By Joanne Coysh
Many thanks for this. I really liked your posting and invitation to collectively explore the questions surrounding ideas of the social change and development practitioner, which in themselves challenge us to think more deeply about our purpose and approaches to working. They require quite a lot of reflection but will try respond to the questions you have asked. These are my own reflections and I haven’t really addressed or referred to the other contributions so far.
What do you think are the most important practices and competencies of a social change/development practitioner?
For a number of years I have taught law and human rights students where the aim was to challenge their perceptions and assumptions the role, purpose and approaches. To challenge them to think more deeply about the power relations embodied in the system, who controls that system and how. While there is a certain base knowledge which can provide the resources and tools to ‘do the work’, there are also a number of softer skills, competencies and practices required of a social change/ development practitioner which go far beyond the technical expertise and, are possibly, more important. By far, I consider the most important of these to be the ability to be self-reflexive and critically inquire into our own practice, perceptions and assumptions that we all bring into any situation. This is coupled with a willingness to consistently learn from the experiences and knowledge of others, to be able to convene and facilitate spaces which include the voices of the most marginalised, and being willing to adapt and change your practice where necessary.
This need to be self-reflexive links directly with a curiosity to learn from others who live the experience with empathy (but not sympathy). To be able to recognise the agency and capacity of people to change their own lives and provide the support for them to do this (often not financial). A willingness to be able to say, ‘actually, we don’t know the answer to this’ but a curiosity to find out more and work together with others to explore the question.
Can these skills be ‘taught’?
I think so, but it requires looking outside the development paradigm and pulling on other disciplines which may give us insight into new approaches. It raises a lot of questions. For example,
- how do we cultivate deep listening in development practitioners or critical inquiry?
- Are social change / development practitioners willing to engage in a process which values the nurturing of knowledge of others as much as their own?
- Why is it important for DP to recognise how power relations impact at all levels and their own positionality in that system? How can we do this? (these can also be added to the question section below).
What is your image of an “ideal” social change/development practitioner?
Reflexive, inquiring, curious and creative.
Someone who is engaged or willing to listen to, experience and empathise the lived-in situation of others without an agenda or judgement, who seeks to understand and learn from the people in that context, to find out where the gaps exist and work with people in partnership to fill those gaps – to building on their skills and knowledge.
They need to be creative and adaptable in the knowledge that at all levels the landscape is constantly shifting.
Able to build good solid relationships and interested in people