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Growing communities for social change is best done gently

By Mark Randell - posted Wednesday, 22 January 2003

There are - as I have pointed out ad nauseam in previous columns - many similarities between 'developing' a community and making a garden.

Communities are things that grow spontaneously and are, if left to their own devices, self-organising. So are gardens. Communities require, and instil, humility in their leaders. The best gardeners approach their gardens with the same sense of humility. Good gardeners are very 'umble people, Mr Copperfield.

If you approach a garden with a prepared awareness, you can learn a great deal - principally about yourself. The same is true of a community.


The question arises: Where do we start? How and where do we sow those first seeds, how do we engender that first sense of 'community'? What to do if the 'soil' is bare, if there is no community 'ground' prepared?

We know where we want to get to: we want a mature, self-organising, self-tending community. One that fully participates in its own destiny; that positively buzzes with the activities and links that sustain the social fabric, which (to put it in today's words) 'build social capital'. We want a community that makes us feel an integral part of the whole. But how to begin?

First, set yourself your primary goal, which must be "to work myself out of a job".

Gardening - and community 'development' work - is not like other work, it's essentially self-therapy; and the first thing you will need to conquer in yourself is the desire to be needed. Remember humbleness? That's what it means: to not feel that you are, or need to be, at the centre of things.

What am I talking about?

Well, the role of a 'community developer' or a social worker, or a 'change agent', or a gardener for that matter, is to act as a catalyst - and then to stand back and watch the result, the reaction, the combining of elements, the growth of the system. Without interfering.


Communities grow, and develop, and mature, and change, all by themselves. They simply need a start, that initial combination of elements that starts the process. It's a bit like the ancient art of alchemy - the refining of base metals (people) into gold (community). And a lot like gardening.

If the 'community development' worker continues to (attempt to) 'manage' the community, there's a very good chance that they are being paternalistic. "You should be going this way!" Not so - if the community wants to run off a cliff, that's their affair, not yours. Let 'em go - after making sure that there are signs to more positive 'outcomes'.

The principal job of the community development worker is to set up the community 'structures' that allow the members of the community to act effectively within and outside the community - and then to stand back.

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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