Doing it for ourselves

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1 2Forget looking to government and corporations for answers to social problems. The answers lie in harnessing the strength within our recovery community, say Tony Williams and Mario Sobczak of Kingston RISE 

We’ve had a recovery community in Kingston RISE (Recovery Initiative Social Enterprise) since 2011. It has touched about 200 people – some a little, some a lot – supported by two employees and half a dozen volunteers. Each year we’ve cost less to run than it costs to put one person through treatment. 

So what does delivery look like for a recovery community? The bread and butter is our community café, where we meet regulars and new people. We check in together at the start of the week and check out at the end. We take care of each other. But we’ve done much more: we’ve acted in plays, played in a band, attended lots of festivals, and walked endlessly in the Surrey Hills. We’ve done yoga, mindfulness, three principles, and dug an allotment. We learned from each other at RISE College – and we’ve had fun.

People come and they go, but that’s OK. We’re not here to keep people locked into a service; we’re here to help people get their lives back. Quite a few of them we don’t see so much now because they’ve got jobs. We have measured our effectiveness using a tool by Martin Webber from the Institute of Psychiatry, which captures people’s connectedness and their access to resources, before and after. The difference can be significant. But the real measure is in how people behave – they get lively again. It’s in their faces, in their voices, when they spark with each other, and when they laugh. What are the ideas that have led us on this journey?

1Modernity and austerity

The modern world has brought us many benefits. We are, as a society, economically better off than the generations of our parents and grandparents. In general, life is easier. However, the modern world has brought us challenges not faced by previous generations, and the symptoms are evident almost everywhere. Obesity, malnutrition, mental illness, domestic violence and addiction are rife. The demise of extended families and the loss of a sense of community have left a significant proportion of society in desperate isolation. These symptoms can often strike together.

Today, faced with any kind of social problem, including the ones above, we typically look to government and corporations for answers. We cannot get those answers unless they are first monetarised, and ‘solutions’ competed and procured. Efficient processes, selection criteria and measurement become paramount; people secondary. Citizens have been repositioned as ‘consumers’, either in credit (as purchasers of products) or in deficit (as service users). A ‘parent-child’ relationship has been set up between those in authority and ‘needy’ consumers of services – with professionals sandwiched uneasily in between. It is possible today to believe that in the eyes of government, communities are problems to be solved.

Most recently, these issues have become worse because the funding for these ‘top down’ services has started to become scarce. Whether you believe in the austerity narrative or not, the reality for a substantial part of society – the most vulnerable – typically with a combination of issues such as homelessness, mental illness, addiction, poor physical health, and (underlying all) poverty, is that practical help is becoming harder and harder to find from traditional sources. For this section of community it’s possible to see that ‘everyone’s in recovery from something’.

It’s clear we need answers – and it’s also clear the current paradigm doesn’t deliver them. So what are we to do?

Resilient communities

In the recovery movement we are clear that the answers lie in each other, in community, so it is natural that we should look inside ourselves and to each other for answers. Answer number one is that the solution involves reinstating our notions of community. As Cormac Russell, of the Asset Based Community Development Institute, said: ‘There are some things community is best placed to do; but we’ve forgotten how to do it. Government needs to get out of the way and let us do it. And for things community can’t do; help them.’

Our notions of community will not, of course, spring into being at once after a 60-year lapse. We need to start by building communities that come together over pressing issues. Later, when we are strong, resilient and mobilised in a variety of ways, the chance will be there to join these communities together. Recovery communities have lessons for the community in general today, about how the cohesiveness we get from shared experience can translate into positive real outcomes that we achieve together. We are not passive, inert consumers of services; we can do things for ourselves. And that makes us, individually and collectively, stronger. We’re collaborating with Martha Earley, head of Kingston Council’s Equalities, Community and Engagement Team (ECET) to deliver community engagement and change, both within the council and to community groups using our approach and tools.

So how do we find the resources to deliver recovery today? Well, in a world where money is scarce, we use what is to hand that does not involve cash and profits. We are, all of us, endowed with an abundance of gifts – assets. These are the things we know how to do, or the things people we know can do. We’ve just forgotten to look for them, because we expect them to be provided for us. We need to look first at ourselves and our neighbourhoods for assets which we can make use of, rather than to look at our neighbourhoods as problems to be solved. 

2Reclaiming our citizenship

Next, we need to design our answers together, not have the answers given us from outside. To do this we need to organise ourselves without hierarchies, to be as diverse and open minded as we can – and we should make it fun. Most of all, we who experience the problem have the best understanding of the solution; and more, we need to be the solution. There is a power in recovery, as David Best says, and with this motivation we turn our deficits into assets. To do this involves our empowerment and a repositioning of the relationship between professionals, the deliverers of traditional services, and ‘service users’ – who in future must be part of the same, flat community. This is not natural for any of the participants and involves the biggest change of mindset. It does, however, work.

Finally, our solutions need to be designed beyond the soulless forms-driven answers that have come to dominate so much of the service delivery we have experienced in the past. We know, for example, that beneath all the symptoms is a loss of wellbeing, and that through community-led action our goal is to restore it. A good broad definition of a healthy life is the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ and our solutions need to embody those ideas. We believe that in any good answers, the scientific (true) must be balanced with the ethical (good) and aesthetic (beautiful). Today we have to recognise that it is just as important to lift people’s hearts as it is to lift them out of poverty.

Our Journey Together

Where is this all going? The challenge today is to broaden the debate on these ideas and to use them practically. We are actively seeking your involvement in their development. Any products we create on this journey we intend to provide free to other community groups. We hope that you will do the same. The first step on the journey is a common understanding and a common terminology. To read more on the ideas in this article, see the references below. The next step is to talk to us, and to each other.

Further reading:

Core Economy (Cahn, 2006); Asset Based Community Development (ABCD, McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 1993); Co-production (NEF, 2008); Five ways to wellbeing (NEF, 2008); Afternow; the Good, the Beautiful and the True (Hanlon, 2013); Recovery capital (Best, 2010).