The special focus of this edition of Scotregen is on the future prospects for community empowerment. In this article, Russell McLarty contends that local stories should be at the heart of new thinking on community empowerment. Russell is Co-ordinator of a Church of Scotland project – ‘Chance to Thrive’ – which looks to support eight local community partnership initiatives with volunteer mentoring support groups. Later on, we compare diverging approaches in Scotland and England, highlight the innovative JESSICA Trust funding model, and offer a timely update on the Scottish Government’s forthcoming Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.

As a storyteller, I am convinced that a story-led approach to community engagement has a lot to offer.

In top-down regeneration, a regular complaint is that people don’t feel that they have any input to what has happened to the places in which they live. Their stories and the local context haven’t been heard or written into proposals and neither have their ‘imagined futures’ – these dreams they might want to see realised.

Sadly, we hear all too often that when local people are asked for their ideas, this is called ‘wishful thinking’! I certainly believe that it is possible to have a creative and fun approach in working within communities to develop ideas which are properly considered.

Rejecting tokenism by flying kites

Local authorities have struggled to engage with communities and many would openly admit to failure. When we speak of a local authority, the very language speaks volumes about where the power lies. If, however, we want to turn things around and give local communities some authority in what might happen, then we need to make sure that they are the authors of the stories which are heard. These stories must be seen to be the drivers for change.

Much of community consultation has been tokenistic and unimaginative, yet there are ways of working that local people can really engage with and enjoy. Story-gathering is the first crucial step in the ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ approach, where the stories are then used in ‘flying kites’ – ideas for future development. The whole community can then be involved in selecting ideas in a very open way, choosing which kites should remain up there in the sky and further developing the stories of ‘what might be’.

Where people see their own stories headlining in development proposals, this immediately becomes quite different from the material so often written and distributed in glossy official publications; materials that often lie untouched in piles in public buildings.

Regular opportunities for participation

We have a lot to learn in these creative and participative ways of working. It goes without saying that there must be investment of time, commitment and funding to make sure that any engagement is properly worked through.

Just as important as generating ideas and deciding on priorities is the ongoing dialogue at different stages of implementation of any proposals. We are getting better at using the softer indicators of development in evaluation and monitoring where community members’ stories are recognised and valued.

‘Most Significant Change’ methodology is one way in which large groups of people can have ongoing involvement in any development process. Stories of change are very much about heart and mind. Where these are gathered, they can be used to draw out patterns, common themes and divergences; also in sharing the overall results.

I am not totally convinced that the selection of the ‘most’ significant story of change is always the most important thing. But the gathered and ordered material will always contain a wealth of wisdom to be highlighted and shared. If an imaginative approach is taken to show communities that their voice is being heard, then people will be more convinced about ideas of local empowerment, authority and authorship.