Spending two days at the Compassionate Communities Conference in Sydney has been invigorating and inspiring. And one thing it’s made me think a lot about is power. Something that in palliative care we have not attended to. Maybe this is because our culture of ‘niceness’ makes us blind to the fact that power matters. And that to achieve many of our aspirations, a power shift is needed.
In an excellent workshop, Bruce Rumbold and Andrew Grindrod opened up a conversation about what it means to support the development of a ‘compassionate community’. In ‘comcom’ talk, this refers to a community where people are motivated by compassion to take responsibility and care for each other, particularly in relation to ageing, dying and grieving. The approach advocated to get to this point is very much asset-based. Development work starts by mapping out a community’s existing strengths. Who is already doing this work? What initiatives are already in place? Which individuals and organisations can act as connectors between different networks within the community? Key questions it takes time to work through. And which clearly involve mapping where the power within communities, and hence the power for change, lies.
Andrea talked about the time and perseverance it takes to spark change. Although, from hearing her speak, I’d definitely add ‘skill’ to that person specification as well. This is very nuanced work.
A key recommendation was to be clear about your exit strategy at the outset. And to truly understand that your role is supportive and ‘behind the scenes’. “You are always looking for the people who will front and lead this…your role is to support them, NOT be them”. Bruce reminded us that this move – from community engagement to community development also requires something else of us – namely, to be prepared to give up power.
Barbara Gale also spoke to this theme in her great presentation about volunteering in the community. She made visible the rules and boundaries that hospices put in place to ‘manage’ volunteers. And the ways in which volunteers circumnavigate them. For example, one hospice volunteer said that of course she gives out her phone number to the people she visits even though she is ‘not allowed to’ because “it would be offensive if I didn’t trust them”.
Barbara built on this discussion to conclude by highlighting the need for a fundamental shift in the way hospices provide care. “We’ve got the power: we have to use it wisely”. As she so astutely recognises, not only do hospices currently have a lot of power, but they need to be prepared to give some of this up if aspirations to ‘work with’ communities are to be truly realised.
This theme chimed with another excellent workshop on creating compassionate communities which are inclusive of people living in Aged Care. Stella from the Groundswell team reminded us that working with communities can only be successful if there is a power shift: if the community themselves (however defined) can truly call the shots. She ended with the powerful words of Elizabeth Moss Kanter which highlight the dangers of not attending to power. If people are not invested with the power to make their own changes on their own terms, community development can be experienced as ‘an act of violence’.
These are sobering words which must be at the forefront of the minds of those of us who are eager to take the lessons from #ComCom2018 forwards. And they very much chime with our experiences of working with diverse communities across Aotearoa, NZ. As I argued in my presentation, it is service users and their communities who are the experts in identifying the nature of supports they need. We need to always be ‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing for’.
If you want to find out more about the conference you can search the #ComCom2018 thread on Twitter.