Ledwith on Freire, Gramsci, and Community Development in the UK

I loved Margaret Ledwith’s book, Community Development: A critical approach. This has been my practice for so long alongside community organizing and then on its own — I can’t describe the feeling of reading something that resonates so strongly, that frames this kind of work within this academic context that sometimes feels so alien and this British context with its very different trajectories. All that, and offering new insight. I’m working on the next paper, which is on this kind of work in London, so there will be a couple of posts on this, though the paper is actually almost done. Should have been submitted ages ago.

Sigh.

Why Empower

I tend to hate the word empowerment, but I suppose mostly because it has been so eviscerated of all critical content and liberatory practice. I have heard it come out of the mouths of people who wouldn’t empower anyone at all if they really admitted the truth to themselves, it has lost much of its credibility to me. But Ledwith some of it back. First, a quote from Butcher et al (a wealth of reading lies ahead of me as always):

If empowerment is at the heart of critical community practice, then “power” and its utilization are at the core of empowerment. It is only through engaging with structures and processes of social, political and economic power that communities can effectively work to confront the disadvantage, exclusion and oppression that they experience. (Butcher et al, 2007) 13

And here Ledwith nails much of why I hate the word:

Empowerment is a transformation concept but without a critical analysis it is all too often applied naively to confidence and self-esteem at a personal level, within a paradigm of social pathology, a purpose that is usually associated with personal responsibility for lifting oneself out of poverty, overlooking structural analyses of inequality. (13)

And the kind of practice I prefer instead.

Radical practice has a transformative agenda, an intention to bring about social change that is based on a fair, just and sustainable world. In this respect, it locates the roots of inequality in the structures and processes of society, not in personal or community pathology. (14)

And a final note on how things change, on how static models are never enough.

Community development is never static: its practice is always re-forming in dynamic with current thought, political contexts and lived experience. (14)

It emphasizes to me just how much depends on individual practice and ability to be flexible, to adjust, to do what’s best given the situation. To change the world, which is the point, not just to get the model right. Always hard, both to do, and to teach.

History of Radical Community Development

She gives a short history of such radical community development in the UK (which she describes as being longer in the earlier version damn it! I needed that! I will have to find an old edition). I found it so useful. So this version skips the Victorian settlement stuff, jumps right into the Beveridge Report in 1942 which established the consensus on the welfare state. There’s the work by Peter Townsend and others in the 1960s that showed the failings of the welfare state (including Cathy Come Home and everything Ken Loach was doing). The founding of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). The sea of reports in the 1960s that recommended community development be a professional practice, but one committed to working with communities — in England more as planning and service delivery, but in Scotland (no surprise really it should be more radical there) as community learning. The setting up of the Urban Programme in 1968, the Community Development Project in 1969 — they sought to use action research and tackle the structural grounds of poverty as opposed to the pathology-based model. In this it defined itself against social work, which it saw as ‘soft policing’ and youth work, which ‘was dismissed as a means of simply keeping working-class kids off the streets’. (16)

Over the 1970s came a split, the radical agenda ‘which believes that community development is a locus of change within the struggle for transformation of the structures of society that are the root causes of oppression’ (Mayo, Craig et al, Ohri et all, Dominelli) and the pluralist one: ‘which believes there is a multiplicity of competing bases in society, mediated by the state, and that community development is only capable of ameliorative small-scale neighbourhood change and piecemeal reforms. (Henderson and Thomas, Twelvetrees) (17)

We come to the 1980s. Thatcher and the New Right, the return of the distinctions between deserving and undeserving poor, the active dismantling of the welfare state. New Labour also moved towards ‘we are all on the same side’ and away from commitment to structural change or analysis of injustice and inequality — they also embraced zero tolerance policing, punitive approaches to asylum seekers and fines for ‘anti-social behaviour’. (21) Hardly surprising that the radical agenda became less effective in this period. All that before we get to the Big Society under Cameron (and Clegg), their transferring responsibility to community while implementing austerity. Some good stuff on what a bad idea that is.
Gary Craig’s work critiquing this move, move away from critical position.

There are some good critiques listed here: the critique of communitarianism (Etzioni) which emerged in New Labour agenda — Robson arguing it ignores Gramsci, and the insight around hegemony of how dominant ideas infiltrate into civil society institutions. Cook and Kothar’s critique of participation as the ‘new tyranny’, which could perhaps be condensed down to the knowledge that key concepts reduced to buzzwords can dangerously flip transformative practice into placatory practice. (29)

And of course, praxis has developed quite a lot despite such conservative decades, and so our work needs to be imbued with critical analysis around intersections of race and class and gender, also with sustainability.

The story of a community

Ledwith gives a first walk through of how community development might work, an important tool for grounding the rest of the book in practice, and talking through some of the issues through narrative. She writes:

Community is a complex system of interrelationships woven across social difference, diverse histories and cultures, and determined in the present by political and social trends. This calls for practitioners to have an incisive analysis of…political context and the historical issues… (34)

Important to know — but where to start? In the tradition of emancipatory action research, she describes a process in which any project should start with a community profile. This means ‘local people researching their own stories, beginning the process of critical consciousness’. (35) This can then be put into play with statistical evidence, sociopolitical trends & community development interventions to develop collectively, and look in a structured way at the level of the individual, the group, the community, society’s structures/ institutions, and wider society. (36)

She gives a model here for critical praxis, locating internal and external forces in the community and working through how they impact on people’s lives. I like these drawings. That said, I sometimes stare at them quite a while trying to work out quite what they mean.

 

Doing Community Development

This chapter opens with a focus on Paulo Freire, so it’s covering much of what I know though I appreciated the discussion of the feminist critique of his work. It did feel a bit like Freire in all of his imperfections became a bit of target, when what I like about his work is that the whole point is to facilitate a collective learning and collective liberation to avoid being trapped in any one individual’s blindnesses. I feel it is the establishment and academia that sets individuals up as super philosophers only to be torn down, and that’s more a fault of the system if any one individual is given so much power. Still, the critique is just, I just wish we could be more generous with each other. Anyway.

I love the connection between the work of popular education and narrative, and the telling of a story. Ledwith shares a great quote from O’Donohue (2004):

A real narrative is a web of alternating possibilities. The imagination is capable of kindness that the mind often lacks because it works naturally from the world of Between; it does not engage things in a cold, clear-cut way but always searches for the hidden worlds that wait at the edge of things. (61)

The more I stare at that quote the more I love it, I’ve been thinking about fiction and non-fiction for a while. That captures something important.

Other quotes from Carolyn Steedman on how story names our place in the social world.  Brought together with analysis, Ledwith says, these become critical insight for action. This is particularly important in Western settings where the preoccupation with the individual (in distinction to the rest of the world) means people are fractured and split from the greater community. This rootedness in storytelling is also key to feminist pedagogy, with greater emphasis on the the

complex interlinking, overlapping matrix of oppressions that shape us all according to ‘race’, class, gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality ‘dis’ ability, religion and so on, rather than a simplistic dichotomous analysis of oppressor/ oppressed. (64)

I love this, all of this.

Without the link between person and political, Ledwith writes, stories remain subjective. She gives insights form Chris Cavanagh’s practice of using storytelling for social justice. In fact, there are so so many good examples about narrative and storytelling and justice… they’re on a list now. My to read list is absurd, I shall have to retire early.

Organising in the community

So here we get to her practice of Emancipatory Action Research (EAR) as the glue that binds theory and practice together. Not just through the results of the research, but in the process to move towards a better world and to escape the power relations of traditional research. Ledwith writes:

we need to create critical spaces for dialogue, involving all co-participants in co-creating knowledge for our times. These are counter-hegemonic critical spaces where power relationships are deconstructed according to our analyses of power in order to reconstruct democratic relations with new possibilities for a world that is fair and just. (78)

So, EAR, in summary:

  • grounded in an ideology of equality;
  • adopting a methodology that is emancipatory, working with not on people, power is redistributed;
  • using non-controlling methods, open to multiple ways of knowing, experience is explored beyond the written word through dialogue, story, music, drama, poetry, drawings and photographs in a search for multiple truths;
  • action for change emerges from new knowledge (79)

It consists of 4 interlinked stages:

  • critiquing the status quo
  • identifying key sites of intervention
  • creating new ways of making sense of the world (epistemology)
  • creating new ways of being in the world (ontology).

She writes about Rowan’s ‘Dialectical paradigm for research’ (1981), which sounds amazing, you can never be too dialectical. I’ll read that and write more, it’s already on the stack. This chapter includes checklists and questions (these are throughout, and so damn useful,  meaning this will be a well-thumbed book once research is underway). Everything she quotes from this foundational text by Reason and Rowan sounds pretty phenomenal. She combines this with Schuler’s core values model, to help pay attention to the balance of needs while you are busy doing everything else. All these tools I never knew of. There’s the Scottish ABCD model as well, also to be explored.

There’s more on organising, on Saul Alinsky…but there I have written far too much. I shall stretch towards the new.

Collective action for change

Ledwith describes the flow of popular education from the very first stage:

Community groups form the initial collective stage of the process where trust and cooperation create the context for reflection. It is a stage at which personal prejudice needs to be explored in order to reach a collective purpose. It is a place where problematising teaches people to question their reality, to open their minds to altered perspectives on life. This is the bedrock of collective, critical action. (98)

Yep. After that comes

Conscientisation [that word I can never pronounce] …the process whereby people become aware of the political, socioeconomic and cultural contradictions that interact in a hegemonic way to diminish their lives. This awareness, which is based on critical insight, leads to collective action. (100)

this process is so important, because otherwise collective action can simply lead to taking power without a critique of how power operates, which makes it easier to abuse because that is, after all, the dominant model. Critique also has to stretch towards a global view, developing understandings of how it is all linked.

She sees two major ‘sticking points’ in community development — the first a resistance to developing theory in practice, the other a reluctance to move beyond community to harness a greater collective force for change. (110)

This chapter ends with lots of case studies, they are dead useful.

The power of ideas

Gramsci! You can never have too much Gramsci. The key ideas of hegemony, the personal as political and the role of intellectuals. The importance of challenging dominant and damaging forms of common sense supporting the dominant system, particularly around race and patriarchy. So if you read your Gramsci you know that empowerment must therefore be connected to conscientisation.

Empowerment is therefore the ability to make critical connections in relation to power and control in society in order to identify discrimination and determine collective action for change. In this sense, it embraces identity and autonomy. (144)

She raises critiques of Freire and Gramsci, and to do so brings in Foucault! This made me like Foucault more than anything else has done, how his work combines with Gramsci and Freire and Marx to really understand internalized coercive power and how it operates at the micro-level, ‘how it permeates the nooks and crannies of everyday existence’. (165)

So what do we need to challenge it? Transform it?

Towards a Freirean-feminist-anti-racist pedagogy

Power…becomes a mutually reinforcing process operating from the bottom up as well as top down. This places consciousness at the heart of change, suggesting that the beginning of this process lie firmly in the stories of everyday life as the beginning of a process of progressive social change. (177)

Conscientisation. And I think she’s right. But there’s lots more to say about that. It is interesting how much this resonates with Boaventura de Sousa Santos as I finish his book, so many people working along similar lines for so many decades and, I think, never in real contact. But drawing on many of the same ideas I suppose. Makes me feel like we’re on the right track.

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