Thursday, 06 August 2009

Empowerment, evaluation and the C word again When I worked at Community Development Foundation I tried for years and failed miserably to stop my colleagues and others abusing the C word, or using it uncritically at best. Now my old buddy Gabriel Chanan has written for the South West Foundation a characteristically clear guide to empowerment and evaluation in which he recognises that it's not just authorities and professionals at national level who do this: Community activists and workers, who do understand the internal dynamics of local people’s relationships, are often equally guilty of fudging the use of the word community. They are inclined to designate the small numbers of people and community groups they work with as ‘the community’, because these are the people closest to them, and to ignore the question of how to establish whether the views and experiences of these small clusters of people do or don’t reflect the views and experiences of the numerical majority. With some notable exceptions, most evaluations and project descriptions in this field start off by describing problems affecting a whole locality and end up by describing the actions of a small group, without ever checking back to see what difference this made to the whole locality, or indeed if the project’s existence was even known to most residents. The active group or project is described as ‘the community’, and its career is then taken as automatically indicative of the state of the whole locality. This is good stuff not least because more people will take notice of a Gabriel text than of me mumbling on about it. The document explores how the national indicators might get reconciled with local experience, - using both government indicators and project-based methods together; - linking the official indicators to small-scale local experience - extracting lessons from evaluation to improve practice. Checkout Gabriel's parallel paper on making the business case for community empowerment. Previously: The C word has a companion Not the last word on the C word
Neighbourliness: decline and constraints To a community centre in north London, as the guest of West Euston Time Bank Intergenerational Poetry Project, no less, for a talk about neighbourliness. Everybody has something to say about the subject and there was plenty of discussion. People thought there has been a decline in neighbourliness, but when we talked about possible causes no-one mentioned cars. One explanation offered was that in an inner-city neighbourhood not so many people have them. For apartment-dwellers, factors like building design, local trade and parks were felt to be more influential in promoting or constraining sociability. Nobody mentioned television as a possible cause of decline either. There was plenty of talk about being reluctant to open the door to people. For instance someone said when she's home all day, there would be at least ten commercial callers, with or without leaflets, trying to sell or con her something. There's no point in her neighbours just knocking to see how she is or to borrow something, cos she ain't gonna answer. Such levels of pressure are invasive and cause people to adjust their conditons of privacy, thereby impacting on neighbourliness. Several people mentioned falling over in the street, and someone always comes and helps you, although it was suggested that a man who fell without a stick might be treated circumspectly. It does depend on there being pedestrians around though: people in cars don't tend to stop. By this time our discussion had broadened naturally into general local sociability and civility - 'neighbouring plus', you might call it. The group felt that use of mobile phones had a definite negative effect, and that cultural diversity presented problems, particularly around use of English. But someone referred with delight to the practice of spending time gardening out front (though it doesn't apply to most apartment-dwellers), because people stop and talk to you as they pass. Which reminded me of this mention of growing potatoes in the front garden.

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