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After We Leave

by PeakCare on 29th March 2011

Home -> Articles -> 2011 -> March -> After We Leave

Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we’ve put it in an impossible situation

- Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead makes an interesting point. The struggles of modern, Western families are further intensified by the lack of broader support structures and community in their lives. This also raises some interesting questions to reflect upon in the human services sector. Is it possible that we contribute to this social isolation by providing services and resources that once would have been provided within community support networks? Does this service provision undermine the sustainability of the work that we do? Are there other ways of supporting people that can challenge social isolation, by creating more sustainable support structures in the community?

Community development provides a way of thinking about some of these questions. It is an area that I first developed an interest in whilst working in the youth sector several years ago, and I have continued this learning during my current social work university studies. Some of the key features of community development include: working ‘with’ the community and being driven by the community, which contrasts with service-driven work, where community needs and programs are often defined by workers and funding body requirements. Community development is about creating space for the needs, issues, and responses to community problems to be determined by the community. The community development approach recognises that the struggles experienced by an individual, are often experienced by many others and that by building connections with each other, sharing experiences and skills, and supporting each other, people can make powerful changes in their lives. Perhaps most importantly, community development focuses on developing supportive structures within the community, which enables the impact of the work to be sustained, after the worker is gone.

A practical application of community development work can be illustrated by a local story from a South-east Queensland neighbourhood centre (Lathouras, 2010). This centre worked with a number of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) families who had expressed feelings of isolation. Several of these families decided that they would like to form a group that would meet regularly to build connections with each other, reduce the sense of social isolation, and share experiences of migration and living in a new country. Through sharing their experiences, the group’s members realised that many of them wanted to build skills to earn an income. With the support of a worker from the neighbourhood centre, the group developed a community education program, where members of the community with small business skills provided mentorship, and a registered training organisation assisted with training. Once the training had finished, and group members had commenced employment and started developing small businesses, the groups continued to meet to provide peer-support and mentoring to each other. This group continued to build skills and a support network outside of the neighbourhood centre.

The focus on community development in this post is not to negate the very valuable and essential contribution of service-driven work, nor is it to position community development as a replacement for service-driven work and programs. Instead, it aims to highlight another way of working that can complement service-driven work, and create stronger and more holistic support structures for the people we work with. Hopefully it also provides a chance for you to reflect further on opportunities for human service work to challenge social isolation in modern, Western society, and in doing so, create support structures that can be sustained long after our work with people is finished.

To learn more about community development:

I’d love to hear about your experiences with community development so please do share!

Kate Hannan – Masters of Social Work student, on placement at PeakCare