Monthly Archives: June 2013

An inquiry into peer learning/support in community development

I have spent the last few days preparing a discussion paper on options for peer support in the Communities First programme.

I have found some interesting examples of it operating in other sectors, programmes and organisations e.g., the Families First and the former Mentro Allan programmes in Wales, the Big Local programme and between rural communities in England, and in community renewal in Northern Ireland.

There are instances where the peer support occurs within a workforce; others where it focuses on brokering support and exchange of ideas and experiences between volunteers and community activists. In some cases it is entirely peer-led; in others there is a permanent role for external agents (either as facilitators, organisers or curriculum designers).

Some have a pastoral element to them, meaning that the development of solidarity, appreciation and camaraderie is encouraged. Others are geared more clinically to outcomes and effectiveness of delivery.

All require the peers, to at least some degree, to consider themselves: their values, their practice, their method.

In one programme the peer support and learning occurs in Action Learning Sets (ALSs). This is not novel as they are an established method for tackling important organisational issues or problems and learning from the attempt(s) to change thing. However, contrary to my understanding and experience of ALSs they are compulsory for practitioners and topics for discussion are externally prescribed to the sets. I am keen to ascertain to what extent ownership of this process occurs. Questions arise in my mind about confidentiality, trust and the extent to which set members/contributors internalise their learning. This is something I intend to probe further.

Another key element of the inquiry is the use of digital and online media to facilitate contact and discourse between peers. Big Local is presently developing these to complement thematic events. Others use platforms such as LinkedIn or Basecamp which are externally moderated and allow for a relatively cheap (even free) means of hosting a forum, either permanent or temporary, in which peer discussion can occur. Communities First has not had a programme-wide moderated forum for almost five years, and its use when it did exist was, at best, modest.

One of the guiding principles of the general inquiry, not just the paper, is a presumption that peer support already occurs in Communities First, no matter how informally. Furthermore, that any framework to develop and enhance it must wherever possible complement such relationships and processes.

I would be interested in hearing from any other instances where practitioners, paid or unpaid, share and reflect on their practice and experience. Please contact me on Twitter at @llannerch or through this blog.


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Community development and breaking the cycle of always doing what you’ve always done

As usual, I awoke recently to the daily morning show on Radio Wales and an interview with a fire officer whose recent shifts had comprised exclusively of fighting deliberately-set hill fires at various locations around the south Wales valleys during the first extended warm spell of the spring.

It was not so much his straight-from-the-textbook condemnation aimed at the unknown perpetrators, or his very obvious frustration that struck me. Rather it was the weary, resigned expectation of a man, and service, that faces the same challenges year in, year out.

The interviewer enquired as to what preventative and engagement work takes place with young people (though the perpetrators are hardly ever caught, they are nonetheless assumed to be young….) and he spoke of “going into schools” and having done so for several years, following an established curriculum of outlining the risks, consequences and costs, both financial and potentially human.

The article caused me to recall visiting a community in the north of Abergavenny/Y Fenni in 2010 and on arrival noticing a large smiley face mowed into the hillside  that looms over that community, the Deri (see Ted Pearsell’s Flickr account for the image). A Community Development Worker (CDW) mentioned that the face had become the talk of the community of late, its creator(s) unknown and that whereas the hillside had in previous years been the location for malicious grass fires, during that summer none had been started because, the CDW felt, the smiley face had been adopted by the community. The community development sector will frequently refer to the importance of ownership by communities, and often it is ownership in an emotional sense rather in any material, legal or financial sense. At a, presumably, modest cost the smiley face had become the means by which the surrounding landscape had become of more value to the community. And even if this was not shared by everyone in that community, the sense of ownership and enhanced value might well have been sufficiently palpable to the perpetrators of previous hill fires that they were disinclined to repeat the arson.

In its adoption of Results Based Accountability* (RBA) (Friedman, 2005) Wales’s Communities First programme requires of local plans to consider seven Performance Accountability questions.


(Friedman, 2005, page 83)

Abergavenny/Y Fenni‘s smiley face strikes me as the perfect example of a low-cost idea that brings about an improvement in a social ill. It is not, however, enough to replicate it in every community where hill fires are problem. RBA requires of us to question ‘What works?’ and to examine apparent solutions for the underlying reasons why.


(Friedman, 2005, page 82)

Back in Abergavenny/Y Fenni‘ it would be interesting to know whether the statistical cliff off which hill fire incidences fell that summer was acknowledged by the local fire service. Even if they did it is to the CDW’s credit that he had sought to tune-in to the community’s wavelength on the matter, and without necessarily being conscious of it was informally recording information as part of a research agenda.

This is not to say that the educational approach is without merit but doing it because it is what we’ve done previously is an insufficiently evidence-based justification. And seems odd given the example of an alternative solution on the Fire Service’s doorstep.


*The references and extracts related to Results Based Accountability are drawn from Mark Friedman’s book Trying Hard Is Not Enough (2005). 

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Confrontation vs dialogue: consensus in the community

I sit on the committee of a park ‘Friends of’ membership group in my community in Cardiff/Caerdydd. The minutes of the previous meeting (that I could not attend) include the following:

“[our group] will continue to paint over graffiti on the walls of this site [changing rooms] when required to do so and the metal doors will be treated by the council anti -graffiti team directly”

The changing rooms are a rather dreary, unattractive building at the northern end of the park. They partly-conceal, when looking northwards, an attractive, naturally regenerated grass meadow. In keeping with its unspoiled nature there is little lighting at this end of the park; wherein lies the attractiveness of the site to the ‘vandals’.

The removal of graffiti every year, particularly in the summer, is a frequent chore carried out by our group in tandem with the local council. It is a waste of precious volunteer time and energy and diverts resources away from more important matters.

Cue a light bulb moment! I replied in email to the group and membership:

“re graffiti on the changing rooms; might there be scope for a graffiti mural to be permanently designed on the changing rooms, something that involves and engages with young people (assuming they are doing the graffiti)? I recognise that at the end of the park they are located would require something sympathetic  but this is surely not beyond the realms of possibility. I’ve worked with several graffiti artists and youth groups over the years and the fruits of their labour and imagination are very seldom tainted by vandalism; there are sites along the Taff Trail, not far from [the] Park, where this is also the experience. It could be the means for entering into a compact, of sorts, with the perpetrators over graffiti at that end of the park”

I like to think that even in a hurriedly composed email my commitment to community development values and principles shine through! I concede that a graffiti mural is not the most radical idea and has been employed numerous times over but it is, as I can testify in several years community development experience in the south wales valleys, an effective tool for communicating with young people, harnessing and channeling their creativity, pluralising the input to the design of local space and improving environmental quality. It also has a financial return to the public purse with an initial outlay of about £4-5,000 saving two to three times as much in reactive maintenance and cleansing. It propagates civic participation by young people who wish their artistic expression and hard work to remain untarnished and therefore they provide additional natural surveillance and policing for the area. As you can see I am a fan of graffiti murals, but I am not blind to the fact that other people may not concur.

I ought to have reached for my tin hat as I pressed click…

I am afraid that the prospects of letting graffiti be painted on the changing rooms and therefore encouraging this type of anti social behaviour to the area around the north of the park, will be met with strenuous opposition from local residents.

A very small sample poll taken today came out 100% against such a plan, with many people more than willing to form an action committee in order to fight it.

Our own; as well as other, NHWAs [Neighbourhood Watch Associations] are firmly against the plan and will object by all possible means, including petitions, protests made to to Council, Assembly, and Parliamentary Members.

Please keep us abreast of this proposal.

Thank you for help in bringing this to our attention.

Well that told me!

If this is how simple ideas from concerned residents are met by groups then is it any wonder people can be reluctant to dip their toe into community activism and participation? A culture of confrontation rather than dialogue does not bode well, as I counter-responded, in advance of the collaboration that community groups will need to undertake the tasks that statutory services previously undertook for us. For instance, our local council is planning to reduce the number of wildlife specialists working across the city from four to two. For a park, such as ours, with its grassland nature, coppices and riverside location this brings with it huge concern as to what the burden will (not might) be for our group when we have fewer experts to call on and less of their time when we can.

In a subsequent email exchanged between us the gentleman referred to how mild his response was compared with others. He concedes that though we may do so with different perspectives, we both want to  improve our community and tackle its ills. Indeed we do, and people are welcome to their strength of opinion. But it is not enough to aspire for consensus over some far-away or notional vision, if little effort is made to establish it over the means of attaining it. 

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Film club: The Edible Bus Stop


Marmalade Productions shot this clip in support of community development in Brixton. Edible Bus Stop is a great example of a community taking collective responsibility for its own patch. [The Edible Bus Stop – Found via tweet by @robintransition 22 May 2013]

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