Community Development: Standing with dissent

24 November 2015 | Posted In: #127 Summer 2015/16, Community Development, Planning for People and Social Issues, | Author: Neil Stuart

Community Development means different things to different people. We asked Neil Stuart to reflect on his experience of community development over the last 50-60 years and how it has and hasn’t changed.

megaphoneFor me how to talk about community development is to position myself somewhere in what is a very contested and confusing cluster of ways of talking about something called community development. I won’t make out I’m talking in some positivist, value-free, culture-free, objective way about that phenomenon called “community development”. I’m not going to reference this article, not because I’m scared to, but because it is a personal story.

I’m going back to 1955, not because that’s when community development started, but because I see that is when the community work I practised, shifted its shape into something else.

I was practising youth work in a large religious youth organisation – not paid for my work, a volunteer in an organisation which was pretty much self-governing and self-financing, under the oversight of the church’s governance. It was an organisation not isolated or cut off from our wider society, but not obliged to take account of our wider society nor be accountable to our wider society.

Although I couldn’t have articulated what I was aware of, the traditional forms of youth work were changing and I was to find myself right in the middle of those changes, and in the midst of wider social changes taking place. I think I’ve been very fortunate to be in that time.

I was 18, I’d done my National Service in an infantry battalion, I was repeating my first year at University. It was in April 1955 when a student burst into the Geology lecture theatre and announced a Teachers College student had been knocked down on the roadway outside the Union Steps and there was to be a demonstration.

We all knew the Union Steps. They were the pedestrian entrance from Parramatta Road to the University, right opposite the tram stop. Students, through their Student Representative Council (SRC) had been campaigning for years for a safe crossing. You know campaigning? It’s where, collectively, you argue with the authorities for a change to a situation; you go away thinking you’ve been listened to, but nothing changes. They, the authorities, might even agree to a consultation, but still nothing changes, except that you become more sceptical.

I went to the demo, along with several thousand other students. We spilled on to the roadway, blocking traffic in all directions. I shared in the sense of power, at last something was being done. The Police called in the Riot Squad. I saw them getting out of their buses, then coming towards us.

They were dressed in their black leather gear, with their identification badges removed, and wielding batons. I saw violence, authorised by the State, being done to myself and other unarmed students, decent citizens. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. I couldn’t believe this was my people, my country, doing this to us.

I was a paid-up member of the SRC and of the Student’s Union. I voted in elections for fellow students to represent me. The SRC was subordinate to the Senate, the governing body of the University, and to the Government of NSW.

Some people have said that this experience radicalised me. I disagree. I was ready for that experience. I needed it to confirm where I was standing. Sometimes, perhaps many times, community development practice is a precursor to collective action. What doesn’t change is that both community development and collective action are postures of dissent. Community development is dissent.

For me, community development happens when the collective lays out faithfully the ethical issues involved in the situation – what is the right action in this situation? Even when to do so, is going to result in rejection, being ostracised, being “slagged off at”.

What also doesn’t change is that the collective outs itself by putting itself in the arena where the situation is publicly contested. Community development does not happen privately, hidden from view.

Once, after I had taken part in a protest march through Sydney, a person phoned our place and told my mother she had seen me on TV News. I don’t know whether the phone call was made in malice, but my Mum, ever loyal, said: “Oh yes. Neil often does that sort of thing.” Dissent, public dissent, is normal.

Community development is not the actions of professional community workers, paid for their astuteness in conceiving and shaping communities. Community development is what happens when a group of people arises or emerges to bring about some change in a situation they share.

They are all community workers, owning their existence and their actions, changing themselves from time to time, as the situation unfolds. If there is a place or need in this for paying for the work of someone, then that work is like unto the work of a midwife.

What I see as the professionalising of community work is a big change over the last 60 years. I regret that in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s I was a strong advocate for the professionalising of youth work and for state and local governments making grants to forms of youth work.

Since that money mostly paid for the wages of youth workers, then it was not a big step to seeing youth workers as agents of government and social policies. I finally got out of youth work when I concluded that I was virtually an agent of social control and a prisoner of forms of youth work which privileged the professional youth workers.

A long-held view of community development is that it empowers the group or community with whom the community development worker is working. I disagree – I don’t empower anyone else, I’m not empowered by anyone else. I have the sense that the speaker of the word “empowerment” does not fully recognise this community, this group who is not being spoken of, as they are, but primarily as what they might become, according to the values, the culture of the speaker – which is to practice colonisation.

When working alongside indigenous people in the Upper Blue Mountains, the group I’m a member of has tried to work in such a way that we do not speak for those indigenous people.

Since the 1980’s I have tended to be part of a practice of collective work which means being in groups where members respect each other as they are, where the members are self-determining, self-financing, equal in rank, resisting in as many ways as possible coming under the domination of government.

Am I enthusiastic and optimistic for community development? Am I a believer for community development? The best I can say for both questions is to say, yes, I am for what I mean by “community development”.

Neil Stuart has been active in many groups in the Inner City, including ISRC, before moving to the Blue Mountains. He has spent 23 years as a part time and full time community welfare teacher in TAFE. Neil is one of five authors, (others being John Rule, Kate Nolan, Roy Bishop, and Gael Kennedy) who have this year had the book ANTHILL: a place of knowledge about community work and community management published by Borderlands Co-operative Ltd.