Assets, health and the power of the narrative

Last week, Nick Wilding and I were invited to a meeting of the North of Scotland Public Health Network, to share our work on assets and community resilience. The event was aimed at helping professionals get to grips with how assets approaches might be implemented in the public health sphere, particularly in rural contexts, following Chief Medical Officer Harry Burns' challenge to think and act differently. The organisers had worked hard to take an assets approach to the design of the day, with opportunities for people to feed in their questions and concerns in advance, and spaces for sharing experiences throughout the day. Some quick reflections...

People had understandable concerns about the practical implications of assets approaches in public health - how to deliver them, what difference they might make, how to evaluate the impact - and about the possible tension with the need to protect vulnerable people. Some were also wary about investing a lot of time and energy into something they felt may not in the end be backed by real and long-term political will. Others felt that a focus on strengths is fundamental to what they already do.

It was clear though that many people could see that thinking laterally about assets approaches might open up new opportunities for working in different ways with individuals and communities. One person at my table, for example, thought there could be potential in developing a new approach to pupil profiling; another felt that assets approaches could encourage people to play a bigger role in understanding and managing their own conditions.

A great example of the Bute Healthy Living Initative during the plenary, and stories from Shetland during our workshop session, opened up a conversation on 'the power of the narrative'. People spoke of policymakers taking as much notice of stories as statistics - in many cases, in fact, stories can have more impact. In Shetland, young people had decided to tackle stigma by telling their own stories about what they have to offer - a great example of how those who normally aren't heard created their own 'voice'.

Stories... as important as stats? What do people think?

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Comment by Will Golding on June 4, 2012 at 0:12

Ah, also, its not necessarily telling different stories of 'community', but certainly one for collective memory, check out this video, its great:

Comment by Will Golding on June 3, 2012 at 23:46

Great! I'm enjoying how this discussion is progressing. I see how practical possibilities for good listening and diverse storysharing could come from decoding, particularly with good local codes. the Adult Learning Project in Edinburgh have a strong history and practical examples of this. Are there other codes that could encourage this too - as in, a public procession or celebration, or a play of local folklore. I think it all comes down to what are the key questions you ask, and the environment in which you ask them. I'm reminded too though of the writings in that critical education literature that critical reflection and overcoming the 'cop in the head' is not necessarily an easy or comfortable process that people always want to take on. 'de-culturation' I can here an old colleague saying. With that in mind I wanted to suggest something;

I was at this conference on wednesday organised by Poverty Alliance on assets based approaches. It was asking people to feed into the consultation for community empowerment and renewal bill and said things are relatively open for it - with debate around whether assets should be something supported or not as an approach within it. There was a lot of questions over what it should support, but a feeling of more support needed for very early community development and community-led research, asset-mapping, and wider 'capacity building' fro day 1. What the conversations we have had have made me realise is the need for adult education amongst all that. To get beyond the often efficiency driven and functional nature of some of the community asset transfer programs and include space for releasing diverse stories to shape a shared vision for the future seems to need more support for critical adult education, and one that is not just about lifelong learning, but experiential, real, practical, essentailly transformative, with a content based on popular and lived culture. Now there is a chance to promote the values and relevance of adult education and learning opportunities that contribute to community development, within a statutory bill. That way stories, and their diversity, could become valued and listened to at the highest level. does that make sense?

thanks for the great poem Nick, and the reminder that it's about who's asking and if they're listening to.

Comment by Gill Musk on May 30, 2012 at 9:56

Some might be interested in this article, written by one of the participants in the public health event in March - - gives a clear overview of some of the challenges and opportunities facing public health professionals in taking an assets approach..

Comment by Nick Wilding on May 22, 2012 at 10:13

Enjoying following your chat gill and wil and lornal... I was reflecting will on your question

"how to move beyond this to uncover the diverse stories and let these come forward and people to be proud to say that. hmm. room for work and discussion."

One of my inspiration points has been the tradition of popular education and I'm reminded again as I read that question about Paulo Freire's work on 'the cop in the head' - the censoring voice that - drilled in from childhood or by a wider world that refuses to accept the legitimacy of different peoples' experience, 'voices over' a core knowing that comes direct from experience.

The implication of this analysis is that it might be possible to help open a space for genuinely listening to different voices (which can include inner voices - e.g. the doubts, different narratives etc. that compete within our own minds) by starting from finding a common language that diagnoses this core issue of being 'voiced over' by powerful narratives coming from outside myself/ourselves as a community.

A few years ago I was heavily involved in offering workshops in popular education approaches and we one of the exercises we did was to 'decode' a cartoon picture of someone sitting down with apparently a petrol nozzle pouring information into their head. It was a question and answer exercise prompted by questions like 'what do you see?' 'how do you think s/he feels?' 'why might she feel that?' and then 'have you had an experience that this image reminds you of?'. The power of this kind of conversation - which lasted about an hour once a few people had a chance to share experiences that were prompted by the cartoon - was that pretty unfailingly the group arrived with a shared recognition about valuing everyone's distinctive experiences as a contribution to community life; how tricky it is to actually 'listen' without projecting your own ideas or assumptions about what they're saying... and most importantly, why this listening is so important for genuinely building a group who have the collective strength to take charge of their own future (rather than being swallowed up by stories from the outside about what's right etc.).

In the broad history of the highlands, this kind of cultural empowerment has been supported by a collective memory of injustice supported by historians like james hunter (have you seen his new book on today's living history of land reform?). But within particular communities I think the skills in this kind of work are still rare, CADISPA and a few other organisations aside.

Where this reflection brings me, in relation to this question Gill has raised about asset mapping, is that it would be great to see if there are other stories out there about how, practically, processes of mapping community assets can also lead to this deeper appreciation of the untapped potential of a community that learns to listen to and value the distinctive stories within it...

There's a poem by Micere Githae Mugo called Where are those Songs("DAUGHTER OF MY PEOPLE SING") 1972 that conjures up some of this spirit...

Where are those Songs?

Where are those Songs my mother and yours always sang

fitting rhythms
to the whole
vast span of life?

Sing daughter


around you are

uncountable tunes

some sung

others unsung

sing them
to your rhythms observe

soak yourself bathe
in the stream of life

and then sing sing
simple songs

for the people

for all to hear and learn and sing

with you 

Comment by Gill Musk on May 21, 2012 at 14:33

Just finished an interview with a community member up in Applecross. Quote (unprompted!): "There's a lot of this 'telling the story' about at the moment... I actually find it very annoying as there's more than one story!"

Comment by Gill Musk on May 19, 2012 at 13:50

Really enjoyable and thought-provoking links - thanks both. This has made me think again about how so much depends on who is asking the questions / requesting the stories and how they are framed. I did some work a few years ago on an 'intercultural dialogue in Africa' programme. The introductory literature showed a big drawing of an ear and presented the work as a genuine exploration - an opportunity to listen, without any agenda, to the perspectives of people across 11 subSaharan African countries. In the same paragraph, the lead agency said that, as expanding the use of English was one of their strategic priorities, all the discussion groups would be held... in English. I seemed to be the only one that found this hilarious and unsettling at the same time! Anyway, I'm sure we've all come across lots of examples of this kind of thing.

I really liked the quote from Achebe about a 'balance of stories'. A skilled interviewer / facilitator will I guess get balance within stories, too, so that as you said Will they highlight assets and adversity.

What do others think?

Would be great to have a chat soon Will - let me know when's good for you.

Comment by Will Golding on May 17, 2012 at 23:58

Ah, i forgot to add this link too. It's a great article from someone i knew in London discussing this topic. Could be of interest particularly to rural communities in regards to the pervasive issue of young people living and not coming back, suggesting here the possibility of encouraging people to finish the journey back home after the city life, through seeing that as a postive thing and celebrating the cultural richness of where they come from:

Here's a quote from it:

Together, can we find new ways of seeing and new ways of making a living, which start from remembering the richness and depth of cultural memory in the places from which we begin, which open the possibility of weaving together the old and new, and of finding our ways home?

Comment by Will Golding on May 17, 2012 at 23:52

Hi Gill and Lorna,

Thanks Lorna for the link. Some cracking quotes and stories on what Chimamanda was saying. And yes, I think this plays into this discussion very relevantly. I see what you mean Gill about the potential for homogenising and assuming an identity of a community through its single story. and also the dangers of steretyping, and the uses a community story could be put. maybe it starts off though as the communities stories - and a project to attain the similarities is undertaken. this seems to be starting with the challenging of dominant narratives and dispossession - that was suggested in that talk. Theres a lot there about the power of stories both for and against people and communities. How can stories that highlight assets and the wealth of adversity and diversity in communities be better celebrated though and translated to a level that will impact on important policy decisions? I'd love to chat to you more about this GIll sometime soon if you have a chance?

Also, I found the start really powerful. You write the stories you've always been reading - translating this to the work of community mapping I have found that reflected in local opinion. I.e. you say the needs you've always been told are your needs, or see the solutions as those you;ve been told are. how to move beyond this to uncover the diverse stories and let these come forward and people to be proud to say that. hmm. room for work and discussion.

Comment by Lorna Prescott on May 17, 2012 at 17:25
Hi both
This is a really interesting and useful discussion. I too like the angle of considering what is the community's story and how is it constructed. While not directly about our sort of work, I found lots of useful parallels in relation to asset working and thoughts on power in the TED Talk by Chimamada Adiche:
Comment by Gill Musk on May 15, 2012 at 11:47

Hi Will - really interesting perspective. I like the 'what's the community's story?' idea and agree that an individualised approach can be a double-edged sword. As ever, the definition of 'community' is tricky... I've been doing some work around gathering stories from people who've been involved in asset-based approaches and, instead of just talking to the people who led the initiatives, I'm hearing from people who were either actively or more peripherally involved. Hoping this way to bring in some perspectives that aren't always heard, as well as identifying good examples of involving people in an asset mapping process... Would be happy to talk this through further with you / explore any synergies with what you're working on.

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