A London life
For most of my time in London I have worked as a Community Worker. I have tussled with this profession over the years but have come to believe that it has something useful to contribute, particularly in working with grassroots groups and providing a counterbalance to the increasingly stifling hand of regulation and micromanagement. Here I share some brief thoughts on community work before introducing some of my writing on the subject.
Community work is a messy profession and dips its fingers into many pies and despite the best efforts of many of its advocates it is more of an anti-profession than a profession. It is, for a start, fundamentally rooted in voluntary work rather than paid work and if it seeks to do anything then it is about challenging the power of professionals in favour of those of us who live the lives out of which professionals make their money. I don’t think there is anything wrong with making money out of providing people housing, or looking after them when they’re sick but it’s worthwhile remembering that this is what is going on. Paid community workers like myself are not doing anything different but our job, perhaps, is to wiggle away at the contradictions that this creates and ask the difficult questions about who is benefiting from a particular policy or practice. That is the negative side of our work, on the positive we seek to help communities grow and flourish, but as no one really knows what communities are this can be perplexing!
I was introduced to community work by being employed by the Zebra Project as a ‘practical community worker’. At that point I didn’t know anything about community work, but that didn’t matter too much because what was meant by ‘practical’ was organizing community events for black and white churches in East London, rather than the more subtle work of enabling and facilitating, which is the heart of community development. Nonetheless, in response to getting the job, I started a diploma in community ministry at the Urban Theology Unit and this introduced me to some of the theory behind community work i.e. that it wasn’t just about doing things in the community but about providing people with the tools to achieve their own goals. I might now frame this differently, perhaps something like: working with people to enable them to have the space and resources in order to tell and create their own stories. I therefore gradually shifted my work with Zebra Project away from organizing events and more in the direction of facilitating people to organise and develop their own initiatives. This was most successful when I helped a group of African churches set up ACCIS – or African Churches Council for Social Justice. This was in the late eighties and my work increasingly focused on the African churches which were beginning to emerge. I worked with Cherubim and Seraphim churches and to a lesser degree with Pentecostal churches.
My understanding of community work was increased by working with the Anglican community project on the Winstanley estate and further by taking a qualification in community and youth work at Goldsmith’s College. This enabled me to get a job with Barnardos CANDL project. CANDL was a project explicitly committed to community development work with churches in East London and this is when I began to reflect more seriously on faith based community development.
Community profiling. I was introduced to community profiling by the Urban Theology Unit and it has continued to be an important part of my work. Here is a detailed guide that I wrote for churches.
Evaluation. I became an evaluator for Church Urban Fund projects in London and this developed my interest in the process of evaluation. This is something which people often find intimidating but I tried to develop a process which could be of positive benefit to the people being evaluated rather than just a means of hoovering up data.
Lay workers in the church. Much of my work has been as a lay person in the church, particularly supporting other lay people. Here is a brief paper on some of the issues this creates.
Working with churches. Recently I have written a few short papers seeking to distil some of what I have learnt about working with churches and other ‘faith communities’.
Churches and their buildings. Much faith based community work revolves around the development of buildings. Here is a paper I wrote on working with church halls.
The impact of the target culture. In the CANDL project we became increasingly concerned about what was happening to the voluntary sector as it was being subjected to government targets and the concern to produce easily measurable predictable outcomes. We resisted this but found that it brought us into conflict with the Barnardos organisation, which we felt became little more than an arm of the state.
Working with community groups. This has led me on to believe that we need a new vision of working with community groups. Much work with the voluntary sector seems to be to be about little more than molding voluntary organisations so that they can work to government agendas. This paper on community group basics seeks to begin to lay some of this groundwork.
Grassroots institutions. This paper seeks to develop a vision of churches as hubs and facilitators for grassroots community work.
I also continued to work with churches outside my work with CANDL project. One project I did was to tell the stories of community projects in Northern Ireland and Scotland. This was interesting work which I find myself are often thinking about, but unfortunately it never got published so I am making it available here.
I also began to think theologically about community work, particularly in relationship to the Holy Spirit. This is a long paper which tackles many different areas. Theologically it looks at pneumatology and the history of Christian martyrdom whilst also looking at the practical application of community development to the church and Christian community action. It also takes in friendliness, awareness and an extended reflection on the seminal community development text Skills in Neightbourhood Work by Henderson and Thomas. In many ways it is a synopsis of how I have attempted to work in the last 20 years.