Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 7, 2020

Reconnected, a Community Builder’s Handbook, by Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell

Amongst the many things we’ve all learned from Covid-19, is that it’s been easier for some people to stay connected than for others, and so this book, obviously conceived before the pandemic but completed during the first part of this strange year 2020, is timely.

Andrew Leigh is a Federal Labor MP, and Nick Terrell is his adviser, and all politicians know the electoral value of being keyed into the needs and concerns of their communities.  They often know, better than anyone, where their community groups are and how well they are functioning.  The ‘newsletter’ I get from my current federal MP always features the same old staples: a visit to an aged care home, the RSL, a multicultural event, a school, and planting a tree somewhere.  I’d love to see him out at the Synchrotron admiring some new research, or inspecting some innovative design in a factory somewhere, and I bet these things are happening, but they don’t make it into their daggy newsletter template.  I suspect it’s because it’s thought to be more important to show connection with the community…

The first two chapters of this book develop the concern.  The first chapter is about social capital, and how it’s just as important as physical capital and human capital, and ‘Dissecting the Disconnection Disaster’ charts the ways in which modern life has reduced the ways in which we connect with each other.  The research shows that there has been a marked decline since previous eras: these days, fewer people join organisations, go to church, volunteer, donate to worthy causes, play team sport, know their neighbours or participate in political activity and they spend far too much time on their phones, especially teenagers.  There’s an epidemic of loneliness.  We all know that, even if some of the stats are more alarming than we knew.

(The one surprising piece of information was that there’s a decline in the number of Australians willing to do government surveys.  The authors argue that the cost of failing to fill out surveys is both national and local.  If they don’t have the data to inform decisions, then funding calculated on population counts from surveys isn’t allocated where it should be.  This argument would have more credibility with me if I didn’t know that years of data from the tests inflicted on schoolchildren have been completely ignored and school funding continues to be directed where it is not needed.  We have forests of reports and data about homelessness and nobody does anything about that either.)

But the authors say:

The goal of this book is not to write the eulogy for Australian civic life.  It is to get the patient back to good health. (p.9)

The first couple of chapters have a refreshing attitude to digital solutions.  There are all kinds of online and phone-based organisations which help people connect to their areas of interest, matching volunteers to areas of need. By harnessing technology in a positive way these organisations have a good success rate in finding people with specialised skills to help with specific needs.  This is one example:

Noticing that people looking after dementia patients often feel burnt out and underappreciated, the Australian Centre for Social Innovation created the notion of ‘weavers’.  ‘Weavers are volunteers who’ve cared for someone in similar circumstances and have experience navigating  services and dealing with the emotional burdens of being a carer.  Weavers draw on their own experiences to reduce the stress of carers, improve their wellbeing and social connections, and increase their capacity to care. (p.87)

There’s a whole chapter about cyber-connecting (which is, of course, what we are doing via this and other blogs!)  There are upsides and downsides to it of course: my local neighbourhood has benefitted greatly from a Facebook group set up by a local real estate agent with countless acts of kindness and generosity throughout the pandemic.  We’ve had experience ourselves of parcels delivered to the wrong place getting to their rightful owners too. OTOH as people are getting back to normal life, they are reverting to complaining about dogs and noise.  The energy some people invest in keyboard warfare never ceases to amaze me — it must be exhausting… no wonder they say they never have enough time!

After these two chapters, the book becomes a bit evangelical in approach, as you can tell by the chapter headings (and you can probably tell which ones I merely scanned):

  • Getting Active;
  • Fostering Philanthropy;
  • Social Connections and Social Purpose;
  • Spiritual Connections;
  • Politics Please; and
  • Leadership Lessons.

Some of this reads like a wishlist of stuff they wish we’d do more of.  Stuff that we all wish people would do more of because a reconnected society would be a better place.  But these chapters, while very worthy, are exhausting to ponder, and more importantly, it’s not really a handbook.  I’ve been involved in heaps of voluntary work over the course of my life, and I’ve led an association composed of volunteers who were all extremely busy teachers.  Although there are scraps of information about it here and there, this book doesn’t really tell you how to enthuse people into helping, and how to nurture them when they do. Running a voluntary organisation is not like running a business: you don’t get to hire people who have the skills and abilities you need: you need to recognise potential and encourage them to join and have a go; and then you have to help your people to develop those skills, to recognise that mistakes will be made and to celebrate accomplishments of all kinds.

Perhaps that’s the subject of another book.

Authors: Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell
Title: Reconnected, a Community Builder’s Handbook
Cover design by Design by Committee
Publisher: La Trobe University Press, in conjunction with Black Inc, 2020
ISBN: 9781760642617, pbk., 280 pages
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Reconnected

 


Responses

  1. This reminds me of a (pre-covid) flight I took from Sydney to Melbourne. In the waiting lounge before the flight I was surrounded by people absorbed in their mobile phones. I was the only person in the crowd who had a book in my hand instead.

    I enjoy chatting to people in airport lounges, and when a lost American couple came up very jet lagged from a flight from Los Angles and looking for the flight to Melbourne I was happy to have a wonderfully interesting talk with them. Everyone else was still looking at their mobiles.

    On the plane the people next to me, disappointingly, switched on their TV sets immediately. Why can’t people exist without a screen to look at for a while? It’s not a long flight and I enjoy talking to people I don’t know. It’s interesting. I’m starting to feel like this is weird or something!

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    • I think it’s sad. I never take my phone when I travel. I never needed it before I had one, and I don’t need it now. I take great photos with my so-last-century camera!

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      • It is sad isn’t it Lisa? That couple came from South Carolina, and our visiting Registrar at my hospital was from the same state, so we had a great chat about it. I think Robert Dessaix would not approve or mobiles while travelling – he seems to get into wonderful conversations wherever he goes!

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        • The curious thing is, (and I’m not being ‘smart’ about this), that young people who seem to do most of their interacting by phone seem to have coped less well with lockdown, when you’d think they would be really good at virtual communication.

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  2. I can probably guess which chapter(s) you skipped over.. I’ve just reserved this at the local library – it may be worth a look?
    I was just watching Australian Story about an Australian Russian all-men’s choir and thought what a great way for the guys to connect – a relaxed rehearsal in a pub looked good too. Should be more of this!

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    • I saw that too, wasn’t it hilarious!
      What a shame they didn’t get to go to Russia…

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      • I think they got to Russia didn’t they, but they decided against the movie? Or did I miss something (I was at the computer as well at the time – mutitasking – so I may be wrong). But yes what fun!

        I agree about the young people too – a friend of mine who is a children’s doctor says they have not built up any resilience. Perhaps now they have….

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        • Sorry you’re right Lisa covid stopped them, they used Zoom…I have to stop multitasking! What a shame.

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          • The whole thing proves what I’ve always said, the Russians have a great sense of humour, and it’s a lot like the Aussie sense of humour.

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  3. Andrew Leigh is ‘my’ local member, in what is a very safe Labor seat.

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    • In the ACT? Has it ever not gone to the ALP?
      (I mean, if you were a public servant in the ACT you’d have to have a death wish to vote for The Other Side because they always cut numbers in the public service as a matter of principle.)

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      • We usually have one Labor and one Liberal senator (the ACT has two senators). The current 3 MHRs are all Labor. There have been a couple of Liberal MHRs (for the seat of Canberra) in the past.

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        • I like being in a marginal seat. It means they have to take notice of us:)

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