First National Conference on the
Future of Australia's Country Towns
The Regional Institute

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Community Building - Being the Change that Needs to Occur

Sue Middleton

WA Grassroots Development

Presentation to the First National Conference on the Future of Australia's Country Towns

28,29,30 June 2000

Bendigo, Victoria, Australia

The culture of rural communities is not serving our own evolution.

I see myself as a passionate "bushie". I'm a descendant of a pioneering farming family - and I am a child of rural Australia. I love the culture of rural Australia, it is our greatest strength, and now, it is also our greatest weakness.

I have one basic message today, and that is our challenge is to BE the change that needs to occur.

I'm going to reflect on the learning of the WA Community Builders Program, to show how, as practitioners, volunteers, policy makers or academics, we can be that change.

I want to tell you firstly that I've made a choice. I've got forty minutes, and that's a tiny amount of time to tell you about our experiences of community building, so I'm going to spend no time describing the problem. The danger I see is that I might walk over grief and loss that the communities you live in are experiencing, so at the outset I need you to know that I am going to describe ways we can help our communities to move through that process, to the place where they can find opportunities. In essence, some possibility thinking.

Community Building as a process is like planting trees. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time is now.

In WA, the community building seeds have been planted over many years. The Community Builders Initiative is only 3 and a half years old - but it sits on a foundation of Community Economic Development work that the Department of Commerce and Trade, the Development Commissions, Local Govt and countless other agencies have been doing for years. When Community Builders started we were working in ground that had been worked over, and was fertile.

This was around the time that I arrived in WA - fresh from Western Queensland. There was a healthy frustration in many of the communities with the local economic situation. They knew they weren't achieving their potential and were fairly dissatisfied with the status quo. Always a good place to start.

A group of West Aussies had returned from a study tour to Nebraska the year before and had proposed to the Minister for Primary Industries that he sponsor a pilot program, which they had seen in Nebraska called Community Builders. The pilot was designed to be carried out in the Ministers electorate, but news spread to neighbouring regions, and six "clusters" of communities became the CB pilot in WA. A cluster is defined as a regional grouping of communities.

The success of the project in 1997 led to its expansion into 11 clusters in 1998, and again another expansion into 13 clusters and a new region in 1999. This year Community Builders (the process) is operating in 8 clusters.

We have been on a remarkable journey. To say that CB is operating in 8 clusters in WA is not the whole truth. I was once told by a graduate that Community Builders is an invisible cloak that you throw around yourself - and that cloak gives you permission to be a community leader, and to challenge the way things have been in your community. So Community Builders operates in many communities in many ways, although the project is not officially there.

I've heard many state agency people who are working out in the regions, comment on the difference between communities that have had Community Builders, and communities that haven't. I've also had agency people tell me that they didn't like the attitude of Community Builders that are at Consultation meetings, because they are difficult, challenging and don't accept things at face value. Community Builders has clearly changed attitudes, but we don't guarantee that everyone will like it.

I want to reflect on what and how we learnt to do that. And then I want to explain what I think these communities can do now that they couldn't do before Community Builders.

Some background information first:

It's all based around a couple of very simple precepts, one of which Robert Theobold expresses well - People can only learn what they are ready to understand.

In Community Builders, the cluster groups set up their own learning program. It has to be a flexible program, because often at the outset when we are doing the design, people don't know what they don't know. So it's designed to be able to shift as the learning and the level of self-awareness of the individuals within the group grows.

So they come together, they establish the norms of how they would like to operate. This is useful work, because they reflect on these over time, and sometimes they get to see that a problem they are having with a group or an individual in their community or region is about differing values. If you can assist people to have values level conversations, then you can encourage open and transformative conversation, rather than - you must be wrong because I'm right. In a period of rapid change, it's a valuable skill to be able to get insights from other points of view.

So after examining the norms, we then spend some time examining the "problem with their community, or the problem with the world". So then we turn it around, and we say - so you don't like it that way - what is your vision? And what is the gap? And then we say - assuming you are the person that can help your community achieve that dream, what would you need to learn to do that? We then build the design of the learning around those areas that they identify.

The way most of the learning programs shape up are they spend about half the program focussing on processes eg team building, problem solving, conflict resolution, communication etc, and the other half on specific knowledge areas eg how do you set up a youth council, how do you apply for funding, how do you manage a project etc. The things that they are learning are to meet their immediate needs - they're going to use the training tomorrow.

That's the formal learning program. The really powerful part of Community Builders is that it's done within an action-learning context. The participants work on a real project in their communities. The learning becomes embedded because they are problem solving real life situations. The group facilitator coach's participants, and they reflect on their learning and the development of their capacity. So that's where the changes to the learning program come in, because through this reflection, they identify areas of growth that they didn't know they needed, so often the program changes. They also learn about group process by reflecting on the changes occurring within the group.

The other really powerful part is that it connects people in neighbouring communities in a region. They get to see their similarities, they find common ground, they realise that the regional centre up the road has issues that are just as challenging, and they learn how they can help each other. Getting people to focus on something that is bigger than their own back yard is quite a cultural shift. One of the key features of the bush's dominant culture is our independence, so getting people to see the value of community interdependency is groundbreaking. We have also worked hard to connect clusters across the State so we have a sense of one rural community - through intercluster tours, the website, newsletters and State events.

But the most exciting part of Community Builders is to hear the "they should" disappear from people's vocabulary to become "we could". People really see that their community is designed by their choices. The future is not out there; it's not happening to us - we're the creators. When people decide that we're choosing our future, a whole lot of things change in life.

What we have learnt???

Firstly I need to tell you that the learning's I'm about to share did not come easily. My view was always that the issue we were struggling with, was the same issue our communities were struggling with.

  • Make the learning and insight accessible.
  • Interrupt the pattern of people's lives.
  • Help people break the big picture down to something they can respond to.
  • Ask "why, why, why, why, why and why".
  • Invest more time into knowing and understanding the people who are on the journey with you. If you don't like something about a person, then it's a sure sign you have something to learn from them.
  • Try to learn your lessons only once. If that's not possible, forgive yourself, and keep trying.
  • Assume you don't know. Never be the expert or give solutions.
  • We are always more similar than we are different, but value and celebrate the differences. They can be the greatest source of humour and insight.
  • Shining a light on a dark place takes courage and tenacity.
  • In the process, ask yourself - am I giving power?
  • In the process, ask yourself - what do I need to give up?

What we didn't manage?

There are some things that we haven't learnt to manage in Community Builders.

  • How to manage the tension between the outcomes our sponsor needed, and the outcomes that the communities generated.
  • How to convert the process of evaluation into a participant driven process, from a top-down process with the focus on accountability and control.
  • How to generate sustainability - non-profit incorporated organization created by graduates and facilitators of the program - evolution of the chaord?

I think the greatest gift CB in WA can give the other states that are trialling the process, is those questions and our journey in trying to manage the tension between a grassroots learner driven process and the inevitable political imperative. This is particularly relevant given the political and governmental environment that rural Australia sits in today.

How has it changed our communities? What are the Development Outcomes?

These are incredibly hard questions to answer, and I was reminded of that the other day in a Council meeting in my own community. The invisible cloak is its strength, but if you needed to sell it to local stakeholders, then we'd need to play that game differently, and we'd have to show people like the Shire President, the cloak.

So I think the best I can do to answer those questions is to tell you what the communities that have embraced Community Builders can do now, that they couldn't do before.

And I'll illustrate each with examples.

  1. They have a greater capacity to use information.
  2. They increase their investment in their local and regional organizations.
  3. People in these communities have become connected to government.
  4. They have the ability to access resources when they need it.
  5. They have the confidence and ability to design their own capacity building initiatives.
  6. They are building quality of life.
  7. They are more likely to welcome diversity, and to learn from different points of view. They welcome contributions from new residents. They want power shared.
  8. They challenge the status quo.
  9. They are engaged learners on a journey of self-discovery.
  10. They connect and network.
  11. They are effective problem solvers.
  12. They accept conflict as being part of a healthy community, and necessary for the emotional growth of a community.
  13. They accept responsibility for where they are in life, and for where they want to be.
  14. They dare to dream.
  15. They love to celebrate.

All of these outcomes have not been achieved in each community equally or consistently. And the question - would they have developed these capacities anyway, because they were already on the journey searching, and that's why they came to us, is impossible to answer. I would not put valuable resources into looking for that answer. It's not important.

But there is one absolute truth that I have learnt from Community Builders. And that is if you give people the permission to try, you will always be stunned by what they achieve.

Fundamentally, what Community Builders does is grow Capacity. And that's a term that's thrown around a lot - but what do I mean by Capacity. At the surface level, it's skills. But deeper than that, growing capacity is about shifting attitudes and growing knowledge (and self awareness at an individual, enterprise and community level). When I visit or work with a community that has capacity, what I experience is that they have a sense of where they are going, the vision, the commitment and the drive to get there, and the understanding that they are working for something that is bigger than they know themselves to be. Which sounds vague, but it's something that I see in communities with strong social capital - that sense that they have something to contribute to the world, and they are not just chasing the "what's in it for them". It's that sense of reciprocity. The key difference is that they know they are in a learning cycle, and they know that if it doesn't work, that there is another way to try it.

Communities with capacity can imagine themselves differently. It's the old principle of constructivism - I can because I think I can. And they build a history of success, so I think I can, becomes I know I can.

So I don't have much time left and I want to return to my first point - The culture of rural communities is not serving our own evolution. I think the following five points are symptomatic of that:

  • Firstly, I don't think that focussing on economic imperatives without taking account of human or spiritual needs is yielding us a quality of life that anyone is satisfied with.
  • Secondly, I think that we are using our anger and our dissatisfaction with the current situation to "punish" our institutions, especially government and political institutions.
  • Thirdly, we are determined to maintain our independence, even though the cost of that is our compromising our future.
  • Fourthly, we are actively avoiding conflict and dissension in our communities.
  • Fifthly, we are not being fully responsible for our own growth and learning.

That's a hard list to write, because I recognise all of those symptoms in myself, in my enterprises and in the communities that I belong to. And to illustrate a possible way forward, I want to go back to another previous statement - people can only learn what they are ready to understand.

I believe that if we say we are committed to generating a prosperous future for rural Australia and for our small country towns, then we have to address our attitude. Change isn't out there. Change lives within us. And it's in everyone. What are we ready to understand about our attitudes?

I believe that projects, programs, discussions, e-groups, media articles, every form of communications that we can possibly imagine, that help us to challenge "why we are doing what we're doing" are vitally important. We need people sharing at the values level.

I believe that it is time we reclaimed our organizations and institutions, and clearly and plainly request that they organise themselves around human values and spirit. I believe we need to understand that we are not separate to them, we are they, they are us, we are incredibly connected.

I believe that we should build community everywhere. I believe in the complex and ever shifting world that we are creating, that the only constant that I know we can count on is the innate goodness of the human spirit. Building community builds trust, and trust and love calls people to be the best they can be. Our responsibility as Community practitioners is to help people and communities find their potential - to be the best they can be.

We can help people and communities construct their world a different way. But we have to first believe the world can be a different way. What do you believe?

Relate the Story of Mother Teresa.

In closing:

Community Building is holy work.
It is a privilege to touch another person's soul.
We ourselves are forever changed.
So tread lightly,
And leave a legacy of love.

Thank you for taking the time to listen or read my thoughts.

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