Hope is a way of being – what could that mean for communities?

Oliver Townsend, Head of Partnerships and Practice, writes about opportunities to work as part of a newly funded project based on trauma informed community development principles – and what this could mean for our communities across Wales.

Understanding hope

“Hope is not an emotion; it is a way of thinking or a cognitive process.” (Brown, 2010). This powerful statement challenged many of my preconceptions – hope isn’t just something you feel, it can be practical, it can set us on a journey. Brené Brown summarises hope as: when we can set goals, when we are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, and when we believe that we can achieve them.

Understanding hope for individuals is important – but it is just as important to understand how communities have (or don’t have) hope. This is the space where community development often finds itself.

The idea is a simple one: listen to communities, hear what they need and give them what they need to do it.

The reality is tougher.

Across Wales, and more widely across the world, there are communities that have been left behind by ‘progress’. Left behind, forgotten, generational worklessness, embedded poverty, areas of multiple deprivation. We might find different words for it, but it masks the same problem. The idea that communities are doomed, or destined, to be “stuck” in cycles of poverty. Hopeless beyond repair.

Platfform has been exploring, as others have, how to be trauma informed in our approach for some time now. For us, it is a way to understand the dysregulation and distress so many people find themselves trapped in.

Our manifesto draws on the latest evidence that demonstrates that rather than being determined by biology, by some mystery of our genes, our mental health is largely determined by poverty, trauma and social injustice.

Equality as a mental health intervention

We have been looking, for so long, at mental health the wrong way. As Psychologists for Social Change often say, the greatest intervention for our mental health is equality. Our postcodes are a more accurate predictor of our mental health, by far, than our genetic code.

Many of our communities have generational experiences of trauma and distress. That is true across the Western world. Father Paul Abernathy, who has led an evolution in trauma-informed community activism, has this to say about community trauma in the US:

It's not that everybody's been evicted but everybody knows someone. It's not that everybody's been incarcerated but everybody knows someone who has. This is no gross exaggeration. This is the reality for life in our community - this trauma that is disproportionate, it is so widespread that whether we have direct experiences or indirect experiences of trauma - it is all around us. It seems as though it really is the norm - that’s a very serious issue. — Father Paul Abernathy

Trauma, layered on inequality, layered on trauma, layered on poverty. Individual trauma, layered on community trauma. Until there is a tangle, a sense of despair, and relationships get harder and harder to maintain across the neighbourhood. These voices get harder to hear and it is very easy to dismiss voices in pain when they are angry voices too. They become voices to fear. Voices to hide away from.

So, the idea is a simple one: listen to communities, hear what they need and give them what they need to do it.

The reality is tougher.

Trauma informed community development

At Platfform, we have worked with distress for years, we know how to hold it, how to listen to it, how to understand it. But what we can’t know, what we shouldn’t try to know, is what communities need, except from a broader position.

What do we mean by that? We mean that we know communities need space to be heard. We know communities that have suffered need space to heal. We know people need to be trusted, to be able to tell their stories of pain. And we know that from all of that, will come their own ideas, their own sense of agency.

That’s what is happening in communities across the US – trauma informed community development. There are a series of resources available with the Prevention Institute, which delve into the research and academic grounding for this way of working. There are also a series of powerful videos about how this has worked in Pittsburgh. Two short videos (here and here), and a longer TED talk.

It is also the theoretical basis for the work that we are doing with Save the Children, in Bettws, with their Early Learning Communities. In that area, we are working with families with young children, to understand together the experiences they have had as a community, and to find ways forward with them.

We learned from our work in Bettws, that our approach is helpful: people do know what their own neighbourhoods need, but generations of neglect from a faceless economic system have reduced and weakened the resources they have. That in turn leads to bruised, sometimes broken connections, which can spiral into a community that is seen as beyond help.

This work is also referenced in last week’s report from ACE Hub Wales, Trauma-Informed Communities: A Comparative Study of Welsh Models of Practice, alongside other examples of community engagement.

Moondance Community Coaching

At Platfform, we believe hope is a way of being, a process.

It is why we are excited that we have received funding from the Moondance Foundation, for two years of a ground-breaking project in the Caerphilly area. This small area has faced many of the same challenges as other communities across Wales. Concentrated poverty, high levels of trauma, lack of local resources. Local services refusing to deliver in the area. But it is also an area where individuals are rallying around, trying to make a difference. We know this having worked in the area for some time. There are brilliant, wonderful people in this community. We just need to listen to them. We need to be alongside them and let them lead.

Over the next two years, we will be developing a trauma-informed community development model alongside residents. We will have a community budget, which residents will allocate to what matters to them. We will have a community coordinator, with two coaches, who will be there to bring people together, but also address support needs, and help people reach their potential.

We will also have psychosocial support to help our team and those involved learn to make sense of their experiences and giving them the power to own their stories.

We are hugely excited about the potential for this project in Wales. Building on what we’ve done in Bettws, we want to see just how far this could go in Risca. And if that shows a way forward for communities: perhaps other neighbourhoods could benefit? They are already seeing that in parts of the US: a block-by-block neighbourhood change, building agency from one hyper-local community to the next. Yes, incremental. But also a powerful evolution for those who live there.

Would you like to be involved?

Working with us: We have published the jobs for the new team on our website. If you are interested, we have three different roles:

Working with the community: We are keen to work with as many people who care about, or live in, the area as possible. If you deliver services, live in the area, or your organisation has connections with the Caerphilly area, please email us.

Learning with us: If you want to know more about the approach, or are interested in how the project goes, you can get in touch with Oliver, or follow Platfform on Twitter.