I had an interesting discussion the other day with a group of police officers that were interested in how asset based approaches to community building and in particular, the use of Appreciative Inquiry, can be used to help support building strong communities.
I believe all public servants have a part to play in community building. Some will have this as a significant part of their role, whereas for others, it might not be part of their role, but should be in their DNA. The nature of our conversations and connections with community members will influence the extent to which we are perceived as supporting community building as opposed to being ‘broken stuff’ fixers.
To help explain what I meant I used an example of how a conversation might go with a group of people from the same community at a bus stop.
The best thing about what I used to call ‘Bus Stop PACT (Police and Community Together) meetings is that you can do this any time (no need for a monthly meeting) and if you know when the bus is due, you could have a captive audience for a good 10 minutes or so.
So, imagine a bus stop where there is a mix of people from a community: a retired couple; a mother with her two children; a few people off to work and a couple of 16/17 year old students.
This is how a police / community conversation might go when the officer utilises a traditional deficit based problem solving approach:
PC: Morning everyone, lovely day?
Retired couple: Yes, isn’t it nice, are you our local officer?
PC: Yes, I’m PC XXXX, I’ve only recently started here – I’m trying to get to know as many people as I can and at the same time find out what everyone’s concerns and priorities are.
Mother: I’ll tell you what they are, groups of youths wandering the streets at night causing all sorts of trouble.
PC: Where and when does this happen? If we know about it we can take action to stop it.
Man off to work: It’s in the park once it gets late, getting drunk, smashing bottles, you need to get a grip of it before someone else does it for you.
Retired couple: We get really scared of all the groups of young people
PC: I’ll make a note of this and will have the PCSOs I work with include it in their patrol plan. If we come across any youths with alcohol it will be seized off them and if we find youths hanging around in the park we’ll move them on.
Man off to work: Excellent, it’s about time someone took some action.
Students: There’s only one park for young people to meet in though. I can remember being moved on all the time when I was younger, there are only a few idiots with booze; you moving us on just scatters us across the estate, that’s how one of my mates got robbed last week. That’s what you should be dealing with, not young people who aren’t doing anything wrong.
PC: We’re aware of the street robbery problem, we’ve got extra patrols out in the evenings to prevent any further incidents.
And so the conversation goes on, blame, fault, stuff that’s broken, people not trusting each other, no sense of community, and the police being the ones who put themselves forwards to tackle all the problems.
Now I know a conversation at a bus stop might not be as forthcoming as this, but you get the idea? I’ve been to numerous community meetings where this would be a typical police / community discussion. From this ten minute conversation the officer has discovered a number of problems and has increased the demand on the local police team by promising action.
But what if the conversation could be different? One where the focus is on what is already there and working as opposed to what is wrong and broken? All it takes is a mind shift in the style of questions asked:
PC: Morning everyone, lovely day?
Retired couple: Yes, isn’t it nice, are you our local officer?
PC: Yes, I’m PC XXXX, I’ve only recently started here – I’m trying to get to know as many people as I can. I believe it’s really important that I should feel like I’m part of the community and I know that might take a while.
Mother: Well it’s about time we got an officer back here; there are all sorts of problems that need dealing with.
PC: I appreciate that. Actually, while I’m here, do you mind me asking a few questions – the answers might help in addressing these problems?
PC to Mother: Do you mind me asking what it is you like about living here?
Mother: All the Mums look out for each other, if I need some help there’s always someone that can help.
PC: That’s really good, sounds like a sense of community there.
PC to everyone else: What about the rest of you?
Students: There’s a lot of young people living here, we all meet up at weekends in the park and have a laugh.
Man off to work: Wreck the park more like, noise, litter and broken bottles is what you cause.
PC to Man off to work: I’ll come back to that if I can, but first, what is it you like about living here?
Man off to work: Well, I’ve got young children as well – there’s a group of Dad’s that meet in the park every weekend for a kick about with our children. All the kids get on with each other really well.
PC to retired couple: What about you, what is it you like?
Retired couple: It was better years ago, but there’s still a small group of us who meet once a week for a walk through some of the green areas. Some have dropped out, as they’re a bit scared to go out.
Student: That’s terrible – you shouldn’t be scared like that
PC thinks: So, in just a few minutes I’ve established that there are a lot of informal groups that meet, do things to support each other and share the same space, the park. Now, if I could get some support for them to connect up more and grow?
PC: So it sounds like there are a lot of informal groups out there providing support and interaction? Here’s a question for you all, what would you all like this community to be like this time next year presuming all of what you like can continue and grow? So for the Mums, what would you like there to be more of in respect of support for each other? For the Dad’s, how would you like your kick about to develop? For the young people, what would help in the park? For the walkers, what would your group be doing more of?
Student: Well, I don’t like the idea of older people being scared of us; maybe something to break down barriers?
Retired couple: There’s no reason why you couldn’t join us on our walks?
Mother: In a years time it would be great if we had somewhere we could meet during the day, where the kids could play and where we could help support each other.
Man off to work: It would be great if we had a team for the kids, I used to coach football, as did a few of the other Dad’s. We’d just need some strip and would we need a bank account, all of the complicated stuff?
PC: All of that is possible I’m quite sure: For the walkers, I know someone (local community builder) who can help provide support to get more people who would like to join you, from all backgrounds and ages. Dad’s, I know how you can get a grant to purchase some football strips (PCC fund) and someone who can help with setting up a bank account and the admin (local community builder). College students, if you’re up for it I know of a group that would love to support you so that you have more to do at weekends than just meeting in the park (Redeeming Our Communities charity).
PC: How does all of this sound? OK, I can see the bus coming, here’s my contact details – drop me a line and we can make this happen.
In this example (and I fully accept that the conversation might involve a bit more process) the officer has looked for examples of what is already working in the community and through their contacts has started the process of connecting and supporting. The officer won’t need to do much except to connect up other groups and individuals who can help support them.
For those of you who are familiar with the concepts of Appreciative Inquiry and Asset Based Community Development you’ll have recognised various stages of each of these models in this interaction. However, as these theories are just that, they are there to be adapted to suit the needs of every situation. In my experience as soon as you announce that you are going to do Appreciative Inquiry or ABCD to people they switch off. By using a mindset shift approach all you are doing is to change the style of questions you pose when interacting with other community members.
In respect of what’s in it for the Police and Council? Well, to start off with, I believe this is part of your role and their shouldn’t need to be an agenda as such. However, for those of you who like to know how this kind of activity will hit targets and outcomes:
Mums with small children coming together as a group enables a route for services to provide early support around mental health, depression, identification of child needs and a range of other issues that if left unchecked will result in problems and demand further down the line.
A walking group that breaks down inter-generational barriers and involves all sectors of a community gets people exercising, enables a greater understanding of the diverse nature of where you live and provides guardianship of open spaces by those who care the most about them.
A kid’s football team provides opportunities for exercise, team building skills, a diversion from a future that involves ASB and crime, communication skills, connections between parents and a sense of ownership of public spaces.
Weekend evening structured activities by charitable organisations such as ROC for young people reduces ASB, enables more responsible behaviour and support for young people to get involved in volunteering.
All of which should lead to less demand on services and the problems that exist slowly being dealt with by the people who have the greatest stake in their community?
And all from a conversation at a bus stop?