The Problem With Seeing People As Vulnerable

Now, more than ever, it’s easier to exist within a bubble.

We spend a lot more time communicating through screens than talking face to face.

Our digital social networks are powered by algorithms designed to feed us information confirming what we already believe.

I started writing this post just before dawn on the day of the UK election result but didn’t publish it as I was interested to see what the reaction would be.

Would people accept that this is something that’s been coming a long time?

Or would people, because of the social bubble effect, be surprised? 

Far from being aberrations, or even reactions, the rise of populism and the latest election results are simply the logical conclusion of the path we’ve been on for a long time.

An era of hyper-consumerism, of seeing billionaires and paid professionals as the ones to solve social problems.

An era in which organisations and brands come first and communities last.

An era in which there’s a lot of talk of giving communities more power but precious little evidence of it. Where the resources that are meant to trickle down rarely do so.

Arguably we’ve viewed citizens only as atomised consumers rather than through the lens of neighbourhoods, This individual consumerist approach has only led one way – to a sense of alienation and frustration with public services and the state.

There’s a positive here – people want change.

There are huge opportunities for our organisations and institutions. However if we fail to respond to people and communities’ desire for change, we’ll eventually lose our legitimacy.

The Problem With A Deficit Mindset

Unfortunately the reaction to the election result , largely but not exclusively from the centre and the left, has shown a profound misreading of the problem.

‘Who is going to look after the vulnerable now?’

‘How will they cope with five more years of this?’

Nobody likes being vulnerable, but our organisations and institutions are all to prone to defining people’s entire lives by it.

They can’t cope.

We need to look after them before they do themselves some harm.

Despite our talk of vulnerable communities and customers we don’t often hear precisely what it is that people are vulnerable to, how this vulnerability is produced, or by whom.

In truth, no group of people is inherently vulnerable. If people are experiencing vulnerability in a particular situation that vulnerability is often produced by other people, institutions or circumstances.

If your organisation defines anyone as vulnerable it’s useful to consider your own role in the production and perpetuation of that vulnerability.

Defining people as vulnerable is the first step to removing their agency and self determination.

Over the past few years in our work at Bromford we’ve been trying to step back from seeing people as problems.

About six years ago we had a hunch – without much evidence at the time – that if we simply believed in our people and took away all of the bureaucracy they’d have conversations with residents and make the right decisions. We switched our model. We retrained our ‘managers’ to become ‘coaches’. A crucial part of that was to stop looking at people as problems to be solved and instead to see their skills and life experiences.

This still emerging relationship rejects the hierarchical and transactional mindsets of traditional service models which all too often bypass people’s assets and capabilities.

The Challenge And The Opportunity

The reason our organisations and our politics will often reject these models is that they threaten the existing order. Hierarchical and status-obsessed cultures militate against relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration. Most of our organisations don’t share power, they accumulate it, often at a very senior level.

If we don’t talk about power and how we redistribute it we’ll just continue to address the symptoms, rather than tackle the root causes of mistrust. We’ll just seek comfortable solutions rather than address deep institutional dysfunction.

Deficit based thinking sucks the life out of communities.

If you were part of a community that other people are defining as vulnerable, as continually needing help, you’d be pretty insulted.

If other people said you were incapable of making the correct choices because you’re not in full possession of the facts , you’d surely vote for something else.

What we’re seeing is a huge desire for something else.

Something different.

We don’t know what that looks like yet but that’s one of the reasons it’s a bit frightening and a bit exciting.

The most important thing all organisations could do right now is simply demonstrate that we see ourselves as equal partners with communities rather than as supreme rulers of the vulnerable and the needy.

There’s a once in a generation opportunity here if we are brave and bold enough to embrace it.

Reshaping Organisations Around What’s Strong – Not What’s Wrong

“ECONOMICS ARE THE METHOD: THE OBJECT IS TO CHANGE THE SOUL”

This (pretty chilling) quote comes from Margaret Thatcher in 1981 – and ushered in an era that promoted the belief that social progress is achieved through the accumulation of wealth or status.

Earn more, consume more, and you’ll be happy. 

The legacy of this is still with us today, with our value to society often seen in purely economic terms.

In the social sector, many of our organisations have been unwittingly shaped by this philosophy.

The less you own the more likely you are to be a problem. The lower your educational attainment, your income, the more insecure your background, the more likely you are to be a drain on services.

This is called deficit-based thinking, and it is rife.  Our organisations support it without even knowing.

  • We talk of the ‘ageing crisis’ – which is only really a crisis if you believe that people have outlived their economic usefulness.
  • The talk of a ‘housing crisis’ invariably means people being unable to get ‘on the housing ladder’. If you don’t own – you aren’t on it. You’re not progressing.

Increasingly though there’s evidence of a disparity with wealth, achievement and happiness. The UK is one of the richest countries in the world – but also one of the loneliest.

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Finland is now top of the world for happiness, according to the World Happiness Report 2018. Nordic countries take four out of the five top spots – and some of the world’s richest nations appear much further down the list.

Finland has a high GDP but also high taxes which fund social programmes. There’s less competition at work and better support for those without a job. There’s a strong culture of strengths-based thinking , and of encouraging communities to identify and mobilise existing but often unrecognised assets. The services that do exist are organised around the user.

As Andrew Humphreys has written – public services in the UK are often compartmentalised along lines that bear no relation to the needs they are supposed to meet or the value they are meant to deliver. If public services aren’t designed backwards from the value that people need from them, then they will have been designed forwards from the aims and objectives of those in charge of them.

It’s nearly seven years since Bromford began its journey from a pretty paternalistic top-down service to focus on strengths and what’s working in our communities.

When we began, one of the most common challenges we had from colleagues was “Why are we expecting our customers to contribute to communities? I don’t do anything in mine.”

Our language wasn’t very nuanced- as people saw organised ‘volunteering’ as the only way someone contributes.

Obviously, this is nonsense. If you live in any community that depends on the interaction with other human beings (that’s all of us – right?), you by definition must contribute to that community in some way.

That contribution cannot be viewed solely through categories of age, health, or wealth.

A few years ago I met an older guy in the Philippines who told me he was the most sought-after person in his village – even though he hadn’t ‘worked’ for over 20 years and lived a very frugal existence.

His strengths were his age, his experiences and his connections which could be brought together to help people. The Fili culture has a word for this mindset – “Bayanihan”. The word came from the tradition where neighbours would help a relocating family by literally carrying their house and contents to a safer location.

More generally the word has come to mean a communal spirit that makes seemingly impossible feats possible through the power of unity and cooperation.

The term bayanihan has evolved over time – being incorporated in many projects that depict the spirit of a cooperative effort involving a community of members.

At Bromford we are focussing on the ‘irreducible core’ of service that our communities must receive from us.

The services we currently have that replace, control or overwhelm unity and co-operation will become obsolete. One of our organisational design principles is that we should think community first, services last.

There’s a lot of talk of strengths-based thinking but I see comparatively few organisations who are having these difficult conversations and beginning to cede more power to communities.

There are things individuals need and that communities can do that are irreplaceable – that can never be done by organisations or Government.

Building our organisations around communities, around what they truly need rather than what we want them to need, is truly disruptive.

It means moving away from focussing on what’s wrong, taking a very different view of our purpose and being a lot less essential than we think we are.

 


Image via Pen Mendonca

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 

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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