It’s Time for Us to Unleash the Hidden Power in Communities

“It’s so tempting for those of us who provide services….support workers, housing providers, social workers, community workers, health visitors, GPs…to see ourselves as the ones with the gifts. The ones with the solutions. The superheroes ready to fly in and save people.

 Maybe there is already a superhero living on their street”  – John Wade 


The typical story arc of the superhero is fairly predictable.

The journey to greatness begins with a background rooted in tragedy or potentially limiting life events:

  • The sudden death of family members (For example, Batman or Spiderman).
  • Being cast out alone into an unknown world where you are markedly different from everyone else (Superman or Thor). 
  • Troubled or abusive families triggering low self-esteem or even mental illness (Wonder Woman or Bruce Banner/The Hulk).

Having got us firmly rooting for the underdog the story unfolds, telling of the discovery of a hidden power or talent , and the difficulties of coming to terms with it.

This will be followed by a challenge to those newly found skills and a struggle against a society that wants to put the budding hero back in their place. This is usually represented through the introduction of a nemesis or villain. 

And finally the story will tell of the mastery of their talents – and an acknowledgement that with power comes a responsibility to help others fulfil their own potential.

I don’t think Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were thinking about asset based community development when they created Superman in the 1930’s. However the stories they wrote and inspired always trod a familiar path: the most unlikely people developing skills that others thought them unworthy or incapable of.

The potential for people to do amazing things.

This belief in people is evident all too rarely in the public sector. Indeed – it seems we are almost hard wired to think of people as problems.

If you don’t believe me – take a look around.

Clearly too much of our time is focussed on seeing the flaws and shortcomings, zeroing in on gaps and insufficiencies in every person, relationship or situation.

This deficit based mindset has profound implications, not least economically. Our organisational cultures will become trained to perceive people as problems – which will further distance them from communities they serve.

Adopting an asset based approach would help us tackle these ‘problems’ very differently:

  • Older people have wonderful skills and wisdom that we can now tap into for longer than ever before.
  • Young people have remarkable talents and capabilities – different ones than we did at that age.
  • Social housing tenants are not a breed apart but have often had their aspirations crushed by a system that celebrates need and dependency.
  • The NHS is an institution that people would fight for – and there’s an army of community connectors available to help it operate more effectively.

Judging by the conversations I see going on – things are changing.

I see a growing movement of asset based thinking and the rise of a community of connected care.

I see the role of social technology in helping us have more open and transparent conversations with communities about local decision making.

I see a move away from where ‘professionals’ cast themselves as the superhero capable of solving society’s problems.

As John says , there could be a hero living on your street – right now. It’s time for public services to reach out and begin their journey.

“Too many possibilities currently closed off to us would open up if we’re prepared to fail at being superheroes” – Cormac Russell


12 thoughts on “It’s Time for Us to Unleash the Hidden Power in Communities

  1. Couldn’t agree more! A massive culture change is needed for us to get to this point, and that’s the challenge. I think the language we use is indicative of where we’re at, and not a day goes by where I don’t read an inaccessible website or documkent. Worse, the language we use doesn’t clarify, it muddles. I’ve seen ‘engage’ mean everything from ‘talk’ to ‘involving people at a strategic level to produce policy’ to ‘people delivering services’. If we can get to the point where we speak the same language as people, then I think we’ll be at a point to genuinely unleash that power. Great blog!

    1. Top point on language. I’m with you on the use of “engage” particularly. I wonder how many people even know of the existence of things like Health and Wellbeing Boards? Not many I bet..

  2. Reblogged this on independenttropicalwales and commented:
    Hear hear Paul! A terrific argument for revisioning how services and service providers see and define people in our communities. The deficit model is particularly pernicious for young people who are stigmatised, even demonised, by a range of sectors, not least the media. Therefore it was refreshing immediately prior to reading this to read an update on Cardiff University’s Community Journalism project which aims “to develop understanding, engagement and participation [so] that citizens get news and information about their own communities and are able to play a part in creating and influencing content and comment.” I am interested in the potential for hyper-local journalism to help residents reinterpret their communities through not relying on external, unaccountable forces.

  3. Interesting post Paul,
    I got to meet Cormac Russell this week in a really good session that Frah O’Hara from Working With Not To organised.
    One of the things we did was answer some questions around;
    What is it ONLY communities can do, and
    What is it that ONLY institutions can do.
    There was surprisingly (well, perhaps not that surprising) on the list of things only institutions can do.
    Part of the conversation reflected on the fact that communities 100 years ago did incredible things in the South Wales Valleys.
    They built hospitals, educated themselves, housed and entertained themselves.
    The gradual process of ‘professionalising’ all of these things has led to people forgetting what they are capable of, like you say.
    May be there’s a bit of ‘Back to The Future’ needed for communities to release their superpowers?

    1. “What is it that ONLY institutions can do?”

      That’s an interesting question! Will have to try that. We are doing some work with Cormac in Staffordshire so it will be really interesting to see how this approach takes hold…and what happens next…

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