Noticing the unusual suspects

Working with citizens of all races and cultures, of all ages and styles, it strikes me that no one is the leader of our little group. There are people who are taking a more visible part and some who are more literate are writing stuff, on a computer in some cases. But neither of these roles gives them leadership. Power is exercised gently. And the group is not (yet?) disturbed by leadership battles. Leadership is emerging steadily and from the group as a whole. Some of the quietest and least articulate are still managing to play a role in making suggestions and shaping the conversation. It just takes a little ingenuity to engage them and find approaches that allow them to shine when they want to.

Exeter, Ontario - Accommodation Review Committtee meeting at Usborne Central Public SchoolSuch a dispersed style of leadership is quite specific to community action. People do not stand on ceremony or etiquette; they get on with the task at hand. Progress seems to happen best when the group spends enough time to allow a degree of consensus to develop. To get things started, we – as community organisers – have acted as both conveners and facilitators but increasingly those roles are being shared out. In a couple of meetings’ time, we will be special members of the group invited to attend only because of our ideas and for guidance.

In most forms of community engagement or participation, the people who turn up are cast from the same die.

  1. They are keen to have their say. They are eager to engage with issues that the meeting has been called to discuss. They are vocal and often forceful in expressing their view. Many of the people who participate in consultations or attend other forms of neighbourhood governance want to speak up for their concerns.
  2. They have found out about the meeting from some sort of promotion or publicity. Maybe they have read an email or newsletter article, seen a poster or picked up a leaflet. Often they came to the last one so they knew about the date and time of the next. They are somehow in the know, on the network, in the swim.
  3. From this experience – and often from others elsewhere – they know how things work. They have been part of meetings before where everything is done formally. They understand how having one person speaking at a time helps the meeting to function. They respect the right of the chair to decide who speaks and in what order. The agenda is often important to those who come to community meetings; it provides a pathway through the proceedings for them.
  4. They arrive at the meetings because it is at a convenient time for them. It does not invade their time for family and friends, it is not held whilst they are at work or volunteering, it does not interfere with the school run at either end of the day. And it is of sufficient priority to shift other demands to one side.

Albany Medical College - Orientation by michaelcardusIn contrast, community organising is giving me insight into how the majority are silenced by processes of consultation and engagement. On all four counts, the folk we are working for on the Aylesbury estate do not come from this group. We are meeting them at the door when convenient to them. We are meeting people who have no settled opinion on the key issues in their community and who need drawing out to express any view. Many are turned off the idea of ever attending a meeting to ‘have their say’ because they don’t know what to expect or how to act. Of course we are meeting a substantial minority who do not have adequate English to participate without an interpreter. Many English speakers silently lack the educational attainment to manage the language of meetings and papers despite more than a decade of UK schooling. Most telling of all is the large number who have just not noticed there are any meetings to attend!

In any community, informal networks of face-to-face relationships are crucial to it’s functioning. In recent days with the rise of global mobility and hyper-diversity, those links have become very sparse on the Aylesbury. Families are dispersed and newcomers are often fresh to British ways as well as the estate itself. For a lucky few, their neighbours have remained for long enough to form more than a casual link. But even then, anything more is often the result of bringing kids up together or being involved elsewhere with shared interests such as church or bingo. There are a few individuals who stand out as key nodes on the local network. They pass on information, they know about the vulnerable and the bereaved, they wave to people as they pass the door and invite a short conversation. Being a connector* is a natural gift as well as a learnt skill.

Facilitating Communities Workshop 17 May 2010 by tony4carrCommunity leadership needs to be both horizontal and vertical. Some people are eager to speak their mind to the powerful and will tackle the problem they encounter head-on. These folk seldom have time for a deepening relationship with their neighbours and can be criticised as speaking for themselves alone. Others are the glue that link together people and places in any community. They are often well-known locally – in the street or on the block – either as that kind old lady (and often they are women) at No 6 or that old busybody! They hold a great wealth in social capital and are seldom seen at community meetings. Yet their role in bringing people together is vital.

I am stimulated to write about the “usual suspects” by attending a launch of Hands up and hands on – research from Liz Coll of Consumer Focus this week. In the summary, Liz writes that the usual suspects are “seen as cliques, concerned with ‘forwarding their own views rather than engaging in others.’” Whilst I recognise this, I am also only too aware of the pressure from statutory bodies and especially councils to find more ‘representative’ people from the community, people who come from beyond the “usual suspects”. As I have indicated above, the community situation is subtle and ever changing with some individuals well placed to speak out for the community and others not so authentically grounded.

We have seen global experiments in recent days at dispersed leadership notably in the Egyptian uprising and the Occupy movement. In both settings, the “usual suspects” have been trained and supported in a much wider and more participative approach. The culture has emphasised collaborative methods and shared responsibility using models from many sources to create new dynamics within and without the movement. If we are to imagine a different relationship between powerful players like local authorities and ordinary citizens in low-income communities, it will certainly involve moving beyond stereotypes of the usual suspects. We need to affirm and validate the connectors who create networks of trusting relationships and build people together for the common good.

* Thanks to Cormac Russell for his friendship and this distinction between leaders and connectors.


Liberating Leadership provides training and consultancy to voluntary and community sector staff and trustees in developing an alternative approach to leadership development.

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