Official: Community Engagement Can Stress You Out
The RENEW Northwest Intelligence Report just published (January 2006) on ‘Making a difference: Participation and wellbeing’ marks an important step forward in our notions of volunteering and its outcomes. Professor Carolyn Kagan suggests that community activists often find their ‘work’ stressful and unrewarding.
It is indeed time we re-examined the notion of ‘putting something back’; but we shouldn’t assume that only those who live in difficult circumstances can share common cause in regeneration and renewal. People with professional skills who themselves become involved as volunteers can also find the going very hard – as any regeneration professionals taking Prof. Kagan’s advice to ‘practise what they preach’ might well discover.
Given that work-related stress has long been known to be related to powerlessness and / or impossible demands, I’m surprised it’s taken so long… but now we have the official acknowledgement that community engagement by volunteers can be as stressful as it can be rewarding.
In her report Making a difference: Participation and wellbeing (Renew Northwest, 2006) Professor Carolyn Kagan from Manchester Metropolitan University suggests that, ‘far from being a source of wellbeing, participation can actually increase stress.’ Community activists, she has found, work ‘under unrelenting pressure: isolated, without supervision, coping with local conflict, without time off – and without pay.’
‘Consulting residents about a regeneration project,’ we are told, ‘is a top-down system which can often result in local needs being defined by the professionals, with little ‘ownership’ by residents.’ (This worries me a bit; isn’t it helpful that there be professionally experienced people genuinely embedded in all communities, so that issues wider than the parocial are also ‘stakeheld’ by all concerned?)
Who are the ‘community activists’?
Nonetheless, Prof. Kagan has a very valid point. You only have to become a little involved to see that the people who are most active in ‘communities’ are also often those who are least impressed by what is being achieved around them, and that despondency is often the name of the game.
And you can also fairly quickly see that the powers-that-be, probably without conscious intent, often play their own games in this, favouring some groups and individuals against others, hoovering up ideas and regurgitating them as ‘policy’ to be ‘explained’ to the hapless people who first thought of it, and generally bureaucratising whatever they touch. (Of course some degree of bureaucracy is essential; but some of it is also rather convenient in terms of how officialdom chooses to engage with the punter.)
But there is another question too: why should be assumed that ‘community activists’ are necessarily ‘tenants’ or ‘residents’ or always themselves live in a ‘community’ (whatever that means) which itself struggles? Sometimes this specific sort of engagement is the only legitimate way forward, but many other issues which need addressing are wider than that.
‘Activists’ come in all shapes and sizes
Is there no commonality between all the sorts of people who work voluntarily to gain benefit for different ‘communities’? Aren’t local political parties and, say, religious leaders and charitable organisations all run on the basis of very little financial reward for a lot of hard slog?
The people involved in these organisations may well be articulate, easily able to make their case and very committed to involving everyone – but they are often just as stressed by the response of officialdom as anyone else. In fact, it could be thought that they are even less well received by regeneration bureacrats than are those with fewer recognised and assets, precisely because they are seen by the powers-that-be as more of a challenge or ‘threat’.
Engagement by professionals is a difficult issue
The un-welcome which articulate and professionally qualified people sometimes experience when they try to work as volunteeers for the larger community interest is very significant. Prof. Kagan suggests that if regeneration professionals are serious about accepting and supporting the role of ‘community activists’, they should take on this role in their ‘own home and work communities’… or presumably anywhere where they feel there is – and here perhaps we get to the real underlying issue – legitimate common cause?
If my observations are anything to go by, the regeneration professionals are in for a shock if they actually follow Prof. Kagan’s advice. They could find that they are vulnerable on all fronts… the ‘community’ wonders what they’re up to, their co-professionals feel uncomfortable, and the powers-that-be actively resist their involvement.
It takes forward looking, positive and confident practitioners to accept their peers as ‘volunteer’ stakeholders with legitimate engagement in the regeneration and renewal process; and confident practitioners, happy and able to share, and comfortable in their skins, are sadly not exactly what’s to be found in some of these programmes.