Awakening the Common Good

by vivian Hutchinson

June 2020 5 min read download as Masterclass PDF


COMMUNITY IS A state of well-being that emerges after we have got a whole lot of basic things right.

These basics include very tangible things like having access to good work and income, housing, education, health, and a thriving environment.

And the basics also include such intangible notions as a sense of safety, and a sense of connection and belonging to a particular place.

These tangible and intangible threads of “getting the basic things right” all weave together until one day we realise that it’s a community. It has become a “We”. It has become a place that we want to live in and belong to, raise our families, work and trade and create, and discover friendship with one another.

Of course, the details of just what constitutes getting things “right” can be a source of much contest and debate. That’s also the nature of community. A shared notion of what we understand to be “right” is a constantly moving target and the discussion and dissent around this becomes, in itself, part of the warp and weft of how the “We” is created.

The reality of “community” is often completely missed in the mainstream media and in political debates, largely because community is not an ideology.  Communities are complex and messy and full of contradictions and paradox.  They are hard to pin down because they are living things which learn, adapt and change. And if it’s a community, then it probably looks and feels a bit all over the show. You’ll be struggling if you are trying to find the person in charge. There’s certainly not a CEO.

And yet communities work ... or perhaps more precisely, they have important work to do.

Communities do this work through its active citizens — the people who are taking care of the things we value, and are also constantly trying to make things better. The active citizen makes a critical contribution that should never be disregarded, or side-lined or taken for granted.

When our communities are thriving and strong, it will usually be because we have a thriving and strong network of active citizens. These people will be making an impact on all the practical indicators of well-being that touch our social, economic, environmental and cultural lives.

And with a thriving network of active citizens, a great many of the issues and challenges that are affecting us as individuals and families, and as a nation, just become so much easier and much less expensive to sort out.

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THERE IS A common whakataukī that is often heard at public meetings or at Kohanga Reo: Mā te huruhuru ka rere te manu. (Without feathers, the bird cannot fly).

I see the bird in this proverb as a symbol for community. Its  feathers are all those light and fluffy and subtle individual and cultural competencies, all those slowly-built personal connections, all those aspects of shape and design that are unconscious, or hidden, or under the surface, and all those matters of wisdom and insight that are a shared understanding of the best way to make things happen for the common good. It is all these things that knit together to enable our communities to fly.

These feathers are not found in a marketplace. They cannot be bought and bolted on afterwards. They are grown.

As we all know, the ability to fly can be forgotten. Our national bird the kiwi, and many other birds of New Zealand, paid that price when they came to these islands of predator-free abundance. 

I would argue that when it comes to “community”, we have also been slowly losing our abilities to fly. But, in our case, it is the abundance and comforts of our consumer culture that have become the predators of our active citizenship, and of our natural structures of sharing and belonging that underpin a thriving community.

The full price of this loss has come in our forgetting. An amnesia starts to spread and strip us of all the competencies that enabled us to grow and exercise the feathers of our community selves. We forget that communities have important work to do. And we forget that one of our jobs as citizens is to actively step up to that work.

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Awakening the skills of community is a mission that has been driving my curiosity and my work for the last decade.

Before this, I had thirty years of involvement in community-based employment and economic development initiatives, and establishing programmes which helped unemployed people to start their own small businesses.

It was at a meeting with my fellow trustees of the Jobs Research Trust, in the mid-2000s, that we started to notice and voice our concerns about some of the deeper changes that were taking place around us.  We had started to see that some important aspects of our communities were slowly unraveling before our eyes ... and we acknowledged that we didn’t yet have a coherent grasp of how this was happening, or what we could do about it.

What followed for us was a process of asking questions about what we were seeing in our neighbourhoods, and then getting into the conversations that could go beyond the usual agenda of creating projects and programmes.

As trustees, we felt we needed to open up our thinking to a much-wider craft of community development. And we had to be prepared to re-think our usual ways of doing things.

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COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT is about awakening citizens so that they can play their part in getting the basic things right. It is about re-forging the fundamental connections of “We” so that a fairer picture of our common aspirations can be pursued. And it requires us to face some difficult issues, and have some courageous conversations — while also remembering and celebrating the things we are learning and getting right.

One of the people who has influenced my thinking about community development is the Italian social entrepreneur Ernesto Sirolli. He visited Taranaki in the 1980s and shared his insights on how to support small businesses with a process that he called Enterprise Facilitation.

Sirolli challenged our thinking by pointing out that many of the ideas we had about “development” needed to change. Those of us running organisations and programmes needed to become a bit more humble about our own sense of agency as facilitators. We needed to understand that an economy or a community are living and complex systems. They’ve got a mind of their own.

Sirolli argued you can’t “develop” anything any more than you can “flower” a flower. But you can do a lot to create the conditions in which that flowering can occur. And when we get those conditions right, the flower quite naturally unfolds.

This is much the same with community development. The transformation of ourselves, our families and our neighbourhoods is a gardening job. If we create the right conditions — supporting a basic infrastructure of skills and intelligence for the common good — then people will awaken their own active citizenship and create the communities they want to live in.

The cultural competencies involved in active citizenship and community-building are a set of skills and tools that need to be grown and renewed with every generation. It’s not as if you are building a piece of infrastructure like a bridge that may well last for hundreds of years before you need to think about it again.

These competencies are living things. They are matters of wisdom and maturity that need to be fostered in our young people and further developed as adults. This is a continuous process of education in which every generation needs to find a way of making their own.

And if we do get it right, then we just might notice that the feathers we need to fly are starting to sprout and stretch.


vivian Hutchinson QSM is a trustee and convener of Community Taranaki which seeks to foster active citizenship and generous engagement on our most important issues in Taranaki.