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Communities with Ooomph…

February 10, 2011

One of the things that some people find hard about my person centred and responsive approach to developing ‘Communities with Ooomph’ is the emphasis that I place, initially at least, on working with individuals to help them clarify and pursue their self interest and to build the power that they need to pursue it effectively.  Actually there are three things that ruffle feathers in there:

  1. the emphasis on working with individuals as the starting point for community development – surely we need to work with groups in order to foster ‘neighbourliness’ and ‘cooperation’ on mutual projects?
  2. the importance of helping individuals to clarify and pursue self interest – surely it is shared interests that build community?  And what if their self interest does not relate to our hopes and goals?
  3. and, the emphasis placed on developing power – power is still seen by many as some kind of dark force leading to corruption and inevitable decay

In Support for Working with Individuals

It is nigh on impossible for most people to talk honestly and openly about what is really happening in their lives, what they really need to work on, in a group setting.  It is just too painful, and the risks to confidentiality are just too great.  And when we start working with groups to explore what they collectively want, we usually end up discussing a ‘lowest common denominator’ project.  Something that everyone agrees is a good thing to do, but that will not directly address the specific inhibitors of progress for any of them.  So we end up planting a piece of waste land or campaigning for a children’s playground, getting the graffiti cleaned up.  Now these are good, worthwhile projects, and I am not saying that they don’t have a place.  They help build relationships, common cause and improve skills.  But to what end?  Unless individuals are helped to really explore and understand their self interest and to act on it, many of these projects simply leave communities treading water with people moving from one community project to the next with little or no progress.

In Support of Self Interest

For us to make common cause, I must be clear on my self interest.  So must you.  We can agree to work on an interesting project without this clarity, but if we are to really collaborate with commitment, vigour, creativity and enterprise then it must be in both our self interests if there is to be a reasonable chance of significant purposeful progress.  Otherwise our collaboration may be partial and weak.

So why the resistance to really exploring self interest?  I think because it is confused with selfishness and individualism. Self interest is neither of these things.  It is about a proper and effective negotiation of ‘self’ amongst others (interest is from the latin ‘inter este’ which means ‘to be amongst’, so I am reliably informed).  So the pursuit of self interest is the pursuit of ‘self’ negotiated amongst others.  It is about developing identity in the community.

Exploring self interest, and understanding it, is not easy work, but it is worthwhile.  Self interest is a powerful source of Ooomph.

Self interest is easily misunderstood leading to poor decision making.  Take as an example the relationship between self interest, reciprocity and generosity.

Reciprocity is the act of giving only if there is a reasonable expectation of some reward in exchange.  Generosity is the act of giving with no immediate expectation of return.  But which is most likely to be in my self interest?

An initial glance would suggest that reciprocity would be best.  I scratch your back, you scratch mine.  But for reciprocal relationships to work we have to find an exchange partner who has something that we want and who wants something that we can give.  And finding such relationships can be hard.  This is why we invented money to ensure that reciprocal arrangements could always be made.  Which is fine, as long as you have money, or people with money want what you can offer.  Reciprocity is the language of transaction.

Generosity on the other hand is the act of giving when we are able, without expectation of return.  We may be giving time, money, advice, support.  Opportunities for generosity are plentiful.  If we live in a community where individuals choose to be generous, rather than reciprocal, in their giving it is likely that much more will be both given and received by each member.  Help will be more free flowing in the community.  Generosity, giving with no expectation of return, is actually more in the self interest of each community member than reciprocity.  This is just one aspect of what I mean by fully understanding self interest and how it works in community.  Generosity is a better tactic for each of us in the proper negotiation of our self interest.

In Support of Power

There is a lot of talk in Big Society circles of ‘pushing power down’ to communities.  Of giving them power.  As if power is something that can be gift wrapped and handed over.  Authority may be given.  Even responsibility. But power?  That has to be grown from within, surely. It is strange that policy makers seem to see no irony in their endeavours.

Power is the ability to get things done.

It is correlated with the ability to organise people, money and other resources in pursuit of a goal.  Power itself, exercised wisely and with compassion is a good thing.  It should be nurtured and grown.  Yet many of us are taught that to seek power, to be power hungry are unbecoming, almost pathological behaviours.  Which is perhaps why so many good people are disinterested in the pursuit of power.

Once individuals are clear on their self interest and start to think about the power to pursue it they nearly always have to make common cause with others.  They have to associate and cooperate.

What emerges will be, to paraphrase Mr Cameron, a community with oomph.

So if you want to be a part of one of these start working with individuals, their power and self interest.  Soon enough you will find yourself working with associations and communities with real power.

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