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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