Learning from History: the role of the community worker
Posted on Thursday, August 02, 2001
Talk given to the 2001 Annual Conference of CYWU - May 11th 2001
Each year, the CYWU conference pack includes a list of Presidents dating back to 1938. The
conference itself is part of the history of the profession that we work in and my talk is going
to look at the recent history and its legacy for us today.
In the 1970s, the world of community work was a good one. Not only were there plenty of
innovative programmes and initiatives, on health, anti-poverty, adult literacy and violence
against women and so on, but there was also a good system for discussing our work and
pushing best practice through the profession. The Routledge and Kegan Paul series of books,
Community Work One and Two, Political Issues and Community Work, Women in the
Community, were all excellent, raising both theoretical and practical issues. There was also
a thriving mutual and trade union movement to link in to and the time was characterised by
energy, optimism, commitment - a great time to be working in this field.
The same cannot be said for the period 1980-1997. This saw a shift from communal to
individual programmes, an emphasis on the individual volunteer with the Make A Difference
campaign, a divisive atmosphere not compatible with the community work ethos. It was a
time of camouflage for many of us, where community development stressed the virtues of
self-help in poorer communities without necessarily pointing out the limits to this. My own
organisation, the Community Development Foundation, barely survived this period.
Did things get better after 1997? The current government has persisted with the
individualistic emphasis of the previous one, with Millennium Volunteers, social
entrepreneurs, community champions, active citizens, communitarianism - all stressing the
responsibility of the individual, to help others and to do something about their own lives.
Fortunately for our profession, there is a parallel and largely unrelated other strand, a more
This can be seen in the integrated approach of the new Children's Fund, the Community
Empowerment Fund (community development in all but name), Community Chest funds for
smaller groups, the Phoenix Fund to give community-based loan finance for social enterprise,
and so on. The government has stressed the importance of getting grant support to the small
community groups and has publicly acknowledged their importance.
In terms of regeneration programmes, considerable emphasis is put in the need to involve
local people and to negotiate an appropriate role for them, although it is true to say that this
developed under the previous government. Now we have a wide range of area-based
initiatives - Community First in Wales, the Social Inclusion Partnerships in Scotland, the New
Deal for Communities and the Neighbourhood Renewal programme in England. Just to show
there is nothing new under the sun, this is in fact a return to the 1970s when Strathclyde
Region set up its 'Areas of Multiple Deprivation' programme which included the current fashion for emphasising the role of good public services as well as special programmes.
One thing that has definitely changed since the 1970s, and which is to be welcomed, is a new
emphasis, again begun under the previous administration, on evidence-based practice. If we
combine this new rigour with a general Zeitgeist that says community equals good, what does
this mean for the profession?
First of all, it means we need far more science in our profession. It is very hard to prove
the added value of community work intervention and there are hardly any controlled
experiments that could prove this. We have relied as a profession far too much on the self-reporting of the case study and our methodology of proof is only just beginning.
Similarly, despite all of our own rhetoric, we lack an agreed model, a template, for the
Healthy Community. What would its features be? How would we recognise it if we saw it?
What is the minimum provision needed before we can have a healthy community? Do we
need local shops? A community centre? Good voluntary sector infrastructure? A thriving
residents or community association?
One difficulty we face is that despite all of the political rhetoric stressing the value of healthy
communities there is still no policy acknowledgement that one essential for health is a good
community worker. Ironically the adjective "community" is now attached to plenty of other
professions. We now have community police, community housing officers, community
economic development officers and so on. Hybrid jobs are also now appearing and non-community development professionals are signing up for short courses on the subject.
Added to this there is the romantic assumption that local people, even if completely
untrained, are better placed to help their own area. There remains a residual distrust of the
professional, including by other professionals.
In terms of my own view, I believe that communities can be helped - socially, economically
and physically, to be better places in which to live, but I also believe this is best brought
about with the help of a trained person. Working with local people to make the best of what
they have can be more than just a pathetic form of protection against the worst excesses of
an unjust system. If we can again make links across communities, if we can work with local
communities to link vertically up to the remaining mutuals, from building societies to the Co-op to trade unions, then we have the opportunity to create a powerful social force that would
be more than the sum of its parts.
The challenge for us now is to move beyond good local work to reanimate our links with
other sectors. We did not consolidate the gains of the 1970s and as a result lost them in the
1980s and early 90s. We can learn from our own history.