The Spotlight on... series focuses on some of the leading figures in Queensland's community services sector and related agencies. We ask them to talk about the work they are doing and how they see the future of the sector.

Dr Peter Westoby is a Senior Lecturer of Community Development at The University of Queensland. He has over 18 years community development experience working in Australia, South Africa and other countries in the Pacific and Asia. His current work is focused on Community Development theory and practice.

Peter talks about community development in practice, how community development workers facilitate effective conversations in communities around difficult issues and community development as a method of social change. He also talks about the challenges of responding to change while staying true to our core values and purpose.


I'm Peter Westoby I work at Queensland University as a Senior Lecturer in Community Development I've been here 7 or 8 years after 18 years of community development practice experience as a practitioner working in Australia, South Africa different countries in the Pacific and Asia.

I am one of two academics that are focussed specifically on community development theory and practice.

I guess there's a whole bunch of things I'm interested in from dialogue theory in practice. How do we, as community development workers, facilitate effective communication and effective processes of thinking and reflecting in groups? How do we facilitate conversations in communities around difficult issues that lead to generative or productive experiments in change?

One of the challenges of any professional community development worker is to negotiate what we think of as that delicate and difficult relationship between you, a professional, paid body of expertise and knowledge, and yet you enter a place and you meet people and you start conversations and how do you support a process of change without controlling it, without doing what you want to do as opposed to doing what might emerge from a community or a group of people's sense of what they want to do so those are issues to do with dialogue.

I've got an agenda, I'm paid to facilitate change but people have their own agenda that emerges out of their story and their experience and dialogue is a process that brings those agendas to the table and negotiates an agenda that is agreed upon and in community development I guess the key thing is it's a number of people that are sitting around the table because community development is about groups it's not about an individual process of change like in counselling or individual advocacy. We're talking about the power of collective work or cooperative work where people work together. As soon as you get people working together you're dealing with issues of conversation, dialogue.

Development is a word that has a recent history of 50, 60 years and for most people we hear the word development and we think economic growth, we think buildings and the cities going through a lot of development. It means building and infrastructure.

Obviously from a community development perspective we want to re-imagine development in the light of particularly some of the current global challenges and crises, ecological crises. What does development mean in the light of the global ecological crisis? What does development mean when we need to lift two billion more people out of poverty but we can't really afford to use a fossil fuel model of development to do that because it will clash with the ecological crisis?

Community development we understand as one method of social change. It's a humble method. It's a method of the people, by the people, groups of people getting together saying let's do something.

There are other methods of social change like legal advocacy and campaigning, mass campaigning, and unionising and political parties that are… so through formal political means, there's mass education, so these are all methods of social change and community development's one.

It's a small group method of people working cooperatively. It can grow, as people link with other small groups and create alliances and federations or networks but it's still a humble small group.

One of the polarities in life is being true and authentic to yourself and being responsive to what is outside the self. We often think of internal locus of control, external locus of control and I think one of the challenges of… yes we need to be responsive to changing funding regimes, changing regulatory regimes and adapt and adjust and be agile and creative but at the same time we need to hold our centre. Who are we? What is our values, what are our values? What is our purpose?

Because if you don't hold that polarity in balance and you just move towards responding to shifts you become a subcontractor to the state. You do what the state wants and you lose any sense of integrity of who you are, your history, why were we established, what was our mission.

So I think recognising it's very difficult times in terms of the context of the Community Development program, we know there's not any real money around for community development per se but I think that that provides also an opportunity and that is for community agencies to say well we've got to be agile and responsive to funding opportunities which is often really just about providing services, but how do we at the same time regain or re-remember our community roots and are we still connected to the place and the base that we emerged from. Are we an organisation that's part of that community and our governance reflects ownership by that community or have we separated from the community and are just providing services on behalf of?

So I think these are the opportunities these shifts provide and that's not an easy thing but we have to rise to these opportunities.

Share or Print