“You just seem to sit and have coffee with people!”
“Everywhere you go, things happen – but you just seem to sit and have coffee with people!”
A month or so ago, a lady who I’d met a couple of times stopped me in the street and said, “I want to know more about what you do. It seems that everywhere you go, things happen – but you just seem to sit and have coffee with people!”
We then chatted for some time about the nature and purpose of conversation; and the ‘Community Building Dance’ of stepping forward and stepping back – and the power of simple encouragement. We talked about the necessity for residents to pursue their own ideas in their own time and in their own ways, without ‘professionals’ coming in and doing things for them. We talked about power dynamics in a community, and how people hold their own stories and own their own projects, and how small story-sharing conversations and consistent nudging and open questions can lead to things happening which are fully owned by the Community and the residents themselves – the ones who have the ideas and the skills and assets needed to put those ideas into practice.
Sometimes it is much easier to just do something for someone – especially when we are asked to, or when we see the person struggling and want to just show them how it’s done. But as soon as we start doing things for people, the power shifts and it becomes, at least in part, our project, not theirs. They then cannot take full ownership, and may be hesitant to take full responsibility. And then in future we may be asked to do further things for their project, rather than the residents finding ways of doing those things amongst themselves, recognising their own skills and assets and finding ways to navigate through the issues. It can be a time-consuming and sometimes difficult process – but we encourage, and challenge, and ask thought-provoking questions, and slowly watch the process unfold.
This is a difficult task, especially in a community where there are some quite traditional mindsets in place. People often ask me again and again to explain my job and my role – ‘community builder’ is not something that people are used to hearing about, and on more than one occasion people have said to me, “Well, I hope you find a real job soon.”
What, then, does a Community Builder actually do?
In almost every conversation – either with a stranger or with someone I’ve met before – in the back of my mind I’m looking out for certain things. Ideas or dreams that person may have for the community or indeed for their own life, or the lives of their neighbours. Skills and talents that the person may possess or may hope to one day possess. Things that the person may want to learn or want to experience. Concerns that the person may have for their community or for a friend or neighbour. Often I’ll ask direct questions; sometimes I’ll just let the conversation unfold and see what emerges.
These conversations take place in many different contexts. In the local knitting groups; bowls groups; youth groups. In cafes and pubs. At bus stops or park benches. To any onlooker it does seem like almost all I do is sit and have coffee with people – I spend my time in coffee mornings meeting people, and meeting for a chat with residents whom I may have met at activity groups locally. I ‘hang out’ in what I call the bumping spaces – parks, benches, outside shops and the like: places where people bump into one another and end up in conversation – and chat with people. I find out what it is that people are interested in; what people love doing or would love to learn to do. I find out what people love about their community and what people would love to see happening there which isn’t already in place.
And then I encourage.
Sometimes it seems to simply be a matter of giving permission – not that it is mine, or anyone else’s, to give – just that people are sometimes unaware that they are allowed to do things that they love.
“A few friends and I really like making cards, and once every few months we sit in my living room and make cards together, but it would be nice if we could turn it into a real group and meet somewhere where people can drop in and join us if they want to.” …Why not? The Community Centre and Village Hall and even the Church Hall might be willing to lend you a room…
“I’ve always wanted to learn basic woodwork, but don’t know where to start.” …Who do you know who is good at woodwork? …Why not ask them if they can teach you a little for an hour or so?
“Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had a garden party here in our street!” …Sounds great! I’m sure your neighbours would love the idea just as much as you do! Why not get a few neighbours together over coffee to talk about it and see where the idea leads?
“I’d love to teach people how to use computers. It’s something I could give back to the community.” …Fantastic! Who do you know who might like to learn?
It’s wonderful watching the process unfold time and time again – watching people in their journey as they begin to think, and act, and lead – and new things begin to happen in the community. Watching people discover that actually all that they need to make an idea happen is actually already there and available. Seeing people learn new things about their neighbours – that the lady at number 34 loves to bake, and that Mr Brown is a prolific writer, and that the woman next door has event management experience, and that the boy round the corner loves designing posters – the skills that people possess and would be willing to offer to their community are endless. Anything is achievable if we all come together and call on our own skills and assets and those of our friends and neighbours.
The whole mindset behind all this is to bring people together and help people to think outside of the box. To equip people to feel free to pursue their dreams and ideas, to bring people together, to get to know their neighbours better, to include people who may not often be invited.
And it all starts with a conversation.