I produce a podcast (an audio recording with interviews and discussion) called ‘How to build community’. Each month I interview someone who has been involved in a community project that has had a big impact. They tell me their story and share their wisdom. I have spoken with people all over the world, but one of my favourite interviews was with a social worker called Bobby Zachariah from Pune in India.
Door to door
Pune is home to both low-income communities and wealthy technology companies. Bobby explained that one of these technology companies ran a charity project to provide education and opportunities in one of the poorest areas of the city. The company had a big budget, a genuine desire to help and technical expertise. But because the community saw themselves as recipients rather than co-owners of the project, not many people were interested in getting involved.
The company turned to Bobby for help. ‘What should we do?’ they asked him. They had spent a lot of money over several years, and had very little to show for it. His advice came as a surprise. He suggested that instead of trying to solve the problems of the community for them, they should instead start going door to door in the neighbourhood, asking people, ‘How are you?’, and simply listening to them.
And this is what they did. Every weekend, a group from the company visited the community and engaged in conversations to find out about people’s lives and the things they cared about.
This simple act of listening began to change the community. The local people were used to feeling undervalued, but as they were listened to they began to develop the confidence to address their own challenges.
This led to them taking part in a ‘dream-building’ exercise, during which they identified several objectives for their community including improvements in health, sanitation and education.
They formed volunteer groups made up of young people, women and men, and they asked the local government to work on these objectives with them. And they turned to the technology company for funding and expertise to help make it happen. So the technology company went from being ignored, to playing a key role in facilitating exciting, community-led change.
Listening is an essential part of participatory communication, and it can lead to unexpected and remarkable outcomes. When communities, local organisations and policymakers listen to each other, misunderstandings are often resolved and people learn to work together in new ways.