How Community Animators Work Around the World

Conversation with Cormac Russell ~ July 25, 2017

About every six weeks, for the last five years, John and Peter have hosted online / dial-up conversations with community-building pioneers as their guests. For their July 25, 2017 dialog they invited Cormac Russell to share his experiences in building new connections and relationships to strengthen our neighborhoods and communities around the world.

In addition to the transcribed discussion here, you can download or listen to the audio:

For more on Cormac’s thinking and work, see the list on his author page.

Maggie Rogers: Cormac has worked around the world using the asset-based community development approach to training communities, agencies, NGOs, and governments. Some of his recent work addresses health inequalities in low-income communities and promoting a strengths-based approach to working with young people.

John McKnight: Welcome, everybody. We’re really happy today that we could reach across the Atlantic ocean and get Cormac Russell to join us. Cormac has been a most creative inventor to new approaches to an asset-based neighborhood that I know of, and we’re just really happy that you could be with us, Cormac.

One of the things that I’ve been impressed with is the way you have approached the question of neighborhood building, however you want to label it. You have been very inventive in developing neighborhoods focused on learning. I wonder if you could tell us about how you’ve done that.

Cormac Russell: Over the years, one of the things that struck me is just that you can, with a new idea as powerful and as old, in some ways, as well as new, as the framing that you and Jodie, and subsequently you and Peter have created around the asset-based community development way of thinking. I think a lot of people could spend a lot of conceptual time around it, and a lot of time in workshops. Maybe nearly ten years ago now, it struck me that the critical invitation is an invitation to be in neighborhoods and to be in relationship with people. One of the things that seemed pretty clear back then was that it was countercultural, that an awful lot of people were really struggling to form those kinds of place-based connections.

I thought it would be a good idea when we were spending time in neighborhoods to really be intentional about naming the fact that we were trying to learn again how to be in relationship with each other in a neighborhood context, and rather than looking back with rose-tinted glasses and recreating the past, to really think about where we were and what we were doing as a learning journey which could honor the past, but was very much in the present tense and very much about appreciating what is within and around us. There’s a poet, David Wagner, and he’s got a lovely line, “Wherever you are is here, and you must treat it as a powerful stranger.”

A lot of our work is about just calling people into a radical presence and a radical act of revealing what’s here, and how we can get that connected up and mobilized. In practical terms, what we did was as people were coming to workshops, we said, “What would you like to do on Monday morning, and how can we come alongside that?” Over the years, particularly in the United Kingdom, we’ve had the privilege of coming alongside some folks that you might describe as precipitating leaders. They really understood that their organization existed not to grow its assets, but to put its assets in the act of disposal, if you like, of community and building community.

A lot of our work is about just calling people into a radical presence and a radical act of revealing what’s here, and how we can get that connected up and mobilized.

We found over the years a number of these precipitating leaders who just wanted to shift away from that model of advocacy or that model of service provision, and move much more into how they could support people to discover and to connect what they had, so very much leaders who were saying, “Our work isn’t about deliverables, it’s about discoverables.” Largely the learning conversations of the learning communities move into those leaders saying to local communities where there’s energy, really, “Can we walk alongside you for two or three years, and how can we be able to support you?” Largely in places like Bristol and Fife and Gloucestershire, it leads literally the whole range of different places, we have been spending time in about 100 neighborhoods very much learning what it’s like when people start seriously discovering what they care about, and how they can contribute that and connect it up.

Our work isn’t about deliverables, it’s about discoverables.

In most of the learning sites, the learning communities, we would rarely use the expression “asset-based community development.” It’s very much about the practice, I would say, and at the emphasis on the rhetoric or the narrative. Over time, it becomes helpful to have some words and some frameworks to hang what people are doing on, but largely what we’re interested in is how people at neighbor-to-neighbor level get together and connect with each other. That’s what the learning conversations and the learning communities enable. I suppose when you’ve got 100 neighborhoods over a seven to eight year period, what also starts to happen is that starts to generate a set of stories and create a little bit of a tension, I think, that often doesn’t get bestowed on neighborhood work and work that comes from the grassroots.

Over the last number of years, I’ve really begun to notice that these learning sites, because of the power of the efforts that are being created, are really beginning to draw a lot of attention and raising a lot of very interesting questions for other citizens who live nearby, but also for practitioners who serve communities. It raises a lot of questions about what do we mean to actually walk alongside communities? The learning has been quite vast. I suppose one of the areas that’s been very rich for us is we’ve begun a talk about what we called eight touchstones. These are just some of the key things that we’ve started to notice are common in people’s practice as citizens, but also as professionals, as practitioners who are trying to be helpful.

One of the things that we often emphasize is that a lot of this work, it’s all very iterative. We’re working in a very complex rather than a simple or a complicated environment, so it’s not a science. It’s very much an art form, so a lot of the work, it’s more at the level of poetry and art than it is at the level of a precise model. I’ve always been very, very cautious about people who talk about models, because largely our experience has been that most of the folks who are talking about models are interested in scalability, measurability, and efficiency, and this work is anything but those three things. I suppose the eight touchstones are very much just an observation of some of the things that people have been doing in quite an iterative way.

We’re seeing these eight touchstones recur in very different cultural contexts. We’re seeing them recur in our work in Singapore, which obviously doesn’t think of itself in a democratic way. It thinks about itself in a very different way. We’re seeing the same touchstones recur quite often in our work in the UK, in Rwanda, and in Australia, so very, very different cultural environments with overlaps, albeit, but quite different in so many ways. In the Singaporean context, for example, we do not relate to words like democracy or citizen ship, but we have expressions like “Kampung spirit,” and we have expressions like “gotong royong,” which means for a neighbor to contribute to another neighbor without calculation of return.

Eight Touch Stones

Finding a Community Building Team

Recruiting a Community Animator

Hosting community conversations to discover assets and what people care about

Engaging community groups and associations

Building connections through social interaction and sharable opportunities

Visioning and planning

Implementing change (doing and reviewing)

Fostering celebration

To me, that’s as good a definition of citizenship as I’d come across. In all kinds of ways, I think these eight touchstones speak to how we can get more gotong royong happening at neighborhood level, and in a way that’s truly owned by local people. One of the first things that we really find happens in neighborhoods where there’s a sense of ownership and power around this work is that the neighborhood themselves actually take the initiating act. It might be that there’s a little bit of convening. It might be that a practitioner or a host organization, like a faith community, initiate a conversation, but central importance is this idea that there’s a community of connectors, if you like, or initiators who are saying, “Rather than focusing on a single issue, our passion is really about how can we get to weave out community together?” “Instead of trying to get followers or grow a network, we’re really interested in how we can grow relationships that allow people to be as free as possible and as connected as possible.”

As well is the emphasis there is really in making sure that they’re the folks that invite the efforts, invite the work. We do not go into a learning community unless we’re invited into that learning community. I think one of the things that’s happened in the past in a lot of the countries that I’ve worked in over the years is, with good intention often, people come in from outside trying to help. To my mind, it is as harmful to come in as an outsider trying to help with ABCD as it is with a deficit approach. It’s still top-down and it’s patriarchal, so I think a critical piece is how are we invited in genuinely to come alongside folk if they want us to, and to be helpful?

That’s always the trickiest part, because largely not everybody is in that space, but we’ve been fortunate enough to find quite a number of communities around the world who want to be in that conversation and see the relationship with us as helpful. “Us” is me and a small team of people that I work with that largely are very focused on how we can accompany local residents and interested practitioners on the journey of getting into right relationship with each other. That’s a critical first touchstone.

We are very focused on how we can accompany local residents and interested practitioners on the journey of getting into right relationship with each other. That’s a critical first touchstone.

It’s been a real interesting exploration to try and find words that actually fit what we’re seeing happening in the indigenous context. It’s almost like an anthropological exercise. Animateur seemed to make most sense because the animateur in the French sense is not somebody who is doing anything in the sense of taking the lead. They’re largely the caddy to the golfer, they’re Robin to Batman, they’re the ship builder to the ship’s captain. They’re not just coming swinging their hands. They have a set of know-how. They have some knowledge about how to build powerful associations and to build associations of associations. One of their great skills is the ability not to take over, to really be curious rather than helpful, and to support people to really see that they’re worthwhile and they’re enough unto each other.

That role has been really critical. What’s interesting to us is that so many folks who would endeavor to take on those functions and take on that role really, really struggle. It’s not for everybody. It’s a very specialized set of gifts, almost. I wouldn’t use the term skills. It’s a set of gifts that people have, and a way of showing up and being in service to the community. It’s something that has I think been of great value, particularly in neighborhoods. The scale of neighborhoods we tend to work in is around about 3,000 to 5,000. We find as the initiating group of connectors which represent the diversity of that community comes together with the community animator, you can begin to do things that include more and more people.

We have seen community connectors, local residents do the work on a voluntary basis, but often it’s quite intense when you’re trying to grow an association of association. Really, in short, everybody is feeling productive in the neighborhood, and grow that power base. The animator has been a really important role: Linking the animators and the connectors together.

The animator has been a really important role: Linking the animators and the connectors together.

One of the things that we found over time is a lot of people really appreciate an approach that brings in what we have come to call a community animator. We get the word “animator” from the French word animateur. As we watched practitioners who were really skilled at coming alongside communities, what we’ve begun to realize is they’re not doing classic community development, and nor are they doing classic community organizing, but nor are they doing the community building.

The third touchstone is really about what they do, and it’s largely about having conversations of appreciation, which are very much about going in with community and beginning to commit those random acts of revelation, and really beginning to discover what’s in the neighborhood, what people care about, what they actually want to do something around, and how they can begin to get in relationship to build the power to do that.

The third touchstone is about what the animators do, and it’s largely about having conversations of appreciation.

Also I suppose not just the power to be productive, but also the power around decision-making. I think the fourth touchstone is really, really critical. A lot of the work most certainly is working with individuals and finding out what their gifts are and what they want to contribute. I think that’s a really powerful starting point, particularly in communities that have become quite atomized. I often joke that some communities are more likely to have individuals watching sitcoms like Neighbors or Friends than they are to be making friends with their neighbors. There’s a real challenge I think in how you can actually support in real-time neighborhoods where there’s quite a lot of disconnection.

A powerful starting point is definitely the one-on-one conversations with people. We think the fourth touchstone is equally critical, and that’s recognizing that neighborhoods are organized. They may be organized in very different ways, but they still do have associations, they have faith groups, reading clubs, walking groups, and even more informally people who are walking their dogs in the park, et cetera. Really beginning to get serious about coming alongside these associations has been of utter importance. Spending time with the associations, beginning to understand what it is they do, but also what else they’d like to do. Again, we just discover over and over again with individual one-on-one conversations and with associational conversations there’s this massive, massive untapped below-the-radar reservoir of possibility.

People just keep saying, “Why is it we have so many different outside helpers who are coming in, and they’ve never asked us these questions?” Largely the questions we’re asking are “What do you care about? What have you done in the past? What else would you like to do? What are the things that you could do with your neighbors that you think need attending around here?” A lot of the reports that we’re getting back is that outside helpers who come in largely don’t ask those kinds of questions, that instead the questions that they’re asking are questions that are very much preset by the agenda of the organization. It’s “How many cigarettes do you smoke? What would it take to get you on a smoking cessation program?” As again, “What would I need to know to grow up well around here? How can I support you to do more of that?”

The associational piece and the one-on-one piece is absolutely central. It’s hard to do that across a population of 5,000 people. It’s also hard to do that in a way that really connects people who have been rendered invisible because essentially they have been defined out of community life and redefined into institutional life. A lot of our work, and a lot of why I think the animator is really important as well is because we’re very much showing up early to the party, staying late, and going to the edge, and spending a lot of time trying to figure out where people who have been rendered to the edge as strangers can really get in on the action, and working with the neighborhood to open up those spaces of possibility.

We spend a lot of time trying to figure out where people who have been rendered to the edge as strangers can really get in on the action, and working with the neighborhood to open up those spaces of possibility.

It’s not us bridging the gap between people who have been pushed to the edge and community life, but it’s the community welcoming folks in, and also people who have been marginalized offering their gifts. One of the things that’s really critical in the work, and we find this time and time again. We talk a lot about the importance of citizens feeling productive. The interesting thing is that as well as gift being contributed, we often say this in ABCD circles, a gift is not a gift until it’s given. It’s really, really interesting at neighborhood level, the critical thing is also about whether that gift is received. We know lots of people who spent a lot of their lives trying to contribute their gifts, but not having them received.

It’s actually the exchange. It’s the giving and the received that creates real power and real energy over time. I think the fifth building block is building connections through social interactions and sharable opportunities, particularly with people who may have been marginalized. Actually, I think for most people, creating the context within which people can bump into each other and connect with each other at a neighbor-to-neighbor level is of great value. Finding folks who are good at doing that, but also enabling them is a lot of what we spend time doing, and spend a lot of time with helping professionals, how you can support people to get in those kind of relationships.

I think what ends up happening when those five touchstones dynamically are in the mix is eventually people start understanding that there’s a different conversation happening, that it’s a conversation that isn’t about, “Ain’t it awful?” It’s a conversation about, “Gee, look what’s possible.” I think that moves into some space where people can begin to vision, and begin to dream, and pretty big dreams, pretty sophisticated dreams. I would say it’s the political space where people are actually moving into the commons and saying, “Gee, look at all the things we have been doing. Look at all the initiatives we’ve been taking on our own right, and what might happen ten years out from now? What are some of the things that we’d really love to see? What are some of the things we’re concerned about that we really want to make sure don’t happen?”

There’s a different conversation happening. It’s about, “Gee, look what’s possible.”

For example, how do we make sure that in the process of creating a really vibrant community, we don’t price our children out when they come of age to buy homes here because everybody wants to live in this gentrified or this very powerful community? Things like that. I think that’s where people begin to really reflect on what is it we can do ourselves without any permission or help? What is it that outside agencies can come and really help us do over and above those things once we do ourselves? Then ultimately what are we expecting outside agencies to do as public servants as an extension of us rather than a replacement for us? Seven and eight touchstones. Seven is really about keep doing, keep acting.

The seventh touchstone is about keep doing, keep acting. The eighth stouchstone is fostering celebration.

I think the process of actually speaking and being in conversation is really important, but the process of doing together, of showing up, going at the speed of trust, but doing stuff, however small it might be, is what really builds powerful social capital and connections. The eighth touchstone, these aren’t in any particular order, it has to be said, is fostering celebration. I think cheering on and fostering celebration and a culture of gratitude has been absolutely critical to ensuring that the efforts of local person endure.

There are the eight touchstones that we’ve seen pretty regularly recurring. That’s not an exhaustive list. It’s not even meant to be a list. I think it’s just a sharing some of the common practices that we see, and that we really admire local people engaged in, but also practitioners who are trying to be helpful engage in, as well.

John McKnight: Cormac, that’s really a rich discussion, and so much there to follow up on. Let me ask you at least about two things you’re talking about. You’ve emphasized the importance of people who you call connectors and the animator associated with them. For people who are listening here, it may be that we’ve heard a great deal about leadership, and neighborhood leadership. To shift and begin to think that we also want to understand the indigenous connectorship is very important question facind you or somebody like you, how does one identify a connector, an animator? You can’t train them, I suppose. How would you tell somebody else, “A connector tends to be this kind of a person?”

Cormac Russell: I think I can answer that in two ways. One is theoretically, and the other is with a story. The story would probably be the better of the two in terms of answering. We talk a lot about the idea that there are four protagonists in any given neighborhood, or town, or village, or estate. You’ve got the leader, as you mentioned. Then there’s someone that can bring people behind an agenda, can really work on an issue. They’re important, but that’s not who we’re talking about. You’ve got gift-givers, and that’s pretty much everybody, really, who has a sense of their own worth, a sense of their own presence in life.

If you get the right calling and you say to them, “Wow, we’ve got an amazing voice, and we’ve a choir that desperately needs you,” you’ve got a very good chance of the potential that they will show up and they’ll contribute. That’s two. The third one is the invisible person, and I don’t mean to be negative because nobody is invisible, but somebody who’s been rendered invisible by virtue of the fact that they’re yet to discover their own or be discovered as a gifted individual with gifts, with skills, and with passions. We’re not talking about any of those three. When we talk about a connector in the first instance, we’re talking about an individual who has a sense of their own contribution, but they’re not trying to grow a followership.

When we talk about a connector, we’re talking about an individual who has a sense of their own contribution, but they’re not trying to grow a followership.

They’re not a leader. They’re not somebody who’s saying, “Here’s an issue, or here’s an agenda. I’m going to frame it up. I’m going to narrate around it. What I want you to do is to be foot soldiers,” or even the more progressive leaders who say, “I want to form a circle, and I want you to help me with this issue.” They’re not doing that. They’re not forming networks, either, which is really interesting. They’re not saying to folks, “Let’s create some kind of an opportunistic set of relationships where I owe you and you owe me.”

What I see connectors doing is largely trying to figure out how they can take two people that they see as neighbors who aren’t in relationship with each other, but who they think if they got in relationship with each other could do stuff together that they can’t do alone.

I think that’s very different than leadership, and I think that’s very different than forming a network, that often the networker will call, “My network.” They’re a funny breed of people who I think came into the world born this way, but largely they’re gift-centered in the sense of they see gifts in people, often before they see them in themselves. They’re well-connected, but no in the same way the leader or a networker is. I think they’re connected deeply around trust, and I think they earn that trust because largely people see that they’re relationship-oriented, that what they’re trying to do is bring people into relationship, but not for a personal gain necessarily, or not for that standard transactional gain.

I do think that they get something deeply at a spiritual level in the process of doing it. One of the other things that’s really interesting about a connector is they feel okay about showing up in your business. It’s really interesting when we work in neighborhoods how many people will say, “Gee, I’d love to do something, but I’d feel I was interfering if I offered help, or I don’t know how to get into that person’s life and offer support without it seeming like I’m interfering.” The connector believes that they’re welcome. What’s interesting is when other people move into spaces like they do, I think that folks might experience it as being nosy, or as being interfering, but they have a skill to move into relationships with people where people don’t see them as interfering.

The connector believes that they’re welcome. they have a skill to move into relationships with people where people don’t see them as interfering.

I think it’s because they do it in quite a gentle, understated way. I’ll give you a story. This is a story that comes from Hodge Hill in Birmingham. It’s a community. It’s an estate of about 5,000 people, an urban estate outside of Birmingham. About maybe five years ago, Al Barrett, a Church of England minister, arrived into the neighborhood, and arrived shortly after quite an unhelpful labeling process had been undergone in the community where outside politicians at a national level were referring to communities like Hodge Hill, and actually named Hodge Hill, as exemplars of broken Britain. Just classic half empty stuff.

Al arrived, and within a couple of days of arriving into the neighborhood discovered that his church has asbestos in the roof and was essentially condemned. He had this great insight that if he couldn’t get people into his church, he better try and build community outside of the building, and cross his fingers after that. What he did was really interesting because the first thing he did was, he invited seven people from his own congregation to say, “We’re not going to go out and try and convert any believers or any non-believers. We’re going to go out and try and discover community weavers,” what they called unsung heroes.

They didn’t use the term connector, and I think this is a really clever thing to do. To not use preset terms, but to really go out with whatever will work in the local context. What they felt would really resonate is this idea of people who are behind the scenes who are doing serial relationship-building, and are really the glue that’s holding the community together. What they did, those seven people, was just go into bumping places, walk in the parent, go to quite unusual lengths to try and have conversations with as many people as possible about who are these connectors? And basically then listen to the multiple rumors.

They went quite unusual lengths to have conversations with as many people as possible, and basically then listen to the multiple rumors.

To hear over and over again as people would say, “You really need to talk to John, because John does.” Once they got I think about 93 names, and what I love about this by the way is they didn’t the classic thing of trying to include everybody by putting a nomination form in everybody’s letter box saying, “Please nominate an unsung hero.” They went into the neighborhood and into the dynamism of the neighborhood, and went with the grain. Those 93 people, they then went and spoke to every single one of them, and they said, “Your neighbors are talking about you behind your back, and they’re saying good things.”

They told them the stories of what their neighbors were saying about them, and those stories, they’re living illustrations of what connectors are. It was a great celebration. Then they invited those connectors to come together and share the stories, and invite some of their neighbors on the street who, as they connectors, they felt if they were invited into an intentional conversation would come, and would be excited by that. I think that’s an illustration of community animation, or community organizing if you care to call it like that. At the heart of the story, what I love is that Al took an animating role, and largely his role was to figure out how we can reveal those connectors to themselves, to each other, and to the wide community.

The animating role was to figure out how to reveal those connectors to themselves, to each other, and to the wide community.

In doing that, what he did was, to use an agricultural metaphor, he actually began to create the carrying capacity for a wider conversation with 5,000 people.

Peter Block: This is amazing what you’re describing, and your language is so fascinating to me. Who invests in this work? Some of them I know are ministers who are funded by the church to do this work. Who else?

Cormac Russell: We have a diverse base. In Australia, it’s the same. It’s a mixture of municipalities, local governments, some charitable trusts who got independent money from governments, or they’ve got a little bit of latitude. We have one MHS trust that actually used some of their endowment to invest in financing community animators. We’ve seen some housing associations do this. It’s quite varied. I think it’s still very, very early on in terms of figuring out whether or not these institutions are already best placed. I think one of the challenges is with very large institutions, I think they can be really good investors, but what we want is we want to find local hosts who are committed to generational relationships rather than three-year or five-year cycles.

I think what we’ve been trying to work through in the UK and Australia is how we can really honor the assets of the big institutions who really want to contribute to this way of working, but also support them to work with allies that are actually embodied and embedded in the community, and who won’t be going anywhere over the next 10 years or the next 25. Those are some of the juggling or balancing acts that we’re trying to work through at the moment.

Norland E: Hi, this is Norland Emmet. I’ve been checking in on these calls for a number of months, but I just want to throw out… I’ve recently shifted the entire vision of what we’re trying to do social mission-wise with this little funding engine for good we’re building from hopefully disrupting, and I shouldn’t use that word, but the residential brokerage industry. We are focusing on the interfaith dialog movement. I want to put quotes in there, but we want to undo the quotes. I’m wondering how you think that fits into this interfaith dialog movement of bridging the gap, for example, Religions for Peace if you’re familiar with them, how that fits into again, quote-unquote, “The ABCD movement.”

Cormac Russell: Sure. I think one of the challenges in terms of what we’re trying to do working at neighborhood level is firstly recognizing that faith communities and the culture of building fellowship, the culture of being present in a neighborhood, and the culture often among many faith communities where the pastor will actually come and live among the neighborhood, so they’re not salaried strangers, they’re neighbors and they’re friends, is really, really powerful. That’s the first thing to say. To honor that, to value that, to find a way that that can be recognized is a powerful asset. I think with everything, with power comes responsibility.

One of the challenges is making sure that faith doesn’t become a silo in that sense that we’re saying, “We’re only going to do what we’re doing because our agenda is a faith agenda, and if we do it, we might get some dividends. We might get faith dividends.” I think the people of faith that I’ve seen that have been most impactful at neighborhood level have showed up at neighborhood level to make a contribution without expectation of return, in terms of their own hope or agenda. I guess the fingers are crossed behind their backs in terms of hoping that something will come of that in terms of what they care about and what they’re passionate about.

Really, setting that agenda to a side and saying, “You know, by bringing all the different faiths together, by bringing people of no faith together, by bringing the chamber of commerce together, and so on and so forth, we can begin to have a dialog about this place that we all relate to.” I have a friend, Anthony McCann who says, “For me, the life closest to us is where differences are mostly made.” I think that’s really interesting because the neighborhood as the primary unit of change, rather than the individual, or the faith perspective, or the institution, that’s the radical innovation in this. I think within, what starts to happen is that culture of community emerges.

From a faith perspective, I don’t think there’s anything a whole lot more sacred than when a group of people find a way of being in relationship with each other where they grow a culture. To me, I think yes, by all manner of means, let’s organize faith communities to make those contributions for change, but I think we have to figure out a way that they can be in relationship where other people come in, and where their agenda is in front and center.

Maggie Rogers: We do have a caller from California.

Peter K: This is Peter Koestenbaum. I just want to make a quick observation. That is to do with the center of the American culture, and something that I’ve heard from Africa, which is that the first amendment is referred to as the “I am” experience and that people who deal with the third world must understand that the “I am” experience does not exist, and to make the statement, “I am” makes no sense, but “we are,” does. I was struck particularly by the expression of people being made invisible. An earlier friend in my life wrote a book called the Death of a Nobody. You’re talking about how to make people aware that motivation starts with them, but that point has been extinguished.

In some way, to ignite the fact that it’s all about me, and that me part has been extinguished and has to be reawakened I think is thematic of what we heard in these eight points. What is at the very heart of our culture, the first amendment, is really a danger to any really important community work because it’s about the “we are” experience, and it has to start not with me, but it has to start with you, and how can we make that aware? How can we light that spark that may have been rendered invisible? What a beautiful expression. What a tragedy that people have been rendered invisible. How can you, without being an “I am” let them know they are? Let me make that observation.

Cormac Russell: Beautiful, beautiful. Can I just say I really genuinely believe through this work that it proves that happiness doesn’t come from within, it comes from between? It’s just fascinating to me. I’m in Wales today. I’m in Brecon Beacon, one of the most beautiful places in the world, by the way. This is God’s country, and everywhere everybody is in God’s country, but this is particularly special. In Wales now, in legislation, they say that they’re shifting the conversation nationally, which is quite a feat, I think. They’re going to try and shift the conversation nationally from conversation that starts with what’s the matter with you? To what matters to you?

Last week I proposed that we what have to do actually is expand that out again, and instead of saying, “What matters to you?” The question seems to me is, “What matters to you that you’d like to join with others in doing?” And beginning to, as the caller was saying, beginning to enable people to be in another reliant rather than the self-reliant experience. What happens time and time again is when people get that opportunity to be in a gift exchange with each other, powerful things happen, and it becomes quite a way of life. Great question. Thank you.

What we have to do is instead of saying, “What matters to you?” ask, “What matters to you that you’d like to join with others in doing?”

Peter Block: Have you seen instances where building these relationships has had an impact on people’s control over their economic lives?

Cormac Russell: Absolutely. It’s been really interesting in the work in Rwanda, but there are other examples, but Rwanda comes to mind. It is quite remarkable to me that the way they worked … the community animators essentially came alongside villages and schools in the Gasabo district, which is in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. When they said to folks, “What are the issues that you think you’d like to begin to address?” When they really focused in on the issues that people felt they had some primary assets, things that were local and they could control to bring to those challenges, the two issues that people chose to work on were the fact that there were so many street kids in their villages who weren’t going to school and didn’t have a connection to community life or family.

The second one was that the teachers who were teaching their kids, mainly these schools were schools that are built by the hands of local people. This is not a classic education. These schools were built, and often the parents would supplement the salary of the teachers. They were the two challenges: “We have teachers were are coming who are badly paid, who often don’t come to work every day. How do we do something about that?” In many of the schools now where they have responded to those two challenges, we’re seeing something really interesting happened. We’re no longer seeing a school that is about formal rote learning, but schools with more economic hubs, and they look more like supermarkets.

The reason that they look more like economic hubs was because most of the kids who were living on the street were interested in learning practical skills, so they were more vocationally oriented than the classic academic orientation, which would come from a Francophile or an Anglophile perspective of education. The second reason that the supermarket phenomenon emerged was because the teachers were being paid $50 a month. They reckoned that they could actually create a scenario when they create an alternative supermarket when $50 would actually stretch as far as $150 would in a standard supermarket. We’re beginning to see really quite fascinating examples.

Another one in school where the kids didn’t have enough to eat, and they started creating their own garden, and then folks just didn’t have enough resource to fertilize the garden. This is quite an unusual story. What they started to do was to harvest the urine of the pupils. If you put urine together with water in the right formulation, it’s actually one of the best fertilizers you can have. Now they’ve actually created their own industry where they’re selling that formulation to other villages. I don’t know how much they charge, but they sell it by the Billy can. These are very, very small, hyperlocal kinds of initiatives, but in the UK, we would regularly see people create their own micro-enterprises.

In some instances, one of my favorite examples comes from a town in western Australia called Kulin where they’ve created their own community bank. I think there’s a population of about 500 in [inaudible 00:49:27] who are banking, but they create dividends of $200,000 a year that they invest back into cultural and community activities. In all kinds of ways, I think when people start taking some control over their economic wherewithal, as well as getting more face value return for their dollar or their pound or whatever it might be, where they actually start understanding the concept of velocity, and really getting money cycling more often, and plugging up the leaky bucket, powerful things happen.

I don’t think that we can really any more talk about community development separate from economic development. I think we really need to think about all of this in the round, and in much more ecosystem terms, or much more dynamic terms.

Maggie Rogers: We do have a question that came up a while ago that I’d like to present to Cormac, which is who feels the most threatened within the communities where you work?

Cormac Russell: That’s a great question. The dynamic of people feeling threatened or feeling resistant to change fluctuates. Sometimes it can be people who held leadership positions as residents and have worked very hard to try and make change happen over the years, and had been working very much maybe, I don’t want to use the term traditional, but have been working very much on the basis of trying to change the system by lobbying for funding or lobbying for legislative change. I think sometimes when this work starts off, you can encounter people who feel quite maybe threatened by the work, or judged a little bit by the work because the work is so much oriented on what is in the community and how it can get connected, and so much of their work has been oriented on the external assets, and how we can change those external assets.

There’s a natural tension between the internal focus and the external focus. That’s a very real threat. I think you have to be alive to that, because this work is political. When we’re trying to reclaim or create a resurgence in the commons, those kinds of tensions are absolutely essential. I get worried if I don’t see those. I see them as an invitation that something is stirring, and that something really dynamic is about to happen. I think the trick is not to see these people as gatekeepers or as a problem, but to really try to engage with them as gifted people in their own right.

Yes, there can be real resistance. I think some elected members initially, if they’ve worked on a client holistic model where they’ve drawn their base by telling people that they would sort problems out for them. I think sometimes this can be challenging to them because they begin to see the people are starting to form their own power base and starting to, as citizens, define the problem in their own language. That’s one of the things some elected members have done in the past. They have defined the problem for the person. They’ve become the interpreter of the institutional world. I have to say here, just a health warning of what I’m saying. I do recognize that there are many wonderful politicians, practicing politicians who don’t do this. I’m just trying to answer the question at hand.

I think sometimes also practitioners who had been maybe working on very traditional ways of engaging with the community, who had been classically coming in and organizing all the young people together with other young people, or all the older people and putting them in silos. They go through almost a turbulent or traumatic period where they start to either question their own work, or defend their own work. A classic one that we see is where they come along and say, “We’ve been doing ABCD for years,” and then they tell you what they’re doing. It doesn’t quite add up. These are all opportunities to have some tricky conversations, and that’s the nature of community.

It isn’t all straightforward. It isn’t all positive in that non-contestation sense. A lot of the really good, solid work is political, and people have to work things out, and difficult conversations have to be had.

John McKnight: Thanks for joining us, Cormac. This has been a wonderful exposition. Very, very helpful.

Cormac Russell: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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About the Lead Author

Cormac Russell
Cormac Russell
Cormac Russell is Managing Director of Nurture Development, Director of ABCD Europe and a faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University, Chicago. He has trained communities, agencies, NGOs and governments in ABCD and other strengths-based approaches in Kenya, Rwanda, Southern Sudan, South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia. In January 2011 Cormac was appointed to the Expert Reference Group on Community Organising and Communities First, by Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society in the UK which he served on for the term of the Group. Examples of recent work include: Leading all national sporting organizations in Canada, in conjunction with the Canadian Council for Ethics in Sport, to adopt a shared vision as to how sport can become an asset for community building. This is effecting significant changes in the structures of major sporting organizations but also at a local community level in terms of community empowerment and citizen driven development. Advising I&Dea in the UK on the development of an asset based approach to health and on addressing health inequalities in low income communities as well as how an assets approach can improve community health and well-being. Partnering with Youth Work Ireland on a national program involving hundreds of youth practitioners and thousands of young citizens to develop a strong culture of youth led initiatives. Working in partnership with the University of Limerick and Atlantic Philanthropies in Ireland to infuse an ABCD approach across the entire city of Limerick. Part of this process involved organizing an entire neighborhood to address issues of loneliness, fear and intimidation and to support citizen driven development. The long-term vision is of a city that puts citizens and communities in the driving seat, through processes of neighborhood organizing and bottom up planning and where services are organized in the way in which community is organized. 

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