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Changing community conversations through Appreciative Inquiry

No Ball Games Allowed
Do these signs actually help or hinder community?

During a recent visit to Mansfield, as part of the field research phase prior to the start of their Problem Solving in Community Safety course, I joined a small group of Council and Fire Service employees in the Ravensdale Estate. The aim of these walkabouts is to enable me to get a real feel for what is going well and to ascertain what the issues are from a resident and ‘boots on the ground’ perspective. They allow me the opportunity to engage in and demonstrate community conversations using Appreciative Inquiry.

On the benches outside the community centre the housing officer and council warden explained how they find it difficult to engage with the Ravensdale Community and how the one association on the estate (a Tenants and Resident’s Association) is mostly comprised of elderly people. They went on to describe how they try to get people to attend their meetings but hardly anyone turns up, and the ones that do are regular faces. They’d put on events for young people, such as climbing wall sessions and ‘drop ins’ with pizza, however, hardly anyone attended – ‘adults and young people just aren’t interested.’

I asked who the ‘go to’ or leaders of the community were, which led to silence. Apart from the local councillors and the few members of the Tenants and Resident’s Association, the answer was, ‘there aren’t any.’

Which got me wondering about the type of conversations that had been taking place between service providers and residents. Had they been focused on trying to find out what is ‘broken’ so that they can fix things or on what is already working or could work so that they can build on it? It turned out that the focus was on the former with conversations based on, ‘You Said, We Did.’ Our discussion then turned to the possibility of alternative conversations using an appreciative mindset to enable purposeful community building.

For those in the public sector who have been used to just one type of conversation this can be quite a shift. However, the best way to learn is through experience and so we went for a walk. It wasn’t long before we came across an open patch of grass surrounded by houses, flats and overlooked by a Mansfield District Council ‘No Ball Games Allowed’ sign. We discussed how young people often ignore signs like this and how through expectations that can’t be met they result in demand failure on public services. Representations were made about how young people already have a nearby field they can play on and how they shouldn’t play in this area. The questions and answers were becoming quite heated as we debated the merits and pitfalls of trying to regulate behaviour through the use of signs. It was at this point we saw a group of children approach on their bikes.

Appreciative Inquiry community conversations
Andy the Firefighter starts off an appreciative conversation with a group of Mansfield children

This was an opportunity to demonstrate how a more appreciative conversation could enable community building as opposed to what was happening, a focus on why young people breach the orders on signs and cause what some consider to be anti social behaviour. After a quick tutorial Andy (the fire-fighter) stepped in to start a different type of conversation.

Andy introduced himself and started by asking questions about their bikes, which were all unroadworthy (no brakes and worn tyres). This was his initial lever so that he could move the conversation towards questions about what they loved doing in the area. The answers came thick and fast:

  • Playing football by the No Ball Games Signs, ‘because it’s where we live’
  • Boxing
  • Gymnastics
  • Dancing
  • Riding around the estate on bikes
  • And a surprise ‘First Aid’ because, ‘I saw you at the fire station and you showed me.’

Once Andy had the children talking we entered into a more in depth conversation about what they liked and loved about living in the area. It wasn’t long before we were finding out what made them tick and what would draw them to into participating in future activities that would also link in with the strategic aims of the Community Safety Partnership. What started to emerge as a theme was their love of cycling and football, which in turn guided the direction of the conversation.

Ravensdale children demonstrate what they are passionate about - excellent gymnastic skills
Ravensdale children demonstrate what they are passionate about – excellent gymnastic skills

We were also ‘entertained’ by the children who provided examples of their gymnastic prowess as well as their first aid abilities with demonstrations of how to carry out chest compressions and put someone in the recovery position. Impressive stuff from young people who only minutes before were being talked about as not wanting to get involved and engage.

For those who are familiar with Appreciative Inquiry (AI) this was the ‘Discovery’ phase of an AI cycle where you explore the best of ‘what is.’ From here the conversation flowed into the ‘Dream’ phase where I started to ask questions about what they would like their estate to look and feel like in respect of football and cycling. Ideas around nearby wasteland being used as an off road bike track and patches of grass / open space being designated as areas where they could play football started to emerge. We also discovered why they didn’t like to use the playing field where the Council had fitted goalposts: ‘it’s too far away…. it’s not where we live…. the goals are too big and there are no nets.’

Andy joined in by asking questions about how they would like to get their bikes roadworthy and it wasn’t long before they were up for improving their road safety skills and the road-worthiness of their cycles.

Remembering First Aid skills from a visit to the local fire station
Remembering First Aid skills from a visit to the local fire station

The children went on to show us where they played football. It wasn’t hard to see why complaints might roll in about their activities as their goalposts were the wooden doors of outhouses at the back of an apartment block (which would create noise nuisance and damage).

As part of the Dream phase a few prompts were provided around ‘what could be,’ as sometimes if you ‘don’t know what you don’t know’ you can’t begin to envision what a more positive future might look like. Out of this came an idea about young people having their own neighbourhood football club with access to portable nets.

From here we moved into the ‘Design’ phase (Co-constructing the Dream) of an AI with questions about what the parents and adults in the lives of the children could do. Through this we identified fathers who had mechanical skills (or bike road-worthiness) and parents who might also be future football coaches. During this part of the conversation we were joined by one of the mothers.

Five minutes into us explaining the detail of our conversation with the children we had her commitment to explore the possibilities as well as an offer of support to connect us with other like-minded parents.

Of course there were no promises as at this stage as the Council have yet to commit to changing how they fund community projects through concepts such as small seed grants and funding participatory budgeting.

But the experience did leave everyone involved challenged and inspired. In the space of 20 minutes we had gone from, ‘no-one wants to engage with us,’ to, ‘people do want to engage, we’ve just found one and it looks like there are more. We just need to have a different type of conversation, one that takes place out in the community, not in a Council owned community centre.’

And at no point did anyone use phrases like Asset Based Community Development or Appreciative Inquiry. Although these concepts have models and structures that can be utilised by practitioners (as we did in this case), the ethos and philosophy behind them is what I believe to be more important. These models are what guide your conversations and enable them to be more authentic and honest.

Just imagine what a difference this 20-minute investment in community building might lead to? Less road traffic collisions involving young people on bikes, more parents who know and support each other, more tolerance for youthful activities, less reports of anti social behaviour, young people discovering new role models and aspiring to more…. The list is endless.

So, are you going to remain in a demand inducing conversation based on finding out what isn’t working and then trying to fix it? Or are you going to change the nature of your community conversations? To become a part of the community as opposed to apart from it?

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