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BOOK REVIEW: Reconnected — A community builder's handbook

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Eric March reviews a book that explores ideas on how to create a reconnected Australia.

RECONNECTED: A community builder's handbook (Reconnected) by Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell exposes Australia's current community culture and explains what a reconnected community would look like. It provides a plethora of ideas on how any person can contribute to creating such a society.

This is not a large book – 242 pages – and it's extremely well indexed and referenced.

Some books of the "self-improvement" genre are dense, hard to comprehend and repeat a simple theme ad nauseam. Leigh and Terrell on the other hand, start with the big picture issue of Australia today, using examples of volunteers in action. Their book ends with a call to action which challenges the reader to contribute to the future creation of a community of connected people. 

Reconnected is logically laid out in chapters by topic, with a summary at the end of each chapter. I found this format easy to read with clear (non-jargon) language — a refreshing approach. The extensive index and references make it easy to look up the details of an idea or example put forward by the authors.

This book introduces helpful concepts like 'double-plus-good– a win-win result – where both the giver and receiver are benefitted, or there is an unintended benefit. 

For example, Orange Sky provides free laundry service from mobile vans. The genius of "six orange chairs" (p.156) involved providing plastic fold-up chairs for people to wait for their laundry. The ensuing social interaction was a blazing success for some 100,000 homeless people and lifted the morale of the service's volunteers — a double-plus-good result on a number of levels.

'Leadership Lessons' is devoted to examples of champion leadership and why it is critical (by definition, building a community cannot be a solo pursuit). We all know of people that are so passionate about their interests that they cannot talk about anything else. A leader is such a person but also one who possesses the rhetoric, empathy, ethics and organisational skills needed to create a tribe mentality in a group. 

'Purpose' (p.216) suggests success is improved if you focus on the things you are good at and leave the rest to others. Take the case of Juliette Wright and her GIVIT organisation. GIVIT is a kind of Tinder for donations, matching people who can donate household objects with people who need them. Wright notes‘I am best inspiring people to give to the homeless person, not counselling them.’  

In 'Partnerships'  (p. 222) we learn about the work of Bec Scott, a scientist turned social entrepreneur. In the mid-2000s, while on annual leave, Scott discovered Hanoi's KOTO — which stands for Know One Teach One. KOTO is a café founded by  Vietnamese Australian Jimmy Pham that provides street kids with skills and a stable job. Later, Scott quit her job at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and volunteered for two years in Hanoi. 

In 2010, Bec Scott and her partner Dr Kate Barelle brought the KOTO model to Melbourne. They founded STREAT, a social enterprise that trains young people in hospitality. STREAT aims to recruit young people in crisis and provide them with six months’ employment. Scott believes that period is critical because with stability – time spent in the workforce – everything can change. She found that feeling welcome was the most important thing for graduates.

When the coronavirus lockdown began in Australia, Leigh and Terrell describe community activity as being mostly spontaneous. They cite a survey in April 2020 which found that while Australians felt more confused, bored, angry, lonely, anxious and fearful during the lockdown, they also felt a sense of solidarity. 

Extracts from Reconnected note:

'The first half of 2020 was a time of uncertainty and disruption... At the same time, spontaneous surges of care and support spread out across our networks of weak ties... no one wants to rely on a deadly virus as a way of building community... a reconnected Australia requires blending enthusiasm and innovation to create institutions and cultures that foster community connections.'

In pages 236 to 242, Leigh and Terrell describe a "reconnected Australia" as looking a whole lot different to a "disconnected Australia" — less political polarisation, improved mental wellbeing, with people discovering many other fascinating people. 

 Say the authors:

'In a disconnected Australia, at-risk youngsters once turned to street gangs for a sense of identity. Now there are much more exciting options…'

 On p. 240, the authors describe their vision for community connection:

'Finally, a reconnected Australia turns out to be more egalitarian. People no longer see bludgers or talk of "lifters and leaners". Because we are all in this together — it is a "we" society, not a self-centred "me" society.'

Eric March is a community volunteer and retired council CEO who is passionate about communities.

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BOOK REVIEW: Reconnected — A community builder's handbook

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