Community Development has always been a central aspect of Regional Council. Faye Williams explains what she learnt about Community Development from working at Regional Council and explores its relevance for future work.
When I joined Regional Council in 1990, I found an organisation that had a very clear and well developed sense of purpose. Many people put this condition down to the strong will of its co-ordinator, Margaret Barry and while this analysis was partly true, it missed the real point. Marg’s will was strong because she worked through the prism of community development.
I was helped to see the light soon after I arrived. The topic of community development came up and Marg said to me “What is community development anyway?” I confidently responded, “It’s where community workers identify what is needed in a community and find/develop/obtain funding for a community service to meet that need”. “No” she said in her famous imperious way, “That is community service development”. Community development is quite different. As the name suggests, it is the development of a whole community”.
The important elements of community development are;
- the identification of the needs within the community by the people themselves, not left in the hands of government, workers and academics
- the empowerment of local people to take steps to address those needs
- the impetus for change belongs to the people in the community and the role of the community worker is that of a catalyst.
Community development harnesses people power – ‘power to’ not ‘power over’.
Marg and Regional Council’s famous campaigns were all based on action by local people facilitated by the community workers. Marg always insisted that the local people were the leaders and the main players. While there were several large campaigns, I felt some of the smaller actions were clear examples of community development at work.
The ‘Save the Banks’ campaign was one. Marg had developed an extensive interaction with local Department of Housing tenants. They were complaining that local bank closures meant many frail old and sick people could not get access to their pension money as they did not have cars and could not physically manage the bus. Bank closures were also the beginning of the degradation of the local shopping strips that these people relied on. What to do? How could they get the attention of the mighty Commonwealth bank which was about to close its Waterloo branch? The call went out and a great assortment of local people, from old people on walking frames to the local member of parliament, met outside the bank. They then walked across Elizabeth Street at the traffic lights in Waterloo in front of the bank. As soon as they all got across, the button was pressed and they all filed back across. It did not take long for the traffic to bank up. The signs being carried that said, “Honk if you hate banks”, brought out a cacophony of response from the truck drivers. Police arrived, saw we were doing nothing illegal and went away. Next thing I knew I was in a meeting in the Commonwealth Head Office in Martin Place with the Deputy Governor of the bank, the local member of parliament and the NSW government treasurer.
Another time, the local post office had been closed and left to degrade with dirt and graffiti, working against efforts to have it re-opened. How could the local community show it was valued? The idea came to clean it up, so the call went out to the local people to come down with buckets and brushes and have a working bee. I still enjoy recalling the sight of Tanya Plibersek scrubbing the Post Office Building clean. And it was not defaced after that.
Of course, you cannot just pull people out to a rally without doing a lot of work first. This includes making contact with key local people, facilitating places for them to meet and raise local issues, providing them with information about what the government is thinking and suggesting strategies to solve problems. As the theory of social capital identifies, a vital ingredient is trust, which is developed over time though people interacting at local community events, planning meetings and working together on local issues.
For community workers, it is vital to understand the relationship between developing the local community and providing community services. I was confronted with this dilemma early in my time as HACC Development Officer. Cheryl Kelly, a fellow project officer at Regional Council said to me, “I don’t like the HACC Program (Home and Community Care), because it is all about service delivery, so it pulls us away from community development”. The challenge then was to see if I could work out how to deliver services using community development philosophy and practice. It was a revelation that I am thankful to Cheryl for, because it gave my work in the HACC program in Eastern Sydney a strong philosophical underpinning and direction.
Of course, obtaining and delivering community services is an act of community development, it is just not the only or most important part. The trick is to identify the community development aspects inherent in most community services.
‘Regional Councils for Social Development’ across NSW, were set up by the Whitlam Government to plan locally and receive funding to distribute to those services identified by the local communities. Needless to say, when the Whitlam government failed, it did not take long for the ‘power over’ brigade to re-assert itself and remove localised funding.
Yet many services existing today began as community development actions. In South Sydney, Department of Housing tenants were telling Marg that they were flat out trying to help local residents who had grown old in their units and needed help. This developed into Home Care – a major aged care program today and, at a local level, South Sydney Community Aid was managed by local tenants.
Community services need to be well seated in their local community, with local people being signed up as members, forming management committees and being volunteers where they are needed. Running a local community service committee is a way of skilling up local people and in that respect, is an act of community development.
The advent of economic rationalism was a blow against localism. The market was not interested in local people supporting each other and finding ways to get their needs met outside the supermarket. The two philosophies clashed and community development suffered to the point where it was pronounced dead by many people, in particular, government funding bodies. The wisdom of the time said that we had to be ‘professional’ i.e. corporate. This idea that a well- run, community based organisation linked to its local people cannot be professional, is alive and well in the sector even today. Yet there can be much poor practice in so-called professional corporations, businesses and government agencies. Perhaps we could adopt the ideas of ‘community professionalism’, where our excellent practices and respect for people are seen as equally valuable.
While the insistence of the economic rationalists that ‘the market will provide’ is remarkably persistent, so is the concept that people power can be harnessed to meet people’s needs. We only have to see the current reaction of local communities to floods, bushfires and terrorism to see people power in action. A wise community worker can invigorate this resource, if only we recognise it and trust its efficacy. The government needs strong, resilient communities, as it cannot meet all the communities’ needs by simply throwing money at a service.
May Inner Sydney Voice continue to be a bastion of community development in Eastern Sydney for the next 40 years and beyond.
Faye Williams joined Regional Council in 1990 as HACC Development Officer. She left in 1997 for other employment but remained involved on the Management Committee as Treasurer for 6 years and returned as Executive Officer from 2005 to 2008.
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