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Title A Profile of Community Work
Author Shikoll Akthar
Key Concepts Oppression, Anti-oppressive Practice, Definitions, Community Work Theory

 

Essay

 

A community can be defined as follows: -

“A comprehensive description of the needs of a population that is defined, or defines itself, as a community, and the resources that exist within that community, carried out with the active involvement of the community itself, for the purpose of developing an action plan or other means of improving the quality of life in the community”.  (Hawtin, 1994, p5).

Henderson and Thomas (1987) have a six point framework for a community, it illuminates a community of interest as well as a community of place.  In particular I have chosen to analyse the Bangladeshi women’s group at the Medway Bangladeshi Centre in Highfields, Leicester.  I will use examples of cultural and patriarchal dominance to demonstrate inequalities and then I have used a development model that would help to better the lives of the Bangladeshi women.  I have also used the feminist, black and anti-racist critique, and also the pluralist theory to support community work practice, however I have also criticised both the feminist and pluralist approach.

The centre is located on a main road in Highfields where it is accessible by the population from Spinney Hill area and the Whycliffe area.  The largest population of the Bangladeshi Community come from these areas, 3.7% come from Spinney Hill and 3.1% come from Whycliffe, other areas in Leicester, such as Abbey, Belgrave, Aylestone, and Beaumont leys have a composition of 0% Bangladeshis.  The sexes of this community is about equal, 50.5% females and 49.5% males, however, the employment figures between the sexes differ extremely with figures as high as 72.22% economically active males and only 27.47% of economically active females.  The lower rate is due women to working at home, as well as cultural differences and language difficulties.  (Census, 1991).

In studying the start of the Bangladeshis, they first immigrated to Britain during the 1960’s as a consequence of labour demands in British industry, with the hope to return back home (Fryer, 1984).  However, overtime people have settled and the myth of return has faded.

Secondary migration was slower due to reluctance by male heads to bring their families over, largely because many thought they would return after having saved some money and also due to difficulties in gaining entry clearance for their families.  As a result, Bangladeshi women came to Britain at a much later date than the men and therefore fell behind in gaining opportunities within employment, education and health (Ethnic Minorities, 1991).  However, the women have been identified in the community as socially and politically disadvantaged, so through a community development and community education approach, a Bengali mothers and toddlers group had been created to meet the needs of the women.

The centre aims to widen participation, raise confidence and self-esteem through community and social education.  Local government funds it.  There is one group leader and one crèche worker, both paid workers, there are between 8-15 users at any one time.  All the women in the group share the same culture and language, they are all Muslims, married with children and range between the ages of 22-60.

The women bring their children to the sessions, otherwise they would not attend, and they can’t leave them at home with the fathers because within their culture it is the women’s role to look after the children, the husband goes out to work. The family structure is extremely traditional and slow to change.  It is also a conservative influence, which works against change.  The women as much as the men desire to uphold traditional values and are very much concerned that the family does not break down.  Everyone is anxious about the reputation, good name and stability of the family (Khan, 1983). 

The patriarchal domination is the most influential; the women are not allowed to make any important decisions without the husband’s permission.  The women have to gain permission for any social outings with the group or to join any classes held at the centre.

Externally the group is also strongly influenced by the local Bangladeshi community, the community is a close one and has a role on influencing each other.  Due to this, the women are limited in what they do or wear in the community, e.g. they can’t walk streets late at night visiting friends and family, they have to be accompanied by a male member of the family.  Westernised clothes for these women in the group is objected, partly due to their husbands and partly due to the consciousness of the women, they feel ‘embarrassed’ to wear ‘English clothes’ because of what other people might say (Lobo 1978).

The group leader has a more powerful influence on the women internally, his is because the leader works closely with the women, the women see her as an achiever, being a Bangladeshi female in employment, gaining position and power.  She has the power to make the final decisions, she decides on the programme, venues, time and dates for classes and meeting and other decisions that affect the group. 

The women do not get affected by media much, they can’t read English newspapers and they have no time to read the Bengali ones.  They may listen to the Bengali radio station and be informed of events, but apart from that they have little interest in the commercialised media, instead they prefer to hear and know about issues through ‘word or mouth’.

The Medway Community Association is an outside body to the group, and it bears a formal influence to the group.  They meet three times a year and they oversee the running of the group and also see to any formal complaints or issues concerning the group. 

The Centre Manager has little influence over the group, except that she allocates the funding to the group and overseas that the work is being carried out in line with the aims and objectives of the Centre and national policy.  The Centre programme follows national guidelines as an aim to support and encourage the women, and increase social and educational opportunities and then the accountability of the service is met, and funds will be provided.  (Government Response, Nov 1996).  However, the work of the social exclusion unit and women’s unit are centralising and co-ordinating the work of departments and agencies to bring about more effective policy, and more user orientated delivery of service, co-ordination rather than centralisation.

One of the ways that Leicester City Council is hoping to bring about more effective policy is through the new decision making body.  They have adopted a cabinet style approach, hoping to give councillors more time to spend in communities and less in meetings, this should create better opportunities for the Bangladeshi women’s group and other communities to help shape the councils policies in their benefit and also get a good representation through process (Face, July 2000).

They need all the support they can get because of their disadvantages.  One being language, none of the women speak English, some speak very poor English, the women are not lucky enough to have had an education.  The inability to speak English isolates them from outside contact except in their own community.  The inequalities faced, makes them believe that they are a part of a family with very little individuality and identity.  The lack of ability to communicate further increases the tendency to seclusion, isolation, and inability to play a significant role in any decision making process (Lobo, 1978).

To overcome this barrier, language classes have been provided at the Centre. Through working in partnership with Leicester College the Centre has been able to provide ESOL classes.  Through partnership the women are able to benefit from materials, professional tutors and resources provided by the college.  Tony Blair said,

“The days of the all purpose authorities that planned and delivered everything are gone (Haughton (ed), 1999, p177).

The women also use other independent services in the area; this includes the library, which has a collection of Bengali books and sound recordings and also information available in the Indic language for users.  The SHOP project holds sewing courses for women.  The Bangladeshi Cultural Centre, holds short courses on food and hygiene, advise sessions on benefits and welfare, and youth provisions.  Male users predominantly occupy this centre, so the women tend not to use their services, but they send their children to Bengali school, which is run by BCC.  Other agencies such as tenants association, health centres, HASEP, Youth and Community Centre, employment and training centre are not used due to their restriction of movement and the language barrier.

Bangladeshi women can be in better positions by taking greater individual and collective control over their lives.  They need to influence external decision makers, including their husband’s.  This can be met by increased involvement in the centre, it will encourage more formal education and therefore better prospects, this wouldn’t cause an imbalance where the wife would be better educated than the man, this way the woman can still benefit and have her husband’s support as well. 

They need appropriate resources, such as tutors of same language skills, environmental improvements and acquisition grants for building space.  They can improve the provisions by building in health care facilities. 

The women should have increased opportunities for social interaction and collective activity, leading to the development of co-operative and vocal community networks, such as campaigning for funding for better social, health and educational activities, e.g. increased computer classes, English classes and in addition music and arts supporting their cultural identity (Aktar, 1999).

This follows into improved information and educational opportunities that will help build the neighbourhood.  Sharing resources skills and knowledge with other projects will encourage the women to increase participation, e.g. the BCC could send over their advice worker and the women can receive information on benefits, training, law, health etc. These are some of the issues after prioritising also realistic in the given circumstances of funding and resources.

The theory behind working with the Bangladeshi women can be seen through the main principle of the Feminist angle.  There is no agreed single theoretical feminist aim of feminist community work practice, but it aims to improve women’s welfare by collectively challenging the social determinants of women’s inequalities.  However, the feminist theory both radical and socialist has been criticised by Black feminists, who argue that such theories tend to marginalize Black women by failing to account for their oppressions by patriarchy, class, culture and race (Pascall, 1997).  Bangladeshi women have to consider their cultural obligations within the family and not just demand equality or fight against their husbands because they don’t want to look after the children or do the housework as unpaid work.

However the Black and anti-racist community work theory in relation to community work points out that the work carried out must address the needs and concerns of the particular groups.  The Bangladeshi women for example can benefit from this, as the theory will encourage cultural formations in their own right.

“In a highly complex and interwoven system of cultural overlap, Black people have sustained and generated cultures and formations that not only react to discrimination and inequality but also creates processes that have an identity and vitality of their own, independent of hostility from the dominant group” (Popple, 1990, p37).

To avoid domination, the woman can do this by attending literacy group to help their children with their homework.  Through this method the husbands should not have any objections or feel threatened because looking after the children is not a threat but more of a duty.  This way the women empower themselves and still sustain cultural norms.

On the other hand, a pluralist theory can also be applied in some areas of work with the Bangladeshi women.  Pluralists argue that power in society is not located in any single group or type of group, instead within democracy public policies are the outcome of compromises between different competing groups (Popple, 1995).

So by existing as Bangladeshi women they are already creating and influencing policies, e.g. social exclusion unit and women’s unit.  This group is seen as an interest group, it is important to democracy and stability because it helps to divide power and prevent any one group or class having exclusive influence.

The continuous bargaining between this group and other interest groups e.g. Gay and Lesbian Groups, Somali Women’s Groups, Disability Groups etc. means that they all have the same impact on policy.  According to pluralists, the state has a role to balance the different competing interests and ensure that the decision made takes account of the range of views expressed by the electorates. 

Pluralist theories in relation to community work suggests a role that is active in supporting and encouraging participation in the political and administrative processes as a means of increasing the accessibility and accountability of the service.  The Centre will support this as they aim to increase participation, socially, politically and economically amongst the users.  The accountability of the Centre can also be seen through the services provided.

Within pluralist theory it is the role of the worker to help the group overcome the problems they face in their neighbourhoods, often by mutual support, sharing activities and by attempting to secure better services for the members.  One example of this within the work practice can be seen through the sewing classes, women are encouraged to take up an occupational skill that is not completely alien to them.  The Centre funds the course, the money is received every year by Leicester City Council, and as a statutory service it secures the service for the members a lot longer than voluntary organisations.

Pluralist approach is primarily concerned with community work practice as opposed to ‘grand theories of society’, through this angle, the group can benefit from the expertise offered and be recognised for the individual needs as a group, e.g. cultural and religious aspects. 

Advocates for this approach believe that community work is concerned with marginal improvements and social consensus, hence they emphasize the value of its educational and experimental aspect.  In this context the Centre sees education +as a means of enhancing political responsibility, equipping individuals and groups in an effective way to enable participation and not forgetting the promotion and maintenance of communal coherence. 

Pluralist theory stresses upon the importance of skills, good practice is defined in terms of technical competence rather than conformance with any particular set of values.  Henderson and Thomas (1987) argue that skills and knowledge can be used in a multiplicity of situations regardless of value stance of workers or neighbourhood groups.  A way of looking at this is by assessing the parenting classes that the women attend, they take away the informal skills and knowledge they have picked up and can use it at any time, whether it’s at home with their children or with the friend whilst babysitting. 

However, although I have used this theory as an acceptable method of practice, the form of social interventions based on technical skills, can change with time, e.g. the all machinists may be replaced by technology in the future.  Another criticism of this theory is that because it’s involved locally with groups and what affects them, it forgets about the inequalities in the wider society, which then causes problems for localities.  It also believes that policies are made at a higher level, which excludes women’s groups who are engaged in and have developed community work.  The other criticism is that it views community as a professional activity, undertaken by paid workers on behalf of agencies rather than by those living in a particular community.  In view to this the group leader has experience of cultural and religious background, lives in the community and, speaks the same language as the users, and she is unqualified.  But this doesn’t mean she is unable to carry out her work, if anything she is probably better equipped than a middle class white woman who has a degree in youth and community work.

Ending it on a positive note, the pluralist theory has offered community work a range of practice theories and guidelines, which are acceptable to practitioners working in a wide range of statutory and voluntary bodies.

It is evidential that Bangladeshi women today are still being ignored of their cultural differences, it appears that there is a mismatch between service provisions and community identified needs, whether this results from poor information on the part of service providers about the needs of the community is difficult to determine, but work still needs to be developed.

© Student Youth Work Online 1999-2001. Please always reference the author of this page.

References & Recommended Reading

AKTAR, S.  (1999).  ‘Tackling Inequalities - working with Asian Communities’ Sec 5 in  HARRIS, V  (ed).  Community Work Skills Manual.  Newcastle.  Association of Community Work.

Cabinet Structure for City Council’ in Face.  (July 2000).   Leicester. Leicester City Council.

Consensus 1991.  Leicester.  Leicester City Council. 

Ethnic Minorities.  (1991).  London.  HMSO.

FRYER, P.  (1984).  Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain.  London.  Pluto Press Ltd.

Government Responses to the Report of the House of Lords.  (Nov 1996).  Stationery Office.  London.

HENDERSON & THOMAS.  (1987).  Skills in Neighbourhood Work.  London.  Routledge.

HAUGHTON, P & FARNHAM, S. (ed).  (1999).  Public Management in Britain.  London.  McMillans Press. 

HAWTIN, M & others.  (1994).  Community Profiling.  P5.  Buckingham.  Open University Press.

KHAN, L.  (1983).  Bangladeshis in Loughborough.  Leicester.  Leicester County Council.

LOBO, E, De H.  (1978).  ‘Problems of language and Cultural Deprivation in Children of Immigrants to Britain.  London.   Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. 

PASCALL, G.  (1997).  Social Policy: A New Feminist Analysis.  London.  Routledge.

POPPLE, K.  (1990).  ‘ Community Work Theory’ in Analysing Community Work:  It’s Theory and Practice.   Buckingham.  Open University Press.

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