Changing the Common Story around Debt: Collective and individual financial transformation in Porirua. Inspiring Communities

 

Helping people to help themselves also helps communities grow resilience, especially when many diverse members of a community work together to create new opportunities and new ways of doing things.

At Wesley Community Action in Porirua, there has always been a strong focus and value placed on giving people respect and empowering and enabling them to take control in their own situations.  This means there is a keen focus on how we can avoid creating “dependence on a social service” and instead growing support structures that help people to create new opportunities for themselves.

It was out of this value that a conversation around the food bank arose: “Why do people still need to use our food bank, even when times are good?”  From speaking with people that accessed the food bank the answer was at least partly found in the fact that approximately 80% had debt that they were not managing to keep up with.  For a whole variety of reasons people were finding themselves “borrowing money from their future to pay for today” leading to an inevitable downward spiral which they struggled to stop.

This situation means that wealth and potential are being drained out of the local communities. Concerned about this, Wesley began a community-led enquiring process to understand how and where transformation could come from.  This process later became the Good Cents initiative.  Early on in the initiative’s development, it became clear that people tended to favour a range of proposed solutions to the problem of debt.  Some said financial literacy needs to be improved or school banking reintroduced, some said that minimum wages need to be increased, while others said that churches play a key role in causing hardship or that “loan sharks” need to be regulated and interest rates capped.  Yet, while none of these solutions are entirely wrong, neither are any of them entirely accurate or right.  Good Cents staff observed that while pointing the finger at others may highlight aspects of the wider issue, it tends to absolve personal responsibility and ownership of the issue, and doesn’t often actually change the situation.

So, in 2007, Good Cents set out to tackle high interest indebtedness from a community-led development perspective, driven by the stories of indebted people themselves and working to engage the wider community and business interests.  The course is embedded in a philosophy that encourages people to look at their own contribution to their financial situation and works to enable course participants to identify the positive actions they can take to reduce or eliminate their dependency on debt and grow their investment in their future.

At the same time, as Peter Block (2008) writes, an aggregation of significant personal changes does not lead to community transformation and, in fact, personal changes are very difficult to sustain without environmental changes too.  To move towards community transformation, Good Cents needed to bring many different individuals and small diverse groups who are doing the same thing, even when they are from very different positions and walks of life, together.  As Block also notes, the value of purposeful connection with others is the beginning of the future we want to create together. From such a place, action and problem solving will follow.

And so it has been for Good Cents, both within the courses as participants learn that others are in similar situations and in how the Good Cents course engages with the wider ‘system’ and environment.  This wider engagement was demonstrated in April 2010 when Wesley Community Action was supported by Porirua City Council, the Todd Foundation and Inspiring Communities to host a Beyond the Cycles of Debt: What would it look like? Forum in Porirua.  At this gathering, the whole system was in the room.  High paid executives, bankers and government people rubbed shoulders and shared ideas with beneficiaries, local cultural leaders and some of the local lenders: these were people who were scared of one another at the outset.  Then, at mixed tables, they considered ‘What is it that we could create together for our future that we can’t create alone?’ by listening to the wide range of experiences in the room.  This was accompanied by the drawings and talking and creative energy as they worked together on ideas of a community where there wasn’t a high level of debt crippling the community.   And out of it all was born a core leadership group dedicated to working out ways of how to move forward together, focusing on the things in common and the goal of being beyond cycles of debt.  These people were already no longer scared of one another.

Bringing many perspectives to the table means learning to rely on one another’s different strengths and builds interdependencies around what diverse parts of the community have in common.  For Good Cents, this has focused particularly on the common vision of a community that is free from a spiral of uncontrolled debt and able to build a future.  Such a process can lead to a change in community direction that builds power and resilience because, after all, those who have the power to bring the possible future into existence are those who create its social fabric and interdependent social capital.  Just like the successful churches in the area, the possibility of community transformation around debt lies in the organisation of engagement and structure of belonging by and for local people.  The belief is that by working together as a community in ways that respect diversity, communities in Porirua can move away from the common story about debt.

By the end of the day in April 2010 five themes were identified for further development to move beyond the cycle of debt: Growing community education around money management, engaging the lending sector in the conversation about responsible lending, working to shift public discourse around the debt – wealth paradigm, working with strong community groups and identifying gaps in secondary education.  More importantly, perhaps, by the end of the day Good Cents had the commitment of a core group of people to develop these themes further.  Plus, and perhaps this is most important, they had strengthened the social fabric of Porirua in the process.

The next steps are devising actions that are less about problem-solving and more about future generation because, as Peter Block notes, “we cannot problem-solve our way into fundamental change”.  Problem solving leads to an alternative future only when it is embedded in a context based on strengths, relatedness and generosity.  Not surprisingly, this stage is an evolving, emerging and groaning stage because it involves an entirely new way of thinking, talking and knowing about the role of money in our lives.  It’s a shifting of the public discourse around debt, a change in conversation, language and the tasks involved.  This shift means less focus on budgeting and more on creating space for people to think differently about their whole life and how their finances fit into the things that matter to them.  It’s about working with what we have together as communities (including the huge knowledge local lenders have) and creating new paradigms in how we work together and with who.

Intent: Working together to make changes that generate prosperity in Porirua.

Key Learnings:

  • Reducing or eliminating the negative aspects of debt is complex and involves working at multiple levels at the same time – individual responsibility needs to be contextualised within the connections, ties and trust between people and organisations, the way we do things around here and the systems and structures within the community and beyond.
  • Similarly, getting the ‘the whole system in the room’ brings together diverse thinking in the same place.  This highlights common ground amongst individuals, of which some had previously presumed to be little. This initiated a strong desire to work together towards newly discovered common goals.
  • This way of working tends to be slower and more messy, it relies on busy people acting often out of good will, and makes good leadership really essential.

Key Outcomes

  • A core group of diverse people to develop a strategic plan for Good Cents, and to contribute to auctioning that plan.
  • A new and emerging model of working with and empowering people to grow financial stability and independence (through the Good Cents Course).
  • Growing network of relationships across Porirua that are thinking similarly about the importance of financial stability as distinct from a primary focus on managing debt.

Key contact

Matt Crawshaw
Good Cents Coordinator
Wesley Community Action
Email: goodcents@wesleyca.org.nz
Ph: 04 237 7923

References

Block, P. (2008). Community: The structure of belonging.  Berret-Koehler Publishers Inc., San Francisco, Ca.

Story by Matt Crawshaw and Denise Bijoux.( June 2012)

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