I talked with Neighbourhood Houses Victoria CEO Bridget Gardner to understand their unique community development approach of Neighbourhood Houses.
How do you identify the need for a Neighbourhood House?
Neighbourhood Houses emerge from communities themselves in response to a multitude of local needs and opportunities depending on the community context. In some instances Neighbourhood Houses have emerged following a particular issue such as a natural disaster others have grown from community advocacy related to providing local vocational and educational opportunities or to address issues related to geographic isolation or a comparative lack of resources within the community. Generally community groups seek support to establish a place to connect, support each other, volunteer, and establish a low cost or no cost community base. This of course requires some resourcing which is a well-recognised part of successive government’s social responsibility and responses. There are an estimated 30-60 communities not in receipt of state government funding for their Neighbourhood House that continue to actively seek support.
While there is no doubt that some communities have a complex range of interrelated needs, community development approaches adopted by Neighbourhood Houses look beyond ‘’disadvantage’’. Neighbourhood House’s strengthen the social fabric of communities. Issues such as Family Violence, Elder Abuse and social isolation are not unique to any particular community. Rural communities with aging populations have a different set of priorities to Melbourne’s growth corridors with some of Australia’s fastest growing populations.
What makes a successful Neighbourhood House?
The simple answer is ‘’the community’’! But there is some more complexity to the answer. Neighbourhood Houses invariably report on the value of providing informal space where people can connect with their neighbours. This could be in the form of a community garden, community kitchen or just a place to have a coffee or read the latest community news. The provision of informal community spaces within most Neighbourhood Houses facilitates community conversations, debates and may even provide a safe place for disclosures or calls for help. The informal space offers something more than a park, it’s a place where people can meet and contribute to building social capital.
An effective community development ‘facilitator’ in the Neighbourhood House is very important. There needs to be somebody who knows what’s possible and how to engage with a diversity of people within any community to build a vision. This is an important skill base.
A well run Neighbourhood House identifies the needs in the community and works with that community to meet them. This is not a one-size fits all or ‘cookie cutter approach’. There are different models of Neighbourhood Houses and each model will suit different communities as they change overtime. It is not about just renting space or rooms for different groups in a shared building it is about real community engagement and the opportunity to allow for the community to identify and perhaps partner with other stakeholders to address their own issues. There is an element of community self-determination and advocacy.
How can Neighbourhood Houses support new communities in growth areas?
In growth areas where communities are evolving and sometimes quite rapidly it’s important to plan and consider community needs of today and in the future from the outset. Provisions need to be identified for effective processes to determine how Neighbourhood Houses can support dynamic and diverse community. A well thought through community development process assists to build relationships of trust with the key community stakeholders as the community establishes itself.
We need to see Neighbourhood House’s as a community development facilitators. The early intervention and thinking you’re doing behind community development can be a big cost saving over the long term. Investing in social well-being, child care, ageing well all contribute to better connected communities that value diversity. This is important in and of itself and also happens to be a lot less costly than more complex interventionist approaches. Neighbourhood Houses continue to play a role in promoting healthy bodies and minds, addressing community violence through community conversations and connections addressing potential social isolation, and loneliness. The great value of Neighbourhood Houses is their ability to harness collective impact that leads to improved services and community infrastructure.
Do you partner with other stakeholders?
This is one of the keys to effective community development within our sector. The strategic plan for Neighbourhood Houses Victoria incorporates the identification of key stakeholders in community development approaches. This includes others in the community sector working with older Victorians, emergency services, family violence, mental health services, and occasional child care providers and vocational and education providers – to name just a few illustrative examples.
We also collaborate and promote local government engagement in growth areas. As a peak body it is our role to have input into developing good social policy. What we have to continue investing discussion and debate across local, state, and federal government.
If you could change one thing about the way we currently create communities what would it be?
Early consideration of integrating community infrastructure such as a community governed Neighbourhood Houses. Community groups need to be party to planning throughout the community development process. It is important to plan for and support any transition processes well in advance. There is evidence in support of effective transitioning to permanent ‘place based’ community infrastructure governed by people with ‘lived experience’ within their community. They are essential to contributing to developing vibrant communities and their contribution results in tangible benefits across the community – socially and economically.