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Everyone has something to offer. There are always skills or friendship to swap in some way. There are lonely people and there are people who like to communicate. Everyone has something to offer. It’s just matter of finding it. And society doesn’t have to balance. We don’t always have to get back what you get out because you receive it back with your own attitude to yourself. Once you start measuring it then genuine community starts to go down. John Wardle (1996)

The following is from a presentation Hazel Ashton gave to an International Association for Community Development in Rotorua in 2001. It refers to community development using ICT in St Albans 1992-2001 and includes material from an interview with community philosopher and practitioner John Wardle (1997). Much has changed, while much also remains the same. Your comments are most welcome.

Community as local place where everyone has something to offer

In any given local area, everyone has something to offer. There’s always some people with time to spare, and other people who need more time to get things done, there are lonely people and there are people who like companionship. Everyone has something to offer. It’s just a matter of finding it.

Many people live in communities where there are growing problems of increased crime, family breakdown, unemployment and loss of community ties. In these communities abundance and scarcity exist alongside one another. Some people are over-employed, others are under-employed, and some have excess food, which they throw away, while others are forced into desperate measures to get adequate food. The list goes go on and the gaps between those with excess and those with scarcity continue to grow. The current delivery models to ensure sufficiency for all do not work. It is time to explore some alternative models, models that tap into the overall abundance in local communities.

Everywhere, in all communities, there are people who want to assist, who want to make a positive contribution. Everywhere also, many people feel that their attempts are futile and that there is nothing they can do.

In St Albans, a suburb in Christchurch, New Zealand, some people have been looking at new ways people can make this kind of contribution, including in particular, how this might be achieved using the new information communication technologies (ICT). However, it is essential to realise from the outset that ICT is only the tool for communication and information – it is in no way sufficient unto itself.

The people (which include me) in St Albans who began some seven years ago to launch the projects to use ICT had in common health problems and lack of wider family support. We were motivated, especially for the sake of our children, to work for a delivery model which could take account of our kind of needs. John Wardle was more motivated than the rest of us. He was a haemophiliac who had been treated with an Aids-infected blood product. He knew he only had a short time to live and wanted to ensure (as far as he was able) that his wife and child would be secure when he died. He thought long and hard about the problems, especially about issues to do with security and safety of his family. He decided the answer lay in developing better communication in the local community so that there was more awareness of problems and possibilities for addressing them.

He said about community:

To give, to receive and to care are some of the most important elements of worthwhile community. But this cannot happen if we do not know what is happening, who needs help, where to find help, who wants to buy, who wants to sell, what events are happening, when and where. It’s a sad state of affairs when someone is in need and someone is offering, but the two cannot find each other.

He wanted St Albans to be a friendlier place where this would naturally happen, but knew that simply moralising, telling people what they ought to do, and making them feel guilty when they didn’t, would not work. He knew the only way to change attitudes was to get people communicating and experiencing the benefits of doing this. He knew this was easier said than done and that fear kept people from communicating. He said,

there’s a line between being responsible for other people and not being nosey, or not sticking your nose in where it’s not welcome. People’s fears keep them away, far away. It doesn’t have to be like that. I remember a young Polynesian guy that wanted to help us. He saw I had a disability and offered to mow the lawns. My natural suspicion was there. I didn’t feel very good about it. The guy just wanted to help

Of course, a simple return to a more communal past is not possible, nor is it necessarily desirable. The traditional communities of the past could easily become claustrophobic, conformist and stifling. On the other hand, pure individualism is not a real option, either. Humans have evolved as humans, precisely by working and thinking together in what were, effectively, cooperative groups or networks. The challenge is how to build these networks in ways that enhance potential, not stifle potential or destroy the environment. In St Albans the idea was to work towards a community where all individuals could flourish because they lived in a community which saw such diversity and difference as something to be celebrated.

It was the recognition of this need for acceptance of all kinds of people, which drew John Wardle to the idea of using increasingly available “Information and Communication Technologies” (ICTs) as tools to help build up connections, neutrally and safely over time, between peoples and groups in St Albans. So with his computer and desktop publishing equipment, at the end of 1994, he and friend Frank Prebble began publishing a community owned and operated newsletter. Frank Prebble had a printing press in his garage.

John Wardle said with this technology,

people can participate in the free flow of information. Communication can take the place of isolation and distrust. When people understand the feelings and needs of others, it can enhance their ability to enjoy the diversity and richness of all peoples whoever they are, whatever their culture religion ethnic origin, gender and age. Modern communication can enable all people to understand and empathise with their fellow creatures.

John Gallagher introduced in conversations with John Wardle the idea of using modem-based communication to enable people to communicate together more intensively within their locality, and John Wardle quickly picked up on this as a tool for community development.

John Wardle said,

Everyone got really excited about the real benefit of talking over thousands of miles, but that isn’t the real benefit. The real benefit is talking over the yard by people who are isolated in their own homes.

The two Johns, John Wardle and John Gallagher, worked up projects to enable people using an on-line bulletin board and a local intranet to further enhance local communication. Sadly John Wardle died before the St Albans Web project, which further extended his ideas, was launched.

Of crucial importance is not ICT, but the model of community such as was articulated by John Wardle. It is not sufficient to set up a community website and presume or hope everyone will start communicating. John Wardle wanted to break down barriers between people and groups by starting from the supposition that ‘everyone has something to offer’.  Everyone at some time has needs and everyone at some time has something to offer, and assistance can and does at times come from the most unlikely places. Structures and processes need to be built up so that the huge, largely untapped resources in the community can be tapped into. For this to take place, a locality needs to understand itself and what it has available within it.

It may seem strange for some to imagine that people do not know their locality, but the fact is many don’t. The most that many see of their locality is from their car windows as they drive to work and school, departing and arriving in their garages and most of what they know about their area can come from Rupert Murdoch’s large scale type of print and televised media.

It is thus necessary for a community that wants to ensure its needs are adequately depicted and catered for, to have the media to do this itself, after all, real freedom of the press, is owning one.

The size of the area is another important consideration. In St Albans, the St Albans Neighbourhood Newsletter goes to 5,000 households once a month. It is expected that people can walk or bike relatively easily within this geographic area and thus notice a little of what is going on. Knowing what a locality consists of can be difficult to see when a large media rarely reports on very local happenings and, when it does, it commonly focuses on things when they obviously go wrong. It is thus not surprising many miss the richness of the local life-world and much potential.

John Wardle’s idea of community was always one of inclusivity – real inclusivity. He wanted to break down barriers and get all kinds of people from diverse backgrounds talking and communicating. Community developers today often appear to be adopting the opposite kind of approach. Instead of inclusivity, they target specific groups they define, as ‘needy’. Examples of ‘needy’ tend to include the disabled, Maori, Polynesian, and single parents on welfare who are female. There tends to be an assumption that these people will not be in a position to have much to offer. Many have stereotypical and disempowering images of these people as lacking in skills and abilities. Sadly for instance, when in 1995, John Wardle did a presentation to a community board on issues to do with the digital divide and ideas to address this, he was seen at the time as a disabled and in need of assistance. It was suggested by the chair of the board that he go to Workbridge for assistance into (real) employment.

The targeted needy group model goes against the notion that everyone has something to offer. Further, the current targeted system can further alienate groups from each other. For instance, the comfortably off are now less likely than ever to have to make real contact, or come to grips, with reality of the lives of the so called needy. It is then a very simple step from paternalistic stereotyping to demonization, and then inflicting yet more hurt. In the meantime, the so called needy can start to believe in the stereotypes, that they do not have much to offer society.

Unless there are more opportunities to build mutually beneficial relations, society will have to deal with more and more of the anti-social revenge of the excluded.

With inclusivity, also comes the potential for autonomy all round. People understand the concept of the ‘old boys’ network’, but there is less thought given to the potential of the community networks which can be made to operate in the same way. An individual St Albans person may not be very effective, but one who has St Albans connections, including of an effective local media, can be much more effective. In St Albans, the community paper has been loved by St Albanites, and is therefore supported by a business community that is happy to pay for advertising. Likewise, the website is receiving support from local business, such as for a laptop and digital camera and software.

The St Albans Web project is a community project, which starts and ends with the premise that everyone has something to offer. This is reflected already in the voices of ordinary extraordinary people and the richness of their experiences in the suburb we live in and in the diversity and ability of the web team. We are able to do this because we have started in the way we mean to go on – with a truly inclusive model of community.  It is a small start. It is not easy; in fact it is very challenging. Tapping the potential is the only way to go forward, and these days this has to include the use of digital technology in the hands of the community that wants to develop itself. Without this, the newly but rapidly emerging digital divide will take people mentally and socially out of their communities.

However, a word of caution, as John Wardle I think rightly said of ICTs,

They offer much opportunity to improve our wellbeing, to correct some of the imbalances and injustices of our society. But positive action is needed to direct and ensure this. Left without direction the new information age is already showing its potential to add to many of the already increasing society problems.

In this presentation I have tried to show how the new ICTs can be used as a tool for community development, so that the potential of all in the local community can, in principle, be actualised. I argue for a truly inclusive community, which has as its premise that, all have something to offer, whether they or others can see it at the time or not. I see the role of the community development person as ensuring that effective  human / community technology interface to develop community as a local place where everyone is valued, where everyone has something to offer.

Your comments (see below) whether you agree or not and / or contribution to this website most welcome

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