Last Thursday I was in Dandenong sitting with a unique group of individuals listening to a young man speak passionately about a world I had seen from the outside but never experienced.  Baqir Khan spoke of his journey seeking asylum. Not of the camps or the things that led him to seek a safety in Australia – but his experience of accessing social services here in Melbourne.

He spoke of a system where humanitarian agencies operate like process lines, where people are reduced to cases, numbers and are connected inextricably to their experience of disadvantage. Where they are seen not as people experiencing problems but as the problem themselves. A system where just surviving is good enough. A system that steals the potential of these people by convincing them that just getting by is the best they can hope for and anything else is simply unrealistic. A system that is set up to help and save but which plays a large part in the ultimate disempowerment of community members.

The event I was attending was an information session for Community Four’s pilot program, Project: Careers. The people I was sitting with were all living with the experience of seeking asylum. As someone who had worked in that same sector for over a decade, I knew that what Baqir was saying was completely true, but as CEO of this new venture I also wanted everything to run smoothly. To be honest I was wondering whether the political flavour of his presentation was going to scare these people a little. Maybe they just wanted help with their careers and weren’t interested in hearing about the wider systemic problems of the humanitarian sector. I was wrong.

A few minutes into his talk a powerful thing happened: The nods started coming from the audience and then the words “It’s true.” I realised that yet again I had underestimated the people I used to call my clients, and through my own indoctrination from the humanitarian sector, I had again returned unconsciously to seeing them simply as people in need and not interested in the wider challenges.

I believe Baqir’s speech was the spiritual birth of Community Four (although the road has been long to get here). Not only did his words set the tone for the rest of the session, which was different than any other I had been involved with, but it drew a clear line between the old way of doing things and the way of Community Four.

In that room, unemployment, under employment and the severe lack of upward mobility opportunities for refugees were not personal problems, they were community challenges. This is the essence of Community Four’s Symbiotic Innovation approach. We create a social vehicle, we call a SymLab, to provide a space where diverse stakeholders of community can come together to tackle social challenges, such as barriers to upward mobility for people with a refugee experience. We unite around a mutual, positive vision of the future, not around individual needs, and we each bring our own unique knowledge, experience and resources to the table. And we recognise each other for what we have to offer, not what we are deficient in. We then create together – and unlock that incredible human potential to find a way to overcome anything – when we work together.

Community Four was founded on the belief that for our communities to be successful, highly functioning organisms – everyone needs co-ownership and the ability to positively impact the whole. Our collective success depends on the realisation of, and commitment to, our interdependence as fellow human beings.

In practical terms, this means if I am working with people seeking asylum to create a society where people can reach their fullest potential no matter their backgrounds, then instead of telling those who I work with what they should be in life and how to get there, I need to listen and learn from them about how I should approach my work. As it is only through them that I can achieve my aims. They are the ones who will need to live every day with any solution that’s created. The reality is the solution doesn’t need to work for me as an agency worker – it needs to work for them as the person with the lived experience. Once it does, it will work for all of us.

The truth is we as community workers aren’t trained to think like this. We are trained to create synthetic relationships with our clients. We are the person in the position of knowledge and power and they are the person who is in some way deficient. The thinking is that by maintaining this power differential through our “professional boundaries” we will somehow be able to overcome large systemic social challenges. The reality is this has never worked and so the problems have continued to grow, while the money left to go around is continually depleted by the bureaucracies of behemoth social agencies who see themselves as the answer.

We invent transactional models such as co-design as a way of showing doner bodies (with growing concerns about bottomless pit models of funding) that we are committed to listening to community members. But these conversations are always held within the established paradigm, on our terms. As a result, it is becoming increasingly common for community members to tell us they are sick of being pulled into some agency, asked about their problems and what a program to address these problems might look like and then sent out the door – never to see or hear about the result of their efforts. The truth is, under the established regime, we veto those ideas we don’t like – which means we should have done it ourselves in the first place and given up the pretence of collaboration.

While all this could make one a little overwhelmed (and maybe depressed), the good news is there is another way. (And, even better, it’s not new. In fact, it is the oldest social approach known to human kind.) It’s called a community approach to social solutions – we, at Community Four, call it Symbiotic Innovation or SI. The SI model creates an environment that is conducive to authentic and creative relationships between community members (including agency workers).  Community Four is committed to reigniting and harnessing the potential of community to take the lead in overcoming those wicked problems that the entrenched agency models have failed to address. SI is how we’re doing it.

SI is not some lofty philosophy; it is a highly effective model backed by a growing body of research. SI is outcome based and because community lays at its base, it is also a highly scalable and sustainable approach.

By the end of the careers session in Dandenong there was a very special feeling in the room. One that has continued with each subsequent session. It is something I haven’t experienced in any other social service setting. As we are yet to find an English word for the collective bond that SI creates – we’ve left it to the eloquent Desmond Tutu and his explanation of the southern African term Ubuntu:

“Ubuntu [is] the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

Gavin Ackerly