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Community education -the sleeping giant of social and economic development

Exploring the dynamic interface between community learning and community development

John Wise

I. Introduction

Let me at once own up to four biases:-

  • The first is an unshakeable belief in both the right and the capacity of individuals and communities to take responsibility for their own lives.
  • The second is that community development is an holistic process that aims to achieve quality- of-life goals via sustenance to body, mind and spirit.
  • The third is that as individuals and communities we have the potential to be more than we are.
  • And the fourth is that we learn best when we are engaged in something that is relevant to our needs.

These four beliefs provide the philosophical baseline for my work in the field as community educator and development facilitator, and naturally underpin the substance of this paper.

The purpose of this paper is to stimulate thought and discussion around learning strategies for community and economic development, throwing down the gauntlet of responsibility firmly at the feet of those who live in the community, and re-focusing attention on experiential community education as a powerful tool for personal, group, organisational, community and regional well-being. Within this context, I will propose for discussion what I believe to be the behavioural characteristics of 'movers and shakers' who have the capacity to make a positive difference in our communities, the key learning goals for creating a critical mass of such people and a model for community development that focuses very strongly on individual personal development

The Key points of this paper are that:

1. positive communities are built by positive individuals demonstrating success
2. positive individuals display many of the same common behaviours
3. we can learn from these behaviours to create effective community development education
4. building peoples' capacity needs to be a deliberate and sustainable community development strategy

Note: Although clearly influenced by my New Zealand experiences, I believe the substance of this paper is transportable

1. Individuals make a difference

Dynamic, positive communities are the product of many factors. A longitudinal research project (Professor. I. Keller et al, 1992) investigated why some communities succeed with development efforts whilst others fail. Conducted by Kansas State and other universities over a period of forty years and 4,500 communities in Sweden, USA and Canada, the study concluded that a pivotal factor for successful development was the leadership of animateurs, individuals who generated an organised response to new challenges, breathed new life into the community and sparked change from within.

The 'Joint Venture: Silicon Valley' project that dramatically turned around the ailing regional economy of Silicon Valley over an eight year period, identified how individual 'community entrepreneurs’ operating at a grass roots level, created collaborative advantages that made it possible to create world-competitive communities that resulted in measurable improvements in community quality of life. (Read Grassroots Leaders for a New Economy, Henton, Melville & Walesh, 1997)

The Aspen Institute, Colorado, has recently completed a ten-year study on the identification of methods, indicators and measures of community capacity building as an essential tool for sustainable rural economic development. (Measuring Community Capacity. Rural Economic Policy Programme, Aspen Institute 1996). This study is founded on the principle that the development of people and community underpins economic development and growth. My own experience of twenty five years as a community educator and community economic development practitioner has brought me into close personal involvement with some hundreds of community development projects. Although each has involved the collaborative efforts of many parties, a common factor has been the presence of a 'driver', a person who not only wants something better for the community but who has the vision, passion and commitment to do something about it.

There are such individuals in every walk of life in every community. People who "get things done"- the animateurs, with the capacity for motivating and involving others towards the achievement of a common goal, and who are consistently committed to community and economic development efforts. How wonderful it would be if we could create a 'critical mass' of such positive minded, pro-active individuals in our community!

We can, and I believe we need to do that.

2. Some common behaviours of people who make a positive difference

What is it about these 'action people' that makes them different? Certainly they hold positive beliefs about themselves and their community , but is this enough on it's own? I think not. I identify three additional common behaviour traits that seem able to transform positive beliefs into effective community action. These behaviours, which I describe as:-

Reality based behaviour
Responsibility based behaviour, and
Realignment based behaviour

may well provide a useful frame of reference around which deliberate community education learning experiences can be built. Brief descriptions of these behaviour traits are:

(a) Reality-based behaviour

Although as individuals and communities 'we have visions and goals, (the things we want to achieve), we become more positive and.more effective when we focus our attention and energy on those things that we know to be true. Since nothing else is certain, we can waste time, energy, resources and emotion on the unrealities in our lives. For example, focusing energy on the things that we hope won't happen or the things that we wish would happen, (our fears and our fantasies).

(b) Responsibility-based behaviour

We become more positive and more effective when we accept that whatever we are experiencing in our lives is a product of our own making. The outcome of taking responsibility is that if we don't like what's happening to us, we do something about it or we accept it as it is. This is taking Responsibility.

(c) Realignment-based behaviour

We become more positive and effective when we have the understanding and the tools to minimise frustration and experience positive results. (Nothing succeeds better in community than showing that it can be done!)

Realignment behaviour means demonstrating the ability to adjust and readjust our needs, expectations and plans to the resources available, (or the resources that can be created). The outcome of constant realignment is the achievement of results with minimum energy, rather than disappointment with maximum frustration.

3. Reality, responsibility and realignment in action.

This story is an ancient Chinese Taoist parable, "The Old Master and the Horse"

A horse was tied up outside a shop in a narrow Chinese village street. Whenever anyone tried to walk by, the horse would kick out. Before long, a small crowd of villagers had gathered near the shop, arguing about how best to get past the excited animal Suddenly, someone came running. "The Old Master is coming!" he shouted. "He'll know what to do!"
The crowd watched eagerly as the Old Master came around the corner, turned, and walked down another street.

Notice that the same situation has produced two quite different outcomes for the villagers and the Master. It is the difference in their respective behaviour that on the one hand has created a negative, unresolved situation for the villagers, and on the other has created a positive result for the Master.

Let's view the story through the behaviours of Reality, Responsibility and Re-alignment.


The Master and the villagers have experienced the same circumstance, but to each, the reality of those circumstances, and therefore their responses and their achievements, are different.

What we experience is strongly influenced by our beliefs. The villagers seem to have a number of limiting, unhelpful beliefs that are creating their situation, (their Reality). Among these may be:

  • it's easier to remain with the small picture
  • the problem is beyond their ability to solve
  • it's safer to go along with a crowd than to express an individual view
  • something, or someone is always to blame for us not being able to achieve what we want.

These limiting beliefs have produced a negative reality for the villagers. The horse is still there and the villagers still haven't got to where they wanted to go. Notice too, that the villagers' attention has shifted from achieving their original purpose, (to arrive at a destination), to one of blaming and looking for a rescuer.

The master, on the other hand, has learned that through helpful beliefs he can change his circumstances (his reality), to achieve what he wants. His beliefs may be, for example:

  • every problem has a solution
  • whatever I need to resolve this problem will be available to me
  • when one door closes another will open. r-

These beliefs cause the master to see and experience the scene before him quite differently, inevitably opening up a different range of helpful responses, (potential solutions).


The villagers have taken no responsibility, preferring to transfer responsibility for their plight onto the horse, and for a solution, onto the Master.

The Master, on the other hand, has taken total responsibility and acted deliberately to achieve the result he wants, seemingly ignoring the needs, (dependency!) of the villagers.


The villagers actions have only succeeded in creating a frustrating result because there is no alignment between:

  • what they want (this was forgotten as attention shifted to the problem)
  • the resources available (e.g., their collective wisdom or the alternative routes)
  • the amount of energy necessary to produce a positive result.

Indeed, their considerable collective energy has produced nothing but frustration. On top of this they are now going to feel let down by their Master! (It may well turn out to be all his fault!)

Meanwhile, the Master has met his need through effortless action. He quickly realigned:

  • what he wanted to achieve with
  • available resources, (in this case another street), with
  • just the required amount of effort.

A goal for communities wanting to create positive futures is the creation of a critical mass of Masters!

4. More about reality

People who demonstrate reality behaviour experience themselves in relation to their whole environment. They are big-picture thinkers and are therefore able to respond in an authentic (genuine) and immediate way to what is happening to themselves and to those around them. Their daily actions therefore, are based as closely as possible on their immediate and real environment, their immediate relationships and their immediate issues.

Awareness of what is real for themselves and the community around them helps them to think and act strategically. They have learned to set aside those challenges over which they have no influence and focus on the critical and achievable challenges that will take them a step further towards what they want. They focus attention on the present knowing that it is only possible to change what is happening now. They know that today is better than some day. They have visions and dreams but their feet are firmly on the ground. They do not plan on the basis of tomorrows maybe's, promises or assumptions. They look for opportunity in the present whilst others wait for the Asians to restructure their economy.

Such people have a good self awareness. For example, they have an awareness of:

  • their beliefs, values and ethical limits
  • their strengths and their weaknesses
  • what they want (their agendas)
  • what's truly impacting on them and their helpful and unhelpful responses to these forces
  • what they can and cannot influence
  • what presently is happening to prevent progress towards that future (personally and in every other way)

Such people have good community awareness. For example an awareness of:

  • community structures;
  • community politics
  • community demographics
  • community economics
  • current trends and influences, local, regional and global

5. More about responsibility

The block to responsible behaviour is avoidance. Avoidance of the truth. Avoidance of reality. Putting It In the too hard basket. Hoping It will go away. Denial. And aren’t we all good at It?! We research, form committees, ensure that It’s outside current policy, put It down to the rapid pace of change anything as long as we don't have to face up to the truth and then deal with it.

Avoiding 'what's real' is a short step to 'passing the buck', blaming someone else for what's happening, becoming helpless and needing to be rescued.

Scott-Peck in his book 'The Road Less Travelled", which advocates a spiritual path to : individual and community development, describes the outcome of this process as "avoiding the pain of freedom" avoiding the liberation that solutions may provide and then, (Heaven 1- forbid!), having to stand on our own two feet! The following diagram shows the main i players and their relationships in the cycle of non-responsible behaviour. The cycle of victim, perpetrator and rescuer. The cycle of dependency.

Notice that:

  • It is possible to play all three roles simultaneously
  • the roles are co-dependent -they 'feed' off each other in order to meet each others' needs, I
  • thus perpetuating the cycle. (Does this gives the clue to breaking the cycle?)
  • the cycle is an effective power and control model for those who have that need.
  • we all fit into this cycle from time to time

Communities and individuals locked in the 'cycle of non-responsible behaviour' become powerless and impotent, subject to the control of socially irresponsible private sector entrepreneurs, local authority and government politicians, policy makers and "professional rescuers". In significant numbers, they can create a community going nowhere, characterised by not a lot of smiling, plus:

  • blaming others for what's happening .uncoordinated effort
  • unagreed vision and purpose
  • reliance on out-of-town experts and resources .hope rather than results
  • competition for scarce resources
  • development efforts confined to "roads and rubbish". (No risk there!)
  • repeating mistakes instead of learning from them Acceptance of responsibility

The critical shift from dependency to self-responsibility is acceptance of the truth -or "getting real" in the current vernacular.

By accepting the principle of 'reality', we discover that we can have some impact on the present. We begin to accept that we have the capacity to determine what we experience. The acceptance of our capacity to determine what we want and what we need to change is at the core of responsible behaviour.

Accepting our reality is to honestly confront our vulnerability. Such acknowledgment of our 'warts and all' truth is both self-empowering and empowering for others. Through this act, we can cease to be dependent and begin to practice independence and, eventually experience the most desirable state, interdependence, the forming of trusting relationships with others in order to achieve a common purpose.

A proven antidote to victim, perpetrator or rescuer behaviour is to change roles to become one or all of teacher, learner or 'doer'. This role change creates a dramatic shift in dynamics from the' cycle of dependency to the' cycle of development 'I which engages us in quite a different set of experiences and relationships.

In the development cycle:

  • there is potential for positive and satisfying experiences .our positive experiences will cause us to create new and positive beliefs about ourselves and our opportunities (a different reality)
  • relationships, although still co-dependent, create mutual benefits (so we change the word to r" collaborative relationships! )
  • there is potential for unlimited personal and community development

6. More about realignment

Individuals and institutions in any community will react to changing local and global circumstances in different ways and at different speeds.

All communities are subjected to the forces of change, but those where there is poor leadership, no clear and agreed way forward, and no structured approach to development are particularly vulnerable. These communities will struggle in spite of flurries of uncoordinated 'development activities'. Their public, private and community sector interests will expend resources and energy pursuing their own agendas in a climate of tension, competition, parochialism and suspicion. Such communities are badly out of alignment.

The community challenge, ably demonstrated by the Master in the story of the villagers and the angry horse, is to be able to respond effectively by realigning the reality of the moment with the desired goal, (perhaps a community vision), and the expenditure of minimum of effort and available resources.

Some examples of rural realignments may be:

  • rural policy to rural needs and aspirations
  • rural learning resources to rural wants and needs
  • institutional and community responses to rural adult transitions (work, housing, health, etc)
  • institutional responses to rural labour market needs
  • rural community values to rural development strategies
  • finance industry to rural entrepreneurial enterprise
  • business goals to rural environmental and social imperatives

Realignment is all about the flow of effort, needs and resources

Add reality, responsibility and realignment behaviour to positive beliefs and we seem to have a recipe for positive community action

7. The four behaviours. implications for community education

The behaviours of positive beliefs, reality, responsibility and realignment have been separated for the purpose of identifying what may be useful learning's to encourage the development of new positive, action-based, community animateurs. Although I believe this to be possible we must be wary of the tyranny of knowledge! Irrelevant 'training' may well meet the needs of providers but destroy the 'x factor' that makes things work for these special people. For this reason my model for growing positive-action people is based on:

  • personal growth before technical skills .
  • process ahead of content

1. Personal Growth Goals. To become:

(a) Self aware
What creates me as I am?

(b) A ware of others
What makes others who they are?

(c) Aware of Relationships
Understanding my relationships with others. Why do I create the relationships I have?

(d) Aware of Community
What's going on in this community. How do things happen and why? How and why do things not happen? Where do I fit in?

2. Process Goals

The process of learning will be:
(a) an 'inside-out' process

  • self directed on an 'as-needed' basis

(b ) process not content driven

  • facilitated, mentored and coached
  • experiential
  • self directed on an ' as-needed ' basis

(e) assessed through self and peer feedback rather than measured formally
(f) progressive

  • learning will "build", allowing learner to staircase to level of choice through non-formal or formal systems.

For each of these key goals, there will be an associated and useful skills/knowledge cluster. A facilitator / mentor / coach with an understanding of what these are will judge the 'teachable moment', For example, it can be anticipated with some certainty that conflict will arise at some point in any community setting. Preferable to arranging the learning in anticipation, is to wait until immediately after the conflict experience, when exactly the required (by the learner!) amount of learning can be processed on the basis of need and within the framework of key learning goals and principles. For example:

  • Did I understand the part I was playing?
  • Did I understand the part others were playing?
  • Did I understand what was happening between us? How would I like it to be different?
  • What do I need to learn from the experience?
  • (Introduce the skills, knowledge required through I: I coaching and/or experiential workshops ).

Learning roles and relationships

The key players in the development of community animateurs are:

1. Funder(s)

2. The development facilitator

3 .The animateur

4. The community development project or process and those directly involved

5. The community

The following diagram illustrates the learning opportunity interface and roles as development facilitator, animateur, project and community interact with each other.

Note, in this model the community benefits in a number of ways:

  • one development facilitator will be interfacing with a number of other animateurs and projects
  • the community benefits from the development of people as well as the completion of development projects
  • the wider community experiences positive results, encouraging the development of positive beliefs

8. Resourcing development facilitators and animateurs

Although as a principle it is desirable that the community share responsibility for the resourcing of development learning and community development, it is probably realistic to expect that not a lot is immediately possible without a significant input of tax dollars, particularly at the 'kick start' stage. There will be many options for this- The one briefly illustrated in the following diagram is based on the highly successful New Zealand Community Employment Group (CEG) model. CEG is a division of the NZ Department of Labour.

9. Conclusion

Positive futures are not created by "waiting for the cavalry". They are created by mobilising a critical mass of people into genuinely and passionately believing and demonstrating that positive change is possible.

Since beliefs are the outcomes of our experiences, the route to creating positive beliefs in the community is via the creation of a perpetual stream of positive community -building r experiences. These experiences will be real, the purpose widely understood, supported, acknowledged as being of community benefit and a cause for community pride.

The motives and techniques may be new, but the idea is not. I suspect that like rural communities in New Zealand, Australian rural communities have been founded on a culture of interdependent self-help, the 'driver' for development being the community's shared purpose, collective wisdom, resources and sense of responsibility being brought to bear on solutions that successfully meet the needs of their community.

Previous generations of rural dwellers knew instinctively how to work together for the common good, but we, in spite of our level of technological sophistication, are being forced by circumstances to bring these awarenesses once more to our consciousness in or-der that we can not only re-learn the essential tools of "community" but how we might best apply them in the modem context. The development of a 'learning culture' congruent with this redefinition and the needs it throws up is critical to the sustainable management of rural community change. My hope is that, as rural communities redefine their future, those with responsibility for allocating resources, determining policy and delivering formal and non formal learning opportunities will create new, more empowering learner-centred processes and delivery systems that align with the communities real and ever-changing needs.

Finally, I reiterate that in my experience it is the individual that makes the difference. In our development efforts we would do well to adopt as a maxim the words of President Eisenhower: " It is better to change one person than it is to try and change the world."

John Wise
Development Facilitator John Wise Associates
32 Jervois Road
Napier New Zealand
Phone / Fax: 64. 6. 8441367

APPENDIX 1 Examples of Development Education Goals and Competencies

1. Some learning goals for the development of reality behaviour.

1.1 To learn self awareness

  • able to identify own needs
  • able to integrate actions with beliefs, values, and needs
  • can appreciate and value the uniqueness of others.
  • aware of own strengths and weaknesses

1.2 To learn community awareness .

  • understands local social, cultural, political, bureaucratic and economic realities
  • understands the policy, resourcing and decision-making realities
  • can participate in decisions that will effect his/her life

2. Some learning goals for the development of self-responsibility

21 To learn how to build and maintain personal, interpersonal, group and community relationships

  • understands the part he/she plays in perpetuating their dependence on others and how their dependent behaviour meets other peoples' needs
  • understands why other people respond to her/him in the way they do
  • able to facilitate conflict management techniques
  • understands community and group dynamics
  • able to give and receive accurate, non-damaging feed-back
  • understands the principles and practices of shared-power leadership

2.2 To learn how to learn and how to help' others to learn

  • able to identify own and others ' learning styles
  • has a basic understanding of learning assistance techniques, for example; facilitation, experiential learning, accelerated learning, coaching and mentoring

2.3 To learn how to get something moving in the community

  • .able to conduct creative brainstorming session .able to use a variety of planning methods: eg accelerated, strategic, project, business
  • .able to chair formal and informal meetings
  • .able to conduct community needs survey
  • .able to locate resources
  • .able to build and maintain community networks

3. Some learning goals for Realignment Behaviour .

3.1 To learn to think and act strategically

  • being conversant with a range of development strategies
  • aware of local, regional and national policy-making processes .able to negotiate and mediate
  • able to carry out basic research and access quality research when required
  • able to make a confident presentation

3.2 To learn how to build and maintain strategic networks and alliances .aware of best practice network strategies .can develop a networking strategy

  • can develop and present formal submission -or knows how to get this done on their behalf
  • can meet confidently with sector groups to discuss issues of common concern

(Appendix to Paper, "Community Education, the Sleeping Giant of Social and Economic Development", presented to the Positive Rural Futures Conference, Biloela, Queensland, 29-30 May 1998, by John Wise, Development Facilitator, Napier, New Zealand)

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