Community development is all about working together to create and generate a drive toward realising a common vision. Along the way there are all sorts of hurdles to overcome - creating consensus, dealing with the doubters, overcoming obstacles and getting the gatekeepers on side. No matter what lies in your path, I have found that in community projects the one thing that has value over all others is getting your relationships right from the outset.
Connecting with a community is not dissimilar to making new friends. People are always people and they will trust you if you:
* Value them as knowledge holders and experts - listen and learn from the community;
* Form real relationships - give away as much or more of yourself as you are asking them to give to you;
* Be honest and transparent - Say what you will do and do what you say;
* Be smart - understand the alliances within the community so that you don't appear to align yourself with any one group or faction and make sure you spread the love!; and
* Keep communicating!
At the start of any new project, I take the time to get around and speak to as many people, stakeholders and potential partners as possible. I find that this works the best when I am very upfront about what I can and can't do, what people can expect from me and where I really need their help to make things work. And then I listen. The community are the experts after all.
In some cases, this honest relationship building alone can change a dynamic or blockage, and facilitate further action or change within the community.
About 8 years ago I worked on a project that aimed to create a new integrated training-to-employment model that would overcome common barriers to work experienced by disadvantaged groups. Once the model was established (a major collaborative project in itself) we got an employer on board that was just moving into the region and promised 18 new jobs. Half way through the training, the umbrella company that the employer belonged to had problems which sparked a restructure, badly affecting our project so that only 3.5 full time equivalent jobs were ever filled.
I was mortified, disappointed and embarrassed and expected the community to have a similar reaction. However, quite to my surprise, I continued to get positive feedback. Community members were still telling me: - "You have made such a big difference in such a short time." "You have come in willing to tackle the tough issues." "People I know have directly benefited from the project."
What I saw as the failure of our first test of the model, the community saw completely differently. They felt that they had an ally and an advocate, someone who was working beside them towards their goal. In reflecting on why the community members I was working with were so gracious, and were willing to ride out the ups and downs with me, it came down to one thing - relationships.
Communities are made up of people, and when you are working with people, relationships come first. Putting in the effort to build trust, transparency, and routines for regular communication is not only personally rewarding, but sometimes, it pays you back when you need it the most.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!