Secret Community Leader #3

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Jul 22, 2020

The Secret Community Leader is an anonymous column sharing the highs and lows of community leadership. It provides an open and honest forum for community leaders to get nagging challenges and worries off their chests. It also aims to share some of the most rewarding moments of community leadership, in the hope of both relating to, and inspiring, other leaders and communities...

I have been secretly leading a community for years.

Community leadership is often a shared responsibility. I lead along with two others, they work voluntarily as residents of the community we serve, I am paid and live elsewhere. We are a top team. Whilst my contribution is no secret on the ground, we all know to seriously play it down to funders, some of whom seem naively committed to the idea of residents leading the transformation of their communities in their spare time.

While I do believe that residents are best placed to understand the change needed in their communities, the assumption that a workforce of ‘resident volunteers’ can lead a complex community through all aspects of change can be dangerous. I have seen residents with all the potential to become great leaders, lured into thinking this job must be easy, implied, perhaps, by the fact that they have been handed responsibility to do it in their free time, with no training or support. Watching them get hurt and burnout is heartbreaking.

Currently I work alongside people of great integrity. Yet I know that offering to lead a community as a gift does not in itself qualify you for the job. When funders and politicians validate the idea that this work can be done by anyone who has the inclination to do it, and hands power to them on this basis alone, it can set a community back years and even tear it apart.

There is an unusual value system around community leadership.

Outside of work I volunteer as part of a group trying to transform my hometown. In this role I have been given the title ‘Honorary Consultant’ which seems to come with a lot of respect. This voluntary work is identical to my paid work; it involves epic levels of diplomacy, complex problem solving, serious strategic thinking, and a commitment to creating the conditions for others to shine. But when I do this as a professional ‘community worker’, I don’t feel this respect, and have learnt to stand behind my ‘resident volunteers’ colleagues when the story of ‘how things happened’ is told – especially to funders.

There is a strange and nuanced prejudice hidden in the act of valuing someone’s contribution based on whether or not they are gifting it. I have felt this tangibly. Whilst it is natural to think of voluntary leadership as authentic, it does not follow that paid community workers are not.

Unease about ‘non-locals’ having an influence in a community, can position anyone who is not a resident as some sort of threat. The geographical boundaries of a community cannot be imposed from above. Communities decide for themselves who ‘belongs’ and, I have found, will welcome people who show care and commitment into the fold. The way a community finds its power, and who it decides to invest its trust and money in could be celebrated. Like more concrete decisions to refurbish buildings and invest in startups, this leads to legacy.

Over the last decade, funders like Local Trust have taken experimental steps to find ways to put power and money directly into the hands of residents of ‘left behind’ communities through the Big Local Programme. In their Big Local Paper, Halfway Point, they reflected on the first five years of the programme and found that those that try and do it without investing in ongoing professional support on the ground are more likely to get left behind again. But yet the ‘Big Society’ notion that building community can and should be done for free lingers.

There is another narrative in the ether, that proposes that ‘residents’ simply instruct community workers on how to solve the intractable problems their communities face, and that workers simply ‘deliver’. The team I am part of has a much more collaborative approach. We depend on each other for direction and confidence, and work as a nimble resident and worker tag team. We know that it’s not always the case that residents trust residents.

I recently looked for the National Occupational Standards for Community Development Work document on the NOS website. It’s not there, but appears in pieces under ‘Community Voluntary Worker’, the only one out of the 1000 or so occupations named that is described as voluntary. In our enthusiasm for ‘resident power’ have we dismantled a whole profession? More than ever now we need to understand the complex skill set needed to work in the messy unregulated spaces where the state has failed. We have more and more uncertainty to face. Climate change will need us all to mobilise. Time is short, communities are looking for leadership.

That community leadership doesn’t always come for free, is a secret that needs to be shared.

Being open about this will allow us to explore new political and economic territories. We can also begin to more fully understand the relationships between those that lead on the ground for the love of their community, and those that believe that community-led change holds a future worth dedicating a career to. We can develop fitting organisational structures, and find better ways to share the burdens. We can raise both voluntary and professional standards. 

One of my favourite questions is, ‘What might we have to give up in order to succeed?’ I hope that those currently assembling the next cycle of policy and funding for community-led change will take the time to reflect on what ideas they are holding onto, and why.

This column was first published in STIR Magazine, Spring 2020. Support our journalism by purchasing this issue or an annual subscription. Featured illustration by Guillermo Ortego.

The Secret Community Leader is published in partnership with Practical Governance. If you have a story to share get in touch

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