“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.
- An ageing population is set to cost us an extra £1 billion a year by 2034 , as older people become a ‘massive burden’ on society.
- A ‘lost generation‘ of youngsters lacking in such basic skills that they can’t even maintain eye contact during job interviews.
- Social housing tenants who are so feckless they can’t cope with having benefits paid direct to them , without submitting to the temptation to blow it on fags and booze.
- An NHS at breaking point because the public don’t understand that A+E Departments are meant only for emergencies.
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