Crossing the Line
— some thoughts for the Ownership Conversation
by vivian Hutchinson
June 2021 18 min read download as Masterclass PDF
WE’VE GOT SOME challenging things to talk about. And it’s not all going to be positivity and possibility.
Some of our conversations will involve the bigger and longer-term issues which have become harder to address in our communities because we have been avoiding talking about them for much too long.
The “conversations that matter” don’t really need to be difficult, but we should recognise that they are not the usual day-to-day talking that we have been having with our family, our friends or our neighbours.
They are the conversations that require a level of courage that is not our usual ask of each other. This talking also requires a level of ownership of our issues that we don’t usually ask of ourselves.
And we are being called to stretch the usual boundaries of our attention ... so that these conversations can become the nurseries of new thinking.
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MANY OF THE PEOPLE who have attended our Masterclasses have been working at the front-line of community health and welfare services. There’s great work being done here — but the overall picture of these services is also often discouraging. Once we have got to know each other a bit better in our workshops, and there is a sense of trust in the room, you would not be surprised to hear such comments as:
“I feel exhausted all the time.”
“I have grown cynical about just what is possible to change.”
“My organisation feels stuck, while the problems are obviously getting worse.”
“There’s no big picture here, and we are just processing things like we always have.”
“The funding systems are just broken, and it makes me angry.”
It is not easy to really hear these stories. They reflect much of the reality of the last two decades of working in the community sector and in public services. Our essential workers are speaking here of a vicious circle that their daily lives feel trapped in.
The political management of cutbacks and austerity measures over the last twenty years has left front-line volunteers and professionals overworking and exhausted while too much of their efforts have gone towards making ends meet.
Their personal and professional situation is not just ripe for improvement – it is long over-due for transformation.
But their comments are also pointing us towards a deeper cultural challenge: Our welfare state and most of our publicly-funded social services were just not designed for the complexities of our current challenges. We have reached the limits of what can be managed within our existing thinking.
The reality of these limits, and how to transform the thinking behind our welfare state, is a similar predicament for so many other challenges which are also affecting our social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being.
The trouble is, we have yet to gain a shared language or understanding as to what a process of transformation actually means, or even how our current work may be contributing to the stuckness.
Albert Einstein has famously remarked that, “We don’t get to transformation by thinking at the same level that got us into our problems.” The conversations that matter between active citizens are an opportunity to switch the levels of our thinking. As such, these conversations can become “instruments of transformation” in addressing our bigger challenges.
This is particularly true of the Ownership Conversation. It has a special role to play in helping us climb out of the vicious circles that we might feel trapped within.
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IN HIS BOOK, Community, Peter Block defines ownership as a “...decision to become the author of your own experience.” He declares that:
“ Community will be created the moment we decide to act as creators of what it can become. This is the stance of ownership, which is available to us every moment on every issue. [...] This requires us to believe that this organisation, this neighbourhood, this community is mine or ours to create.”
Peter Block suggests that an important component of the Ownership Conversation is being willing to answer the question, How have I contributed to creating the current reality? He says that answering this question is central to how a community is transformed:
“Accountability is the willingness to acknowledge that we have participated in creating, through commission or omission, the conditions that we wish to see changed. If we lack this capacity to see ourselves as cause, our efforts become either coercive or wishfully dependent on the transformation of others.” – Peter Block
These comments by Peter Block have consistently proved to be controversial in our Masterclass, and have sparked much conversation and debate. Some participants have found Block's comments naive when considered against the brutality and inter-generational trauma that has come with the colonisation of New Zealand.
The Ownership Conversation is about power, the power to make the decision “to become the author of your own experience”. Block's definition of ownership seems to presume that you do have the power to make such a decision.
This is clearly not always the case with those individuals and communities who are living with the consequences of abusive power. They may be enduring oppression and injustice, or are alienated from the resources and opportunities they need to make choices for their own well-being.
The key to unlocking this predicament is what social scientists call “agency”, which is defined as the capacity of individuals and communities to act independently and freely make their own choices.
One of the most persistent effects of colonisation — whether it is historically by Empire, or in our contemporary era by Corporations — is that it seeks to determine the shape of your “agency”, and wants to manufacture your consent about this process.
For a great many people, the thought that they do have “agency” requires a significant suspension of suspicion and disbelief that a different possibility is indeed available to them.
But Peter Block's challenge does hold its own seed of truth. The thought that the “agency” of ownership is available to us “... at every moment on every issue” is both a paradox and a radical provocation. It opens the door to the realisation that a great many of the constraints that are holding us back from real transformation are not just external forces, but have already become the internal and unwelcome inhabitants of our own hearts and minds.
De-colonisation is not just a world-weary process of rolling back the powers and privileges of Empire and wealth. It is also an internal process of transforming the hearts and minds of ourselves and our communities so we may freely choose and grow the capacities we need for a different future.
COMMUNITIES KNOW THERE is such a thing as a virtuous circle. This is the circle that invokes and creates our opportunities for “agency”. The virtuous circle is also one of the fundamental principles of our natural world.
The biologist and biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus has said that, in nature, “Life exists to create the conditions for Life.” In this context, the process of evolution in nature is one that builds upon its own virtuous circle.
I believe the same is true for communities – there is a common-sense circular dance going on between the tangible and the intangible elements of well-being. In this virtuous circle, one of the purposes of community is to create the conditions which make community more possible.
A virtuous circle requires us to get a lot more practical about what fosters the regeneration and resilience of our collective well-being. Regeneration means building the skills for shaping the communities that we want to live in, while also growing capacity for the resilience which enables us to address crisis and change.
For a community-builder, the doorway to a virtuous circle usually involves a process of reflection. This means giving yourself the time and space where you can make better choices that are not driven by the frustrations and conflicts and politics of your daily lives.
For some of our participants, the Masterclass has provided an opening to this reflection. Our regular workshops are a time for participants to step out of the urgencies, breathe a bit deeper, make room for quarter-thoughts, and dare to let go of the things that are holding us back.
This process of reflection enables a “switch in thinking” that is the internal starting point of the transformations that we seek.
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THERE IS A mind-mapping tool that is often used in counselling, and helps us to understand how a “switch in thinking” can open up fresh possibilities.
Wayne Morris, one of the designers of our Masterclass, has seen this tool at work where a Taranaki business leader uses it during his meetings with employees.
Wayne describes the businessman starting a meeting by asking his employee: Which side of the line are you on?
If the employee just wants to sound off, or whinge and moan, then the boss doesn’t interrupt him, except to say, “That’s OK, you’ve got five minutes.” He then listens as the person unloads.
The businessman describes this as the ‘below the line’ conversation because it is usually focused on the problems, and often full of blame, excuses and denial. Yet the boss understands that he has a job to do here, and that is to listen well so he can really appreciate the difficulties and frustrations.
At the end of the five minutes, the boss stops the conversation, and says to his employee, “You’ve had that time, now are you ready for an ‘above the line’ conversation?”
His employees usually already know what this means.
An ‘above the line’ conversation takes much longer, and they are expected to take ownership of the situation, focus on the possibilities and solutions, and be responsible and accountable for their part in whatever issue needs to be addressed.
The businessman understands that, while there may be some superficial improvements, no real and lasting change happens ‘below the line’. He sees the workplace meeting with his employee as an opportunity to explore the possibilities that are ‘above the line’ where you can access the innovation and creativity and shape the level of change that you both are looking for.
WE ADAPTED a version of the ‘above and below the line’ mind-map for use on our Masterclass. It asks the question, “Which side of the line are you on?” and it is a useful guide for any active citizen who does not want to remain stuck in negative, reactive or victim mentality and behaviour.
Crossing the line is an act of ownership. It often starts with a personal story that leads you to the decision to step into your own agency and become “the author of your own experience.”
And when things line up, this decision can release a genuine commitment to face the consequences – a willingness to take responsibility and accountability for the different future that you want to create.
Alongside this chart, we have also created a second mind-map that speaks to the same “switch in thinking” for our communities.
It asks, “Which side of the line are we on?” It points towards the transformation of our collective activities from being focused on problem-solving, fear and blame — to focusing on how we can together reclaim our creativity and explore new possibilities.
Crossing the line here establishes both a foundation and a direction for our work as active citizens.
You may well notice that this second chart reflects most of the same “conversations that matter” that were first offered in Peter Block’s book Community, and make up the framework of our Masterclass.
The “switch in thinking” has the same DNA.
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OWNERSHIP IS THE GROUND from which transformation is made possible. The Ownership Conversation is also the key to transforming our broken welfare state.
The changes we need are not just a matter of funding more resources, or trying to manage the existing system more efficiently. The transformation of welfare will be made possible by developing and releasing all those aspects of social security that we can provide to each other as citizens, as family members, as neighbours and as communities.
One of the leading advocates for a different vision of welfare is the British social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam. She is the author of Radical Help: How we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state. In this book, Cottam not only outlines a persuasive argument for change, but also shows how she has been practically reinventing welfare initiatives from the ground up — in fields such as how young people gain employment, how the health system operates, and how we care for our growing population of elders.
Hilary Cottam recognises the welfare state as being perhaps the biggest social revolution humanity has ever seen. In the beginning it felt modern and visionary. The principles, laid out in 1942 by the politician William Beveridge, transformed postwar Britain by guaranteeing healthcare, good education, decent housing and support when out of work or unwell. This model of social security was quickly and universally embraced by all leading Western economies.
But it is a vision that has not kept up with changing times. Hilary Cottam argues that our welfare state is now a set of institutions and services that are clearly not fit for purpose, and are unable to deal with the complex realities of modern life.
“ It cannot support us in an emergency, it cannot enable us to live good lives, and it is at a loss when confronted with a range of modern challenges from loneliness to entrenched poverty, from a changing world of work to epidemics of obesity and depression.” — Hilary Cottam
As we have found in our own Masterclass conversations, our welfare professionals and practitioners are as trapped in an unworkable system as much as those who are in need of the social support being administered. This is particularly true in a system where the contracting-out and privatisation of welfare services has created a vested interest in keeping things exactly the way they are right now.
Hilary Cottam points out that William Beveridge knew that there were problems with the design of the welfare state right from the start. Six years after his launch, Beveridge wrote a report in which he declared he had made a significant mistake: his design had left out people, communities, and the bonds between us. These key components of well-being had not been woven into his welfare model.
Cottam does not believe that we can mend our broken welfare systems, but she argues that we can reinvent them “with human connection at their heart”.
“ When we make collaboration and connection feel simple and easy, people want to join in. Yet our welfare state does not try to connect us to one another, despite the abundant potential of our relationships. Most of our services – for young and old people alike – are aimed at managing risk and getting by.” — Hilary Cottam
What is common to all our modern welfare problems is that the solutions require our sense of “agency” and our generous participation. The solutions require all of us — communities, the state, business and citizens — to work together and become active creators of change.
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A MODERN WELFARE SYSTEM must create possibility rather than seek only to manage risk; it must create capability rather than dependence; it must get wiser about the inter-dependence and the generosity that exists between generations; and it must actively foster the connections and relationships that make well-being possible.
These intentions point to many of the conversations that we have not yet been having about the future of our social security.
Our broken systems will not be healed by the same level of discussion and policy-making that has kept us stuck in our existing problems.
If we are able to “cross the line” of our current thinking, then we may begin to collectively reinvent the future of how we care for one another.
Notes and Links
vivian Hutchinson QSM is a community activist and social entrepreneur who has worked mainly on issues of race relations, social justice, job creation and philanthropy. He is a co-founder of Community Taranaki www.taranaki.gen.nz, and author of How Communities Heal — stories of social innovation and social change (2012). He is also one of the creators of How Communities Awaken - Tū Tangata Whenua - a Masterclass for Active Citizenship which is run in partnership with Tu Tama Wahine o Taranaki www.tutamawahine.org.nz.
First published online in June 2021
This paper Crossing the Line is part of a larger series of essays by vivian Hutchinson entitled How Communities Awaken. For more information, visit www.taranaki.gen.nz/hca
Tū Tama Wahine o Taranaki and Community Taranaki were awarded the ACE (Adult and Community Education Aotearoa) 2020 Award for Community Programme of the Year for the Masterclass for Active Citizenship. For more information, visit www.tutamawahine.org.nz/masterclassguide
Which side of the line is our community on? ... The elements of this chart were drawn from the series of conversations that Peter Block offers in his book Community, which we use as part of the structure for the Masterclass.
Peter Block’s book Community — The Structure of Belonging (Second Edition 2018) is available at www.amazon.com/dp/1523095563. Also (with John McKnight) The Abundant Community — Awakening the Power of Families and Neighbourhoods (2012) at www.amazon.com/dp/1609940814. For more information on Block and McKnight’s work see www.abundantcommunity.com
Transformation is a change in the nature of things ... this idea is also central to the work and teachings of Werner Erhard, the founder of the est Training. See the film Transformation: The Life and Legacy of Werner Erhard (documentary 2006) directed by Robyn Symon. See also http://wernererhardbiography.com/peter-block-on-werner-erhard/
Wayne Morris ... Which side of the line are you on? (Future Edge) report February 2011 available from Future Edge, 693 Carrington Road, RD1 New Plymouth
Radical Help: How we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state by Hilary Cottam published June 2018 www.amazon.com/Radical-Help-relationships-between-revolutionise-ebook/dp/B077QGQRKJ/
“More money will not fix our broken welfare state. We need to reinvent it” by Hilary Cottam in The Guardian 21st June 2018 www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/21/broken-welfare-state-reinvent-it
Radical Help - Hilary Cottam speaking at the RSA June 2018 (video 1hr) https://youtu.be/tV49vVMPsYo
ISBN 978-1-92-717636-8 This paper is licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/nz/deed.en