) once the diagnosis and admission was in place. But we need reliable services available locally at all times, in the first place, to accommodate the fact that mental ill-health is widely experienced, varies enormously and is potentially very dangerous. Sometimes, post-welfare capitalism feels torridly anti-compassionate.

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