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Sam Lipski on the importance of Communities in Control

Summary of presentation by Mr Sam Lipski
Chief Executive Officer, The Pratt Foundation

The Communities in Control Conference, convened by Our Community and Catholic Social Services

Moonee Valley Racecourse

April 7-8, 2003.

"An opening welcome to community groups"

Pratt Foundation CEO Sam Lipski opened by declaring the era of community officially open. "There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come," he stated. "Obviously the time for communities has come in Victoria." As proof of this Lipski pointed to the overwhelming number of delegates to the conference (about 1000 more than expected).

Lipski explained that the aims of the conference were in line with the mission statement of the Pratt Foundation: "To enrich the lives of the community." The Foundation, he said, was a strong believer in community: "As far as we're concerned: community rules, community works." He then explained his theory of conferences:

"In my experience, conferences can be divided into warm baths and cold showers. The warm baths certainly make you feel good. They confirm your prejudices and mindsets, your fellow delegates agree with you, speakers are benign and reassuring. We all go home with that warm inner glow."

"Cold shower conferences upset our conventional wisdom, challenge our most cherished beliefs and make us want to strangle a speaker or two. I hope that the cold showers [at this conference] outnumber the warm baths. We hope this conference is not too comfortable.

Asking permission to let the cold water flow, Lipski quoted from a column some three years old that appeared in The Age wcich challenged the "inaccurate, idealised and self serving" use of the word 'community'. It began:

"In newspapers and on talkback radio every politician, campaigner and disgruntled member of the public is lamenting on behalf of the "community". Goodies (that's the people) and baddies (those who control them) both use the word. The "community" is nearly always the victim of heartless government and bureaucrats, big business, economic rationalism and associated greed - as if the community existed independently of business people, politicians, bureaucrats, bank staff, property developers and greedy people driving Saab convertibles."

The columnist argued that anything seen as anti-community was declared "reprehensible". Yet the term "community" is often used by the "baddies" to suit their purposes. Thus phrases such as "community consultation".

The column continued:

"Community is now applied willy-nilly by people with suburban, citywide, regional, state and national grievances as if Australians share common values, aspiration and grievances - but we don't."

This raised an important point for Lipski who implored the Conference to address the idea that - like the ideas of democracy and multiculturalism - the idea of community is not a given, agreed, fixed principal. Instead he described it as a "dynamic evolving notion".

"The idea of community, like the idea of beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder," said Lipski.  "The idea of community is sometimes in outright conflict with the idea of pluralism. Finding a balance between them is an ongoing requirement of a free and just society."

Another difficulty Lipski pointed to when attempting to pin down a broad understanding of what we mean when we say "community" is that those claiming to speak on behalf of the community regularly contradict each other. There is potential conflict between different  notions of community.

Lipski recommended the 1953 work, The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet, describing it as "full of cold showers". Quoting in part from the work: "The quest for community will not be denied for it springs from some powerful needs: cultural purpose, membership, status and continuity."

He also quoted from Professor Christopher Campbell from the University of Washington, Seattle:

"There is perhaps no concept more central to social life and at the same time more muddled and misunderstood than the idea of community. We live within it, define ourselves by it, seek it out, rebel against it, and crave it when it cannot be found. And yet, do we really understand it?"

Returning to his opening remarks, Lipski said he senses a revival in the notion of community. "Post cold war, in midst of ongoing globalisation, post-September 11, post-Bali, the yearning for connection, for being in control has reasserted itself. An audience of 1200 is not pure coincidence. It's a reflection of the times. We all feel that even being together gives a meaning of purpose that otherwise eludes us."

He concluded by warmly wishing the audience the coldest of showers.

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