Sunday, 24 June 2012

‘Open wide your hearts’– ‘broken’ neighbourhoods, ‘troubled’ families, poverty… and a different story…?

A lot of stories are told about areas like ours. The Daily Mail labelled us last year the seventh most ‘workshy’ community in England (based on proportion of working-age residents claiming some kind of state benefits). As an area with a concentration of social housing, we have been branded by some policy-shapers a ‘broken neighbourhood’, in which ‘both a dependency culture and a culture of entitlement predominate’. And most recently, neighbours of mine have been described by David Cameron as ‘troubled families’, ‘neighbours from hell’, ‘the source of a large proportion of the problems in society’. This last bit of labelling, it turns out, has been applied to 120,000 families around the country who tick at least 5 of the following boxes:

  • no parent in work
  • poor quality housing
  • no parent with qualifications
  • mother with mental health problems
  • one parent with long standing disability / illness
  • family has low income
  • family cannot afford some food / clothing items

As Jonathan Portes has clearly highlighted, ‘[w]hat instantly leaps out from this list … is that none of these criteria, in themselves, have anything at all to do with disruption, irresponsibility, or crime…’ These ‘troubled families’ are ‘not necessarily “neighbours from hell” at all. They are poor.’

The trouble is, ‘poverty’ itself is a term used by academics and professionals – and politicians. Again, it is a story of ‘them’, rather than of ‘us’. It may be the language of calmer heads and more cautious vocabularies than those of the Daily Mail and the current government, it may well ground itself in ‘hard facts’, like ‘indices of deprivation’, and painstaking ‘needs analysis’. But it is still a choice to tell a particular kind of story. A story of ‘needs’, ‘lacks’, ‘deprivation’ – of ‘what isn’t’.

It’s a story I’ve often told myself, and so have many of my neighbours. Many round here will talk about there being ‘nothing here’, or tell stories of an area that has ‘gone downhill’, and of being ‘ignored’ and ‘let down’, again and again over the years. The trouble is, when we collude with those in power who tell such stories of us, stories of ‘lack’ and ‘absence’, of ‘trouble’ and ‘brokenness’, we tacitly reinforce the story – external and internal – that we are less than capable, less than adequate, less than human. This ‘deficit’ story does little but encourage dependence (on those who are clearly more capable than us – the professionals, the politicians), and collude with the pathologising and stigmatising that would happily isolate us from apparently ‘unbroken’ society, and blame us for any and every social problem you can think of.

In recent months I’ve been digging into the theory and practice of ‘community resilience’. You could say it’s what ‘community regeneration’ has become, now the money’s run out, and the idea of neighbourhood transformation has been kicked into cloud cuckoo land. You could say it’s a convenient move by government that wants to abandon deprived neighbourhoods to sink or swim on their own. But both of these would be to give in to cynicism too quickly. The key ideas of ‘community resilience’ are:

  • CR understands communities as complex, dynamic ‘systems’, affected by, and responsive to, their wider environments;
  • CR is interested in the whole breadth of possible responses to disruption, change, and day-to-day pressure, from ‘survival’ to ‘adaptation’ to ‘transformation’;
  • CR looks not for the pathologies and lacks of a community, but for its ‘resources’, its ‘assets’ or ‘capitals’, its ‘capabilities’ – for what it has, not what it hasn’t.

Community Resilience invites us to tell a different story about neighbourhoods like ours. While our ‘indices of deprivation’ may be high, and our ‘financial capital’ may be pretty low, CR points us towards other kinds of ‘capital’ that we might well have more of: ‘natural’, ‘human’, ‘cultural’, ‘built’, ‘political’, and ‘social’ capitals.

Of course, it may be that even expanding the range of what counts as ‘community capital’ doesn’t change the story significantly. In the midst of maisonettes and tower blocks, hemmed in by the M6 and overshadowed by the Birmingham Airport flight-path, with few local associations and voluntary organisations, and a feeling of remoteness from those in power, quite a few of those other ‘capitals’ might look pretty depleted here too.

But there remains a choice. There is still a different story that can be told, if only we have the imagination and willingness to tell it.

That ‘different story’ is one that begins with local people – not just some local people, but all local people; not just ‘able’ adults, but the oldest of the ‘elderly’ and the youngest of the children, and those who live with disabilities and ‘life-limiting illness’ too. And the story is this: that each and every person who lives on this estate has gifts, and gifts that can be shared, if only we have the imagination and courage to create the opportunities. Gifts of heart – the passions, the things we care most about. Gifts of head – knowledge, experience, wisdom, learning. And gifts of hands – practical abilities, things that ‘we can do’, to make, maintain and mend.

The ‘art’ of telling, and living, this different story, is the art of connection. It’s the art of drawing out people’s gifts, and of linking people up with each other to enable those gifts to be released into the community. It’s the art of seeing the possible connections between a derelict waste-land, a passionate gardener, and a young woman diagnosed by her doctor with ‘mental health problems’ who’s desperate to get out of her flat, get some fresh air, and do something with her hands.

There’s a nice bit of technical jargon for this different way of telling and living the story of a neighbourhood. It’s called ‘Asset-Based Community Development’ (see e.g. John McKnight & Peter Block, The Abundant Community: Awakening the power of families and neighbourhoods). It’s not rocket science, but it does demand a choice, to inhabit a different kind of mindset to the familiar, the easy, the ‘default’ story.

But it has other names too. In the Christian tradition, it’s often called ‘gratitude’. It’s the practice of seeing, and receiving, as gifts those things which might not obviously seem to be gifts. It’s the conscious, intentional, sometimes painstaking, practice of recognising gifts, opening ourselves to them, allowing our hearts to be enlarged by them, and responding to them with something more – something that exceeds attempts at ‘repayment’, exceeds what we think we ‘owe’, exceeds what we believe is our ‘duty’ with something that looks more like ‘joy’. We might say ‘thank you’ because we know we ought to – but as a practice, gratitude is learning to turn that ‘thank you’ into infectious enjoyment.

Another name for it is ‘over-acceptance’. I’ve written here before about improvisation theory:

“In improvised jazz, the musicians in the group are practised at listening carefully to each other. Anything any of the musicians play we might call an ‘offer’ – a snippet of tune, a clever harmony, even a wrong note or two. And the other musicians make choices, in every moment: to ‘block’ an offer – ignore it, write it off as a mistake, or simply pursue their own thread of music unaffected by the other musicians; or to ‘accept’ an offer – to echo it, develop it, creatively run with what they’ve heard from their fellow musicians to make something more of it. The best improvisers are those with the daring and creativity to ‘overaccept’ all offers – to take even what might have been a mistake or a crashing discord, and develop into something musically new, different, beautiful, exciting.”

But there’s a pretty crucial objection to these attempts to ‘change the story’. It’s that all this talk of ‘gifts’ distracts from, or masks, the injustice, the marginalization, the abuse dealt out to communities like ours. Is it really as simple as choosing the ‘glass half full’ story over the ‘glass half empty’ version?

I’m grateful to Ann Morisy, one of my deeply wise, deeply practical theological heroes, for pointing me in the right direction here. She talks about her suspicion of ‘poverty’ as the key, organizing concept to describe people and neighbourhoods. Instead, she points us to David Ford’s language of ‘multiple overwhelmings’ (in The Shape of Living). While such overwhelmings in our lives, Ford suggests, can often be positive (think of beauty and joy, for example), Morisy is thinking particularly of the kind of ‘overwhelmings’ that are negative, the kind of ‘common traumas’ that diminish people, ground people down – poverty, yes, but also insecurity, overload, anxiety, inadequacy, hopelessness…

Ford could be seen as a ‘resilience thinker’: he acknowledges the complexity of life’s overwhelmings, and cautions against ‘the simple solution’ that seeks to ‘tackle head-on one form of overwhelming while ignoring the others’. ‘[T]he consequences of multiple overwhelming create more intensive overwhelming... The personal and the political interact, so do the local and the global, the economic and the cultural. It is like a vast, multi-levelled ecology in which everything is somehow related to everything else.’

We might well ask how people cope – how is resilience nurtured and sustained – in the midst of ‘multiple overwhelmings’. But Ford is not just interested in ‘coping’. He advocates a very particular kind of ‘openness’. We can respond to being overwhelmed, he says, by ‘naming it’ (bringing the overwhelming into language), and ‘describing it’ (drawing on Scripture, poetry, and other sources to do justice to the complexity of the overwhelming, and to help us find common ground in our experience with that of other people). With people who are in the grip of ‘multiple overwhelmings’, we need to learn to practise what Nelle Morton calls ‘hearing to speech’: ‘a hearing that is far more than acute listening. A hearing engaged in by the whole body that evokes speech – a new speech – a new creation.’ We who live in, and we who work in, neighbourhoods caught up in ‘multiple overwhelmings’, need to learn that kind of ‘hearing to speech’ that can help the gifts to be released, but also allow the laments, the anger, the pathos, to be heard in ways that change the structures, change the politics, change the ‘well-off’ and the power-brokers.

But Ford pushes us further. Ultimately, the ‘shape of living’ he advocates is, in fact, a very profound kind of ‘vulnerability’:

‘the wisest way to cope [with being multiply overwhelmed] is not to try to avoid being overwhelmed, and certainly not to expect to be in control of everything; rather it is to live amidst the overwhelmings in a way that lets one of them be the overwhelming that shapes the others. That is the “home” or “school” in which the practicalities of coping can be learnt.’

Coping with ‘multiple overwhelmings’, receiving and releasing the gifts of our neighbours, unleashing the lament in a way that changes the politics: all of these, says David Ford, are grounded, ultimately, in letting ourselves be overwhelmed by God. This is where we find the imagination, and the courage, to change the story that is told about us, and that we tell about ourselves.

It is, incidentally, the kind of witness that we discover in today’s lectionary readings: of Job, looking God in the eye in the midst of the whirlwind; of frightened disciples in a fragile, storm-tossed boat; and of Paul and his co-workers, writing to the Christians in Corinth:

‘[A]s servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger… We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything… We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you… open wide your hearts also.’ (2 Corinthians 6: 4, 8-12)