We could start by asking the famous five questions: who, what, where, when and how? There is, of course, another question that can be added to that quintet: why? I’ll come back to why in another post when I look at the essential values and attitudes of community development.
Lets start with who. Who a community development worker works with and for brings us to the first (of three) essential skills.
Networking and Relationship Building
Community development work can sometimes seem a lonely role, but it is far from a lonely undertaking. If community development is about social change then the worker must develop relationships with those whose social situation the worker is attempting to change. This implies being open to our own fears of rejection, misunderstanding, criticism and perhaps ostracism. It also means being willing to learn, adapt, modify and be flexible. It means accepting, being non-judgemental and certainly letting go of any desire to control processes and outcomes.
The other side of relationship-building is perhaps harder to recognise and harder to achieve. That is the building of relationships with those who may have something to “lose” if the social change you are working for is achieved. The difficulty here, for the community development worker, is building and maintaining lines of communication with business owners, politicians, funders, bureaucrats and others, yet at the same time remaining true to the hopes and dreams of those you are working with and for. Not easy, but there are many resources around to help teach such skills.
Critical Analysis skills enable us to answer the when, where and what questions so that we can clarify and understand the elements of an issue. This means being able to answer questions such as: what contributes to this situation? where are the stakeholders? what are the connections between differing parts? Its not just about breaking the issue down into it’s components though – its also about being able to place an issue in a wider context. Being able to see the Big Picture. From this clarifying analysis it is possible to make judgements.
Judgements are the critical part of critical analysis. We can ask: how reliable is the evidence? what are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT)? where can we get resources and assistance from? is this an important issue?
Analytical skills are what enable us to pick our spots (the where), our issue (the what) and our timing (the when). These skills are crucial to our being able to focus and prioritise. The last thing we want to do as community development workers is to be presented with an idea and think “oh, that’s a good idea” and race off blindly to implement it.
The third skill helps to answer the how question. Much has been written about facilitation. There are handbooks, manuals, workshops, seminars, DVDs and even Certificates available. I do not intend to suggest any techniques or tools here (although future posts may do so). All I wish to do is flag facilitation as a vital skill in the skill-set of a community development worker.
I first became aware of the process of facilitation in the late 1970s at a time when community activists in Aotearoa (New Zealand) were learning many of the tools and techniques of non-violent action. One of my favourite and very simple definitions of a facilitator comes from that time:
“A good facilitator helps participants be aware that they are in charge, that it is their business that is being conducted, and that each person has contributions to make to the group. (A facilitator) emphasises the mutual responsibility of the group and the democratic nature of the process” - Coover, Deacon, Esser & Moore, Resource Manual for a Living Revolution, New Society Press, Philadelphia, 1978, p 62.Usually facilitation is thought of as applying within a meeting setting that involves discussion, planning and decision-making. I like to think of it also in a wider context. Facilitation then becomes the skill that a community development worker uses in order to enable members of a community to feel listened to, valued and that they are important contributors to decisions about the community in which they live.
With that concept in mind it is clear that I am suggesting that facilitation is an over-arching skill that contains a number of skills: e.g. team-building, conflict resolution and creative listening.
The Three as One
Although I have mentioned each of these skills as if they were a separate skill they are intractably linked. To network effectively, good facilitation skills are needed. Thorough analysis will suggest what relationships need to be built up, and the relationships that you do build will in turn influence the analysis.
If there is one thing that a community development worker learns it is that no one skill is more important than another. The vital skill employed by a community development worker may be the ability to know which skill to use at which time.