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9 October 2019

Ditch the steretypes

A while back, Noel Mathias of WEvolution posed an awkward challenge in this briefing for anyone who’s interested in the future of community work. His concern was that community work simply hasn’t kept pace with events and as a result has become a bit of an irrelevance. Noel called for a new national framework to shape a new breed of community worker that would be truly fit for purpose. Harsh words perhaps which no doubt rankled with those tasked with keeping community work on track. Colin Ross at CLD Standards Council invoked his right to reply.

By Colin Ross, CLD Standards Council

In his piece “Community work – what’s that?” Noel Mathias offers some stimulating ideas on what he identifies as the need to develop “a new culture, principles and a national framework to educate and accompany a new breed of community workers in Scotland”. He points to fundamental principles to underpin this framework, such as that we should “Trust people we work with as our equals who are capable of figuring out solutions themselves”.

Anyone who’s been around community work in Scotland (or elsewhere) is likely to recognise the traits of “three kinds of community workers” he identifies as falling short of these principles: the “gatekeepers” (overly protective and possessive of “their” communities), the “regulators” (risk-averse and protecting systems that need to be challenged) and the “messiahs” (trying to “fix” people’s lives for them while talking about empowerment). I’d guess we’ve all seen examples of this kind of practice, and perhaps at times found ourselves working in these ways ourselves. As Noel suggests, these kinds of practices are not usually the result of bad intentions. They can happen because of external pressures, insufficient development of skills and knowledge, or lack of quality support and supervision; or a combination of these and other factors.

But these “kinds of community workers” are stereotypes, and while like most stereotypes they came into currency because they contain elements of truth, equally it’s unlikely that they tell the whole story. I’d be surprised if you haven’t been lucky enough to meet community workers who embody the positive principles that Noel refers to, including the one mentioned above and others such as “Focus on creating collectives built around inter-dependence”.

It’s because I’ve encountered and worked with plenty of these people (many of them among the 2,500 members of the Community Learning and Development Standards Council)that while I think that the critique that’s outlined in Noel’s piece is an important and challenging one, I don’t share his view – if I’m picking it up correctly – that in relation to community work we should, in the words of the song, rip it up and start again. 

We do in fact have a national framework for community work in Scotland: the CLD Standards Council’s Competent Practitioner Framework. This guides the education of community workers and “accompanies” them as they shape their own professional learning. It includes a statement of values, a Code of Ethics and a set of practice competences.

 Is this framework, and the practice and professional learning based on it, perfect? Of course not. Is there a need to continually update, develop and improve them? Certainly. But they are based on collective reflection on real practice; there is widespread ownership of them by practitioners and educators; and the organisation and processes to review and renew them are well established. As community workers around the world will testify, establishing this kind of framework does not happen easily or overnight. Some in the community work field will have reservations about the competent practitioner framework and the role of the CLD Standards Council. Dialogue and debate is welcome and essential for progress; but however sceptical you may be, it is worth considering whether better outcomes for communities will result from working together to build on what exists, or dismissing it and going back to square one.

Noel highlights many key areas where there is the need and the opportunity for development. As he says, “new” techniques such as appreciative enquiry or strengths-based approaches are no substitute for developing the underlying mind-set and skill set of community workers. Coaching and mentoring are key to professional development. We need to look at the types of knowledge and skills needed for effective community work now, such as the ones he identifies in economics, entrepreneurship, and the environment. We need to think about in what sense community workers should be “activists”. And we most certainly need to “build, encourage and fund an appetite for serious reflection and research among community workers”. At the core of the CLD Standards Council’s work is the ambition to grow the learning culture of the CLD profession, based on individual and collective reflection on practice

Work in all these areas is already happening. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that we need to get better at working together across the community work field to make it happen more consistently and powerfully? Congratulations to the Scottish Community Alliance for starting a vital debate – hopefully there will be more contributions, from varied perspectives, and they will be a starting point for better mutual understanding and more collective efforts to improve practice.

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