The Community Project

Author
Lindsay Mell

I moved from Sydney to Adelaide in 1989. My initial involvement in social development came in South Australia, where I was Executive Director of the Government-sponsored Safety House scheme. My responsibilities entailed researching, preparing, writing and presenting comprehensive submissions to various agencies about the challenges facing local communities. This was a valuable experience of community development, and I was able to contribute to public awareness of the principles and practices of social/community development. Through this experience I embarked on the social development activity that has formed the predominant aspect of my life jounrey since then.

Back in Sydney I had the idea of an "International Year of Community". One of those who endorsed the idea was Hugh Mackay, the social reseracher, and he addressed a public meeting in March 1995. A steering group was convened to further the proposal, following two further public meetings. About a dozen people formed the steering group and met monthly. The UN Association (NSW) took it on as a project, and its then president Keith Suter gave particular encouragement. Representatives of various agencies became involved with the project at this stage, and have been meeting since then. Initial discussions focussed on the appropriate meaning of 'community', and just what were the elements which constituted communal living and community development. What 'community' means, along with its significance and relevance, was viewed as varied depending on the context in which it was applied and used as a reference dimension or perspective.

The International Year of Community has not yet eventuated, and there has been some difference of view about the value of international years and the extent to which the IYOC could be effective. Nevetheless we have continued to work with UNAA on this matter. There is a high level of endorsement from public and professional sources, and this has led to fruitful collaborations.

As the proposal progressed we recognised that much of its objectives could be achieved through various pilot and seed projects. For this purpose The Community Project was established in 1997 as an umbrella context for such initiatives, and a specific group was formed to carry this forward. The group remains in place. My role is to coordinate and lead this group. We have had valuable interaction with other agencies, such as Culture Lab, Academy of the Word State of the World Forum, and the Open Door Network. We also participated in the Open Government Network Conference of NSW regional local councils in 1997.

I began a series of 'Saturday Sessions' each month, for anyone interested to explore prospects of clarifying the nature of interpersonal and intrapersonal relations in the socio-cultural context, through the dimensions, perspectives and aspects of their own distinctive life journeys. Maria Maguire of Unfolding Futures convened a workshop to elucidate some of the principles through which such interaction could work. These meetings have become the key outcome of The Community Project, enabling people from diverse backgrounds, interests and inclinations to come together regularly and develop a greater appreciation of how they can more effectively interact in the communal and socio-cultural contexts.

This noble endeavour has been achieved through a kind of mentoring process. Regardless of age, we have acquired a deep appreciation of how we can all be mentors for each other through the context of our respective personal journeys. I remain the leader of the group, in the explorative sense, with the support of others.

At each session we allocate two to three hours to review how we consider each of our journeys are situated in the whole communal and socio-cultural context, and how these may be evolving. This process includes past, present and future perspectives. We offer this approach to anyone willing to give the time to allow the process to have some chance of success.

The greatest lesson I have learned is how challenging and difficult it is to have interpersonal experience, derived from a lifetime of learning, on display for all to behold; and yet how fulfilling it is to have those experiences affirmed and celebrated. We in the group have experienced a growth of commitment and friendship, along with a kind of collegiality. It is as though we are all vibrantly learning through our coursework in the university of life. Those in the wider network associated with The Community Project (including UNAA) have been influenced by this abundant energy as we share parts of our experience with them.

The greatest single strength I have developed through this initiative is to provide enough guidance and support for those involved to feel their way through the process. I have carried out the coordinator responsibility, which I and the group perceive as social leadership. I am not entirely sure I have been able to offer enough for the group, but there are no alternatives at present.

While studying for my Postgraduate Diploma in Public Administration at the University of Canberra in 1988 I came across the work of Rensis Likert on small autonomously evolving and developing activity teams, and the potential benefits of these to organisational progress. Likert's work fascinated me, and provided inspiration for the background methodology for organising state-wide dispersed volunteer teams associated with my work for the Safety House scheme in South Australia.

After returning to Sydney I studied formally for a Conflict Resolution Postgraduate Diploma. Among the many luminaries who inspired me at that time was Chris Argyris with his landmark studies on single-double-then triple-loop learning, progressively. The outcome of his learning stages is that people learn not only through the results of continuous lifetime inquiry, but also progressively amend their world-views through a kind of spiralling greater awareness, as they feed in the outcomes of their progressive inqiries. Consequently their learning tends to become less self-focussed and more outwardly accepting.

This formed some of the bacloground 'principle building' for my work with the Year of Community proposal and The Community Project. John Burton's associated work with international perspectives along similar lines was also inspirational for me. Jean Piaget's work to identify 'the teachable moment', and elucidate how there are certain specific times when people are most ready and open to learn, helped me acquire a sense for when particular ideas could be introduced and applied. These were princples I came to realise, appreciate and apply during my Teachers College training in Armidale (1970-1973).

Some principles through which our group has progressed in the practical workshop context with The Community Project are established in the recent work of William Torbert. He has evolved two progressive four-stage processes to explain how 'action inquiry' can develop:

  1. Visioning - Strategising - Performing - Assessing
  2. Framing - Advocating - Illustrating - Inquiring.

Already having the vision for what we would realise as a group of diverse individuals, we framed our vision into a form of inquiry, worked out strategies for realising the purpose of this inquiry, then performed and illustrated through our (inter)personal presentations the nature and content of our inquiry - essentially our distinctive 'life journeys'. Then we assessed our work by reviewing each stage of the process and, most importantly, through establishing the appropriate context of our work. This done, we now progressively feed these outcomes into further group inquiry as our 'learning spiral' evolves.

There is evidence of a crisis in genuine caring in contemporary socio-cultural relations. Cynicism appears to be expressed more overtly these days. This seems exacerbated by the complexity, dissonance and discontinuity of our world, universally and locally. There is a tendency for people to become more defensive, less open in interpersonal relations, less inclined to trust and respect others, and more inclined to hardened attitudes. If these tendencies are linked with negative attitudes, the optimal response would be for people to seek greater responsibility, and affirmation of positive beliefs, as the antidotes. People could at least apply greater intuitive and imaginative insight to the dilemmas of interpersonal relations, as a way to gain greater natural maturity and authenticity. This would require working through the significance of our respective interpersonal journeys and realising how we have become who we are. We would then be well placed to deal with any lack of commitment to caring and trust.

The chance of general acceptance of this pro-active approach may seem unlikely in the current setting. However it may be crucial to the persistence of humanity, even in the short term.