This post was prepared as an Opinion Piece for the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation, focused around the key insights gained as a result of my Fellowship. This piece draws upon other posts written throughout the Fellowship experience.
The heart of inclusive, connected communities
In a world where isolation and loneliness are at epidemic proportions, where fear and conflict divide us, threaten our humanity and our survival, and our planet is at threat of collapse under our booming population and environmental destruction, I deeply believe that one of the most important questions we should be asking ourselves is this one:
How can we nurture and grow inclusive, connected communities?
My name is Nick Maisey, and I am deeply curious about the answer to this question. I’ve been chipping away at it in my little part of the world for a while now. My privileged education as an Occupational Therapist exposed me to a great many people from diverse backgrounds who lacked a sense of belonging. People who were outcasts and outsiders, led to feel like aliens or rejects in their own community. I saw that nothing was more damaging for our sense of self than these threats to our sense of belonging. And it fired up the embers of my own personal experiences, propelling me on to start up an organisation committed to working towards an inclusive, connected society.
Eight years later, Befriend has become one of the leading local innovators in the space of inclusion, connecting thousands of people in Perth, and influencing attitudes and values to grow inclusive communities that are stronger and healthier through valuing and including all people.
My curiosity and my hunger to learn more drove me to apply for a Westpac Social Change Fellowship, a life-changing opportunity to dive deeply into this question on a global scale.
To shape my approach to planning my Fellowship experience, I broke this big, wickedly unruly question down into two parts:
- What are effective approaches to fostering the development of natural relationships?
I sought to meet people/initiatives that are focused on enabling people who have few social connections (including people with disabilities, people with mental ill-health, older adults and others experiencing social isolation) to develop genuine friendships, close relationships and natural connections in their community beyond social programs or services.
- What are effective approaches to influencing inclusive attitudes?
I sought to meet people/initiatives that are focused on fostering the development of inclusive attitudes, values and behaviours within communities.
The search for answers to these questions took me far and wide, from pavement-pounding freedom rallies in San Francisco and tech titans of Silicon Valley and New York, to the top of Gloucester’s famed cheese-rolling hill, an interfaith commons in Omaha, a centre for untamed creativity in Copenhagen, historic institutions of social science research and the homes of so many individuals and families generous enough to share their homes and their hearts with a cheeky Australian visitor. In 12 weeks, I visited 58 initiatives across 14 locations in Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, the UK and Denmark.
Whilst I’d love to tell you that I’ve returned home with “the winning idea,” an exciting initiative from abroad that’s going to change everything, I’m sorry to break it to you – That’s not the case. To anoint one of my host sites as “the winner” would be to disregard the value in diversity, the beauty of the countless people getting up every day and doing their thing in their little part of the world, to strengthen our global community (after all, isn’t every ocean but a multitude of drops?). The great collective gift that these people have given to me is a nourished mind, a brighter heart, a stronger voice and a sharpened lens for growing inclusive, connected communities. Those are the gifts that I have brought home, and like all gifts, a gift is not a gift, until it is given. So, let the giving begin.
Distilling insights from a whirlpool of wisdom
Perhaps the greatest challenge of the Fellowship was distilling insights and deeper wisdom from such a richly diverse set of people, perspectives, initiatives and experiences. But one day, on a train ride from Sheffield to Glasgow, inspiration struck. As I mapped out all of the initiatives that I had visited, comparing and contrasting them with each other and my knowledge of initiatives back home, a realisation began to dawn on me. When I looked deeply at initiatives that were truly effective at nurturing individual and collective belonging, a pattern emerged. There was something, a key quality, that separated some initiatives from others, and it made the difference between attempting to foster belonging, and actually making it happen. What made the difference was the lens through which initiatives viewed people and approaches.
So many initiatives and organisations are stuck in a deficit paradigm. Siloed funding systems lead to organisations resourced to serve a defined group of people, resulting in siloed responses and sub-communities identified and grouped by deficit. We continue to characterise people as flawed and vulnerable. Our whole society has been conditioned to view the human experience from a deficit-lens.
To see what lies at the heart of inclusive, connected communities, we need a different lens – The gifts-lens.
Key insight 1. Human gifts and valued contributions are at the core of inclusive, connected communities
As humans, we contribute in all kinds of different ways, with our gifts, skills, strengths, personalities, resources, knowledge. All of these contributions are affirming, yet it is the giving of our innate gifts that is most deeply affirming. Human gifts are the primary contributions that we have a natural inclination towards, and an innate desire to make, to and for others. When we give our gifts, we make ourselves vulnerable through revealing a little piece of who we are. When our gifts are received, valued and appreciated, we derive a deep sense of self-worth, acceptance and purpose, and we feel an affinity to the receiver who has valued us for our gifts. We begin to see ourselves as someone worthy of respect, love and acceptance. To be acknowledged for your gifts can result in deep feelings of having been seen for who you really are.
The idea of gifts is not new. It is rooted in some of our oldest cultures from around the world. Many indigenous cultures recognise that all people are born into the world with gifts, and it was often the role of elders and others in communities to support and mentor young people to unearth, learn about and value their innate gifts, and find ways to share those gifts with others and their community. Living a life of giving one’s innate gifts is a life of purpose and connection.
For many of us, our gifts are unmistakeable – They shine brightly, setting us on a course of purpose-discovery and fulfilment, through our contributions to society, and shaping our relationships. When we tap into and embrace our gifts, we truly step into our power. For some of us, our gifts may be a little harder to see. Perhaps we’ve been born or pushed into a life on the fringes, internalising the belief that we don’t have gifts, that we have little value to society. This leaves us vulnerable to isolation, rejection, disconnection and purposelessness. It also leaves us vulnerable to having our identity shaped as a service user, a person whose existence and relationships are almost completely tied to formalised services.
When it comes to human connection and belonging, we know from our own lives that a key quality in the relationships that we really value is reciprocity. Good relationships are based on a power dynamic of mutuality, in which we both give and receive, in which we each appreciate the unique gifts of the other. Viewing people through a deficit-lens creates a power imbalance. It hides gifts and highlights needs. The only relationships founded on needs are relationships of charity, sympathy and support. A deficit-lens will not lead to connected lives. It will not help us to find the path to belonging.
If we acknowledge that human gifts and valued contributions are at the core of inclusive, connected communities, how do we put that into practice?
Key insight 2. The answer to loneliness, isolation and devaluation may lie in platforms, initiatives and cultures that enable people to unearth and share their unique, innate gifts
Operating from a core belief that all people have the capacity to make valued contributions, and starting with supporting people to identify their gifts, skills and abilities positions and empowers people as valued members able to make valued contributions to others. This is far more likely to lead to natural relationships than models that start from a position of “what services do you need,” that position the individual as a passive recipient of services, or companionship-focused approaches to surrounding ‘the lonely’ with ‘the social.’ Mutual-value exchange models can more effectively facilitate intergenerational, cross-cultural and cross-community relationships by valuing the contributions that all citizens can make.
A number of Fellowship host sites epitomised this approach, a sample of which I’ve included below:
Skills-exchange initiatives, through which two people share a unique personal skill with each other. Exchanging Moroccan cooking lessons for assistance learning to use the iPad. Exchanging sustainable-living knowledge and tips for French speaking lessons.
Homeshare arrangements, connecting an older home-owner living alone with a young home-sharer in need of affordable accommodation. Studies conducted by Homeshare show that lasting relationships are formed when the match is primarily characterised by reciprocity – The home-owner and the home-sharer learning and sharing all manner of things in life with each other.
Food-share models, connecting individuals, families or groups over a shared meal, creating the environment to cultivate relationships and understanding through the sharing of traditional recipes, culture and customs.
Supporting people with disabilities to explore, develop and encourage participation in valued social roles as the doorway to natural relationships – Becoming a worker, a volunteer, a sports-player, an artist, and forming connections through participation in these roles.
Neighbourhood development projects, through which local residents work together towards a common goal, mobilising their collective gifts, skills, knowledge and resources to create community gardens, hold local social events, transform an unused public space.
Although at surface-level, these models and approaches may look significantly different from each other, when we look closely we can see that they are all cut from the same cloth, applying a gifts-oriented approach with a diverse range of people across a diverse range of contexts.
When we make contributions, we get noticed, people see us and appreciate us. It feels good, it’s encouraging, it builds our self-worth, it enriches our identity, and it comes back full-circle through the relationships we develop. From a supporter’s perspective, this means starting from a deep belief that every individual has valued contributions to make, and to support connections by focusing on what the unique contributions are that this person could make, and who would genuinely appreciate those contributions.
Key insight 3. Learning to see, receive and genuinely appreciate the innate gifts of others is at the core of individual and collective belonging
In Oshawa, near Toronto, with the Durham Association for Family Resources and Supports, I met Brent, who has just recently moved into his own apartment, a self-contained converted wing of the family home. I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with Brent between his busy schedule of horse-riding, gym, swimming, doing the weekly grocery shop trips to help his grandma and cousins, and making and delivering amazingly intricate, creative gifts for his neighbours for festive celebrations in the neighbourhood. He’s currently exploring job options at the local thrift store, and at the stables where he rides. Brent’s life has changed in big ways over the past couple of years, with the introduction of a gifts-oriented approach applied in an individualised way, supporting Brent to develop valued roles – How can he be a valued family member? A valued neighbour? A valued member of his community? When Brent’s mother Dawn told me with teary eyes about the pride she felt when she learned how Brent had gained such a positive reputation at his grandmother’s residential care facility, where he visits like clockwork to deliver her groceries and spend time with her, the true meaning and value of becoming a valued family member was unmistakable.
One of the simple yet powerful insights that Dawn shared with me is how significant a gifts-oriented perspective shift had been for her.
“I stopped thinking about “all the help that Brent needs,” and started thinking, “how can he be helpful? Who can he help?” His valued roles as a son, a grandson, a brother, a cousin, a neighbour, have flowed from there.
Dawn’s insight connects to deeper wisdom about our shared humanity. We are all interdependent. Nobody is independent. We all need help, and we can all give help. We build our lives giving and receiving help, to and from each other, from the people around us. There are not those who can, and those who can’t; there are not those who give, and those who need to receive. There is only, Us. Embracing our collective interdependence is the only sustainable way to weave connected lives for us all.
All options are not equal: Threats to a gifts-oriented approach
If inclusive, connected communities are what we aspire to, we need the courage to acknowledge that not all options are equal. Seeing the world through the gifts-lens helps us to critique practices and approaches that undermine efforts towards genuine inclusion.
Threat to a gifts-oriented approach #1: Grouping together a historically devalued group of people
Social Role Valorisation (SRV) theory posits that the act of grouping together people who are devalued by society, has a significant impact on how people are seen and interpreted, resulting in greater devaluation. Applying this to the experience of people with a disability, for example, when people are congregated together in segregated group homes, day programs, social groups or workplaces that are exclusively for people with disabilities, SRV explains that other members of the society are far less likely to ‘see’ each individual for their unique, positive identity – We see a group of people with disabilities, and the history of devaluation, segregation and exclusion is perpetuated.
In an alternative scenario, if each of those individuals was individually supported to develop and grow a unique personal identity, holding their own regular job through which they contributed through their unique gifts, skills and abilities, participating in a diverse community-based social group aligned with their interests (and not their disability), then the individual is far more likely to be valued positively in the eyes of other members of the society, to be respected, to have good relationships, self worth, a sense of belonging, and true citizenship. An individualised approach enables us to see the individual for who they really are, beyond one aspect of their identity.
Challenging question 1. How can we challenge the practice of ‘grouping’ together a historically devalued group of people, that is undermining efforts to grow inclusive, connected communities?
Threat to a gifts-oriented approach #2: Service provision culture
Although our great community sector is one of our greatest assets in nurturing inclusive, connected communities, the service provision culture that predominates the landscape can harbour one of the greatest threats to a gifts-oriented approach. Service provision culture has turned individuals into service recipients, undermining opportunities for contribution, with identities characterised by diagnoses, labels and needs, ‘doing for,’ rather than ‘supporting to do,’ and responding to isolation and loneliness with artificial service-based relationships and paid companionship.
In fact, it is often experienced community sector champions who are the first to acknowledge this:
“Paid relationships can never fully meet emotional needs, nor give a sense of connection, of belonging. People needing support can become passive recipients of care and support. Yet it is contribution, through gifts of time and resources, freely given and accepted, that builds the friendships that enrich our lives.” – Ruth Gerzon, Inclusion Aoteoroa, Auckland
“As service providers, we must learn to facilitate, rather than supplant, these natural relationships – to expand our thinking about the gifts and contributions folks have to offer and be appreciated for.” – Aaron Johannes, Spectrum Society, Vancouver
I am buoyed with hope by the many community organisations, at home and abroad, waking up to the threats of the service provision culture, and reimagining the future. We can shift culture, by acknowledging our history, and questioning how to co-author different chapters for our future.
Challenging question 2. How can we shift from a culture of service provision to a culture of contribution, connection and purpose?
We are forever learning just how much we need each other. We are being shown the way by the gifts of those who’ve experienced the greatest hardships, those gifted with being the greatest includers, of seeing the value in all people, of demonstrating true authenticity, of sparking deep compassion, or reminding us of the simple joys, of having the most wickedly hilarious sense of humour, of teaching us about sacrifice, strength and resilience, of grounding us in gratitude, of teaching us about freedom, of connecting us to the things that really matter.
From intergenerational initiatives valuing the wisdom and experience of our elders, to interfaith initiatives bringing people together to share in each others’ religious celebrations, to time-banking, skills-exchange networks and virtual villages, people everywhere are experimenting with new ways to up-end disempowering dynamics, create new kinds of coalitions, spark relationships that cross divides and nurture thriving communities. We’re still learning how to discover our gifts, but we can draw inspiration from the creativity and diversity of the approaches of these gift-oriented initiatives that stimulate our imagination with new possibilities.
Challenging question 3. How can we enable each other to discover, appreciate and share our innate gifts, especially those of us for whom the world has said, “you have no gifts or value.”
I embarked on this Fellowship with some big questions, and like all good Fellowships, I leave with more questions than answers. Yet the richly diverse collection of people and experiences along the way have helped to generate a hypothesis that I intend to research further, and use to guide collaborations with others.
Discovering, understanding, nurturing and sharing our human gifts is at the core of connection, belonging and purpose. Learning to see, receive and genuinely appreciate the innate gifts of others is at the core of individual and collective belonging. This is the next frontier of inclusion, beyond shared places, charitable gestures and diversity dialogues, to kinship, connection and deep appreciation for each other.
This is a call for a new generation of initiatives founded with a gifts-orientation, that help us to discover, see and understand the gifts in all people, unlocking latent potential so that service users become appreciated contributors, and communities flourish as welcoming, diverse, vibrant places where we all belong.
– Nick Maisey
A detailed log of experiences, insights and perspectives can be viewed through other posts at nickmaisey.wordpress.com