Learning from History: the role of the community worker


Alison West, Chief Executive of the Community Development Foundation, gave a powerful contribution to National Conference on the rebirth of community work and our potential for making a major contribution now. Her speech is re printed below.


Each year, the CYWU conference pack includes a list of Presidents dating back to 1938. The conference itself is part of the history of the profession that we work in and my talk is going to look at the recent history and its legacy for us today.




In the 1970s, the world of community work was a good one. Not only were there plenty of innovative programmes and initiatives, on health, anti-poverty, adult literacy and violence against women and so on, but there was also a good system for discussing our work and pushing best practice through the profession. The Routledge and Kegan Paul series of books, Community Work One and Two, Political Issues and Community Work, Women in the Community, were all excellent, raising both theoretical and practical issues. There was also a thriving mutual and trade union movement to link in to and the time was characterised by energy, optimism, commitment - a great time to be working in this field.


1980s and 90s


The same cannot be said for the period 1980- 1997. This saw a shift from communal to individual programmes, an emphasis on the individual volunteer with the Make A Difference campaign, a divisive atmosphere not compatible with the community work ethos. It was a time of camouflage for many of us, where community development stressed the virtues of self-help in poorer communities without necessarily pointing out the limits to this. My own organisation, the Community Development Foundation, barely survived this period.


Did things get better after 1997? The current government has persisted with the individualistic emphasis of the previous one, with Millennium Volunteers, social entrepreneurs, community champions, active citizens, communitarianism - all stressing the responsibility of the individual, to help others and to do something about their own lives. Fortunately for our profession, there is a parallel and largely unrelated other strand, a more collectivist approach. This can be seen in the integrated approach of the new Children’s Fund, the Community Empowerment Fund (community development in all but name), Community Chest funds for smaller groups, the Phoenix Fund to give community-based loan finance for social enterprise, and so on. The government has stressed the importance of getting grant support to the small community groups and has publicly acknowledged their importance.




In terms of regeneration programmes, considerable emphasis is put in the need to involve local people and to negotiate an appropriate role for them, although it is true to say that this developed under the previous government. Now we have a wide range of area-based initiatives - Community First in Wales, the Social Inclusion Partnerships in Scotland, the New Deal for Communities and the Neighbourhood Renewal programme in England. Just to show there is nothing new under the sun, this is in fact a return to the 1970s when Strathclyde Region set up its ’Areas of Multiple Deprivation’ programme which included the current fashion for emphasising the role of good public services as well as special programmes.


One thing that has definitely changed since the 1970s, and which is to be welcomed, is a new emphasis, again begun under the previous administration, on evidence-based practice. If we combine this new rigour with a general Zeitgeist that says community equals good, what does this mean for the profession?


First of all, it means we need far more science in our profession. It is very hard to prove the added value of community work intervention and there are hardly any controlled experiments that could prove this. We have relied as a profession far too much on the self-reporting of the case study and our methodology of proof is only just beginning. Similarly, despite all of our own rhetoric, we lack an agreed model, a template, for the Healthy Community. What would its features be? How would we recognise it if we saw it? What is the minimum provision needed before we can have a healthy community? Do we need local shops? A community centre? Good voluntary sector infrastructure? A thriving residents or community association?


Good community workers essential


One difficulty we face is that despite all of the political rhetoric stressing the value of healthy communities there is still no policy acknowledgement that one essential for health is a good community worker. Ironically the adjective "community" is now attached to plenty of other professions. We now have community police, community housing officers, community economic development officers and so on. Hybrid jobs are also now appearing and non-community development professionals are signing up for short courses on the subject. Added to this there is the romantic assumption that local people, even if completely untrained, are better placed to help their own area. There remains a residual distrust of the professional, including by other professionals.


Professionals needed


 In terms of my own view, I believe that communities can be helped - socially, economically and physically, to be better places in which to live, but I also believe this is best brought about with the help of a trained person. Working with local people to make the best of what they have can be more than just a pathetic form of protection against the worst excesses of an unjust system. If we can again make links across communities, if we can work with local communities to link vertically up to the remaining mutuals, from building societies to the Co-op to trade unions, then we have the opportunity to create a powerful social force that would be more than the sum of its parts. The challenge for us now is to move beyond good local work to reanimate our links with other sectors. We did not consolidate the gains of the 1970s and as a result lost them in the 1980s and early 90s. We can learn from our own history.



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