Twelve months ago I was a member of the board of CDX (Community Development Exchange), coming to the end of a two year period as the chair. For much of the time that I’d been chair I’d found our focus on regional networks (and less so regional networking) quite constraining. The focus was required due to our core funding being from the government, and our last government invested heavily in regional structures - we had well staffed Government Offices in the 9 English regions, supporting local authorities and local partnership structures, and there were well resourced Regional Development Agencies responsible for economic development. Despite the change in government in 2010 and the abolition of regional government structures, the activities and discussions in CDX often focused on English regions - even though of some of the regions didn't even have regional community development networks.
Inspired by ideas and observations in a book by Brafman and Beckman - The Starfish and the Spider, I put together a paper for the CDX board with our then CEO, Nick Beddow. The thinking took hold, and over the last year, as CDX’s resources have diminished, staff and trustees have been encouraging a ‘starfish approach’, looking for CDX members who are natural catalysts who could set up starfish meetings.
Later this month CDX members will meet at an AGM at which the wind-up of CDX is proposed. Those of us active in community development who have been close to CDX are keen to keep and strengthen our connections and, in different ways, continue doing the things that CDX was able to do because it was a staffed network. Along with Steve Sparrow and Sue Robson I’ve been asked to input a little about local ‘starfish activity’ that we’ve helped to make happen in Liverpool, Durham and Dudley.
From a CDX perspective, the Dudley/West Mids starfish started with a Community Engagement Network event in Dudley in July. My colleagues agreed that we would promote it to CDX members across the West Midlands, including members of community development network in Sandwell I had recently come across but the members of which had been unaware of CDX. We ran the networking event as an open space session, enabling a range of issues and ideas to be discussed.
From a personal perspective, I had been thinking that a lot of the things I do in my work are starfish activities - bringing people together around different projects and ideas, and bringing community development values to them. I use things like the Community Empowerment Dimensions as described by changes to prompt discussions around community development values without getting bogged down with struggling to define community development to people who don’t identify with it.
Today I’ve returned to The Starfish and the Spider book and re-read sections on the five foundations of decentralised networks and on the role of the catalyst.
The pertinent points for me are:
- That ‘circles are important to nearly every decentralised organisation’. They share a common heritage and tradition, but each independent, autonomous circle might have its own particular habits and norms.
- Circles don’t form on their own. Catalysts spur groups of people to action. They are inspirational figures, who move on when their job is done (like Mary Poppins). Catalysts are peers (not the boss), who develop trust and collaboration (they aren’t directive), who thrive on ambiguity and connect rather than organise.
- Ideology is the glue that holds decentralised organisations together, and is a strong motivator for action.
- Decentralised organisations are usually built on preexisting decentralised networks - providing a platform to launch from.
- Inherently hyperactive champions spread ideas in decentralised networks. They are relentless in promoting or selling a new idea.
If I consider the many projects, initiatives and networks I’m involved in and help to make happen from a CDX perspective, I still think they could be considered as a range of different starfish activities, because what I do is not managed by or through CDX. However the principles of decentralised networks must apply throughout the network. I’m coming around to a feeling that the Community Empowerment Network events I plan and facilitate with colleagues in Dudley aren’t decentralised (starfish) activities. This is because a small group of us organise and lead them, and the wider programme of work that they sit in. While the events themselves promote networking and connecting, there isn’t the kind of ongoing, horizontal networking which occurs in decentralised networks like twitter and online forums, with the occasional exception of when our event participants take each other’s details and contact one another directly.
- I must step back - not direct or lead
- I should connect people rather than organise people
- I must move on when the job is done (how will I know when that is?)
I think perhaps the catalyst role is a shared one in this particular programme of work (if indeed the whole idea actually applies), and I think those of us who are catalysts are also acting as champions. My colleague Bridget Brickley is champion for a whole systems approach to all that we do, and Donna Roberts is a champion and brilliant advocate for genuine collaboration.
On the face of it Dudley's work on collaboration, assets and services has nothing to do with CDX. Except that I have been a CDX member for many years, and bring community development values to all that I do. And Sam Axtell, a colleague over the border in Wolverhampton is doing some brilliant different but similar work in an activity called MakeSHIFT. She brings community development values to her work. No doubt if I look further others will be doing similar but different things. We’re not networking community development practitioners or managers, as CDX did. But we’re developing independent, autonomous circles, responsive to our own particular environments and communities (professional, geographical, interest or identity), within a tradition of community development. And we connect to each other to share and learn from each other, through both face-to-face and online conversations.
Is that what CDX might be looking for at a time when many spiders (centralised organisations) can’t survive, but the day of the starfish has arrived?