Finding Our Own Power (Part One)

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be sharing some of what I have learned over the last 10 months as I have explored life after A Way Out.

One of the things I have been learning about is power.
Power and powerlessness is often overlooked yet is a significant contributor to the poverty that people in Teesside experience. It is something that I believe if we tackle well, could have a significant regenerating effect on our towns, villages and communities. It will take a significant shift in thinking though, not just with individuals within our communities but also with those who currently hold power.

To illustrate some of my findings let me share with you a story of someone I’ve been working with. I’ll call him Pete. Pete grew up in the most deprived area of Stockton, it was once the 10th most deprived ward in the whole country. He was a bright and capable young man; he knew the issues that people were facing but felt powerless to do anything. I mean who was he? He was just a young man who cared for his area.

Issue One) Identity – “Who am I to tackle my communities issues?”

This is a significant issue that comes up time and time again. People do not feel qualified to respond to the issues around them. We have a whole profession and workforce built up around community development, regeneration, and community support and engagement. The workforce see themselves as the professionals, they studied at university (probably) and have been taking a pay cheque to tackle this stuff for years. Pete had no qualifications in care, communities or anything else, he was therefore made to feel like he was out of his depth, that he didn’t have the skills and knowledge to respond to his community.

How to respond?
So the first thing I did in working with Pete was to treat him as an equal. I did not come with an answer or solution to his communities’ issues. I came to learn from him and share learning with him. You see, Pete is an expert. He is an expert in his community; he knows it intimately. He also knows the issues it faces, in part because he has also faced a lot of them himself. He needed to believe this, to understand the skills and knowledge he already had and so a lot of what I did was to listen and encourage, to reinforce his identity as that of an expert and that he didn’t need a name or a title to be able to make a difference. (I have wrote a blog about this earlier of my own experience of not having a name and it ‘can’ be disempowering but we need to get over this and just get on with things)
Pete had lots of ideas of what could be different and what could be done but he was waiting for someone else to come and fix the problems.

Issue Two. Responsibility – Who’s job is it to fix my communities problems?

The next issue I identified was the idea that is linked to identity, which is the idea that there is someone else being paid to do this so it isn’t really my job? It’s an easy trap to fall into isn’t? The idea that if we don’t drop rubbish, the street cleaners won’t have anything to do so we should probably just drop it. It’s the same with community development. Most people assume that it’s someone else’s job. The problem with this thinking is that we have divorced ourselves from our personal responsibilities as citizens. Just because there is a professional group of people doing things in and for our communities, it doesn’t mean they are the only people. In fact the issues will never go away if we leave it just to those “paid professionals”. I’ve ran a charity through the days of prosperity in terms of community finance and even if we had 200 workers and 20 projects, it isn’t enough and it isn’t sustainable. We would never go to an African village and employ a whole load of non-local people to give out food and healthcare. Development charities know this doesn’t work. The only way to see sustainable development is for the indigenous populations to learn how to tackle their own issues. We must replicate and emulate this in our own communities.

How to Respond?

I asked simple questions to begin with “So what are ‘you’ going to do about it?” “So how will ‘you’ make this happen?” “What can I do to support ‘you’?” I understood that my role wasn’t to fix the communities problems for Pete, or to do anything for him particularly. I refused to take positions of responsibility within any projects he set up. I would not go and speak to people on his behalf. My role was more of coach and connector. I would share ideas with him and help him to reflect but I would never impose my thoughts. I conveyed the idea constantly that his community was his responsibility.
He definitely began to take the reigns, he began engaging with his community and developing his own ideas about what he could do. There are now all sorts of ideas popping up.

The next areas I want to explore in future blog posts are ‘permission from the professionals’ (and what happens when you don’t get it?) fear of getting it wrong and how to get resources? I’ll be sharing a bit more of Pete’s story along with a few other friends I’ve met along the way so please pop back and do share this with others if you like what you have read or if you think it may help someone to find their own power!

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