The Community Development Potential: Connecting Ourselves with Wider Change
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The Community Development Potential: Connecting Ourselves with Wider Change

Jim Cowan writes for the CDJ Blog on his latest book, The Britain Potential, and how community development thinking can adapt to incorporate wider concepts from social and political thinking.

In my book The Britain Potential, I draw on a number of analytical and practice frameworks from writers outside community development whose ideas are drawn from social psychology, political philosophy, and social constructionism. I have found such ideas can also help bring out, what I have called `the community development potential`. Community development, with its decades long track record of integrity, is all the stronger, in my opinion, for critically embodying frameworks that can connect it with much wider change. Let me explain.

For over 40 years I have worked with people living on housing estates, families seeking support, black and white people working together with shared anti-racist aims, and people with disabilities.

Doing community development every day, decade after decade, in these communities, I saw how the country works from the ground up, through the eyes of all the people I was working with. I knew the work I was doing with communities was always saying something much bigger. But how to find that bigger story? And if you find it, does it then shed any new light on community development? Does it help bring out `the community development potential`?

When I retired in 2012 I finally had the time to write the book that had been sitting inside me for years. People kept asking me what I was writing. I found myself replying, “Britain is a country with huge potential, but it is not realising that potential by a long way.” Not one person disagreed! Now that the book has been published, still no one has disagreed. Britain`s potential has definitely been held back. Community development is very much part of the process ofrealising this potential (along with many other interventions, initiatives and developments).

By exploring the idea of `potential`, I found a framework that does, I think, shed new light on community development. It comes from the work of Ken Wilber, a writer who has drawn from psychology, other academic disciples, as well as many strands of spiritual practice and writing outside academia. He has colour coded the stages of consciousness that he regards humanity as having been through and is moving into.  He is not talking about the actual mechanics whereby brain matter generates consciousness (the stuff of cognitive and neuro science). Rather he is talking about what colours and creates very specific states of awareness of oneself in relation to the world. In his words:

…there are indeed higher and lower (or more or less evolved and aware) structures of consciousness, and we, as individuals and societies, can grow to higher levels in progressive stages or waves of development.”

In my opinion, these colour coded form of consciousness offer those training community workers, as well as workers in the field, a valuable tool. They can become part of the deeply reflexive, ongoing, continual effort at the 360 degree personal development and autonomy necessary to do the work professionally.

Here is a diagram of Wilber`s colour coded consciousnesses

Wilber`s amber consciousness is about ethnocentric and controlling rules, norms, and forms of leadership like organised religion or institutions. But historically these kinds of structures enabled effort on a large scale, often stable and enduring. From its initial concept there was something of the amber about the welfare state.

Orange defines the shift from medieval to enlightenment thinking. This is leadership based on reason aiming for universals. It is critical of dogma and is responsive to change. But it is a materialistic kind of rationality. Inner life is disconnected. Today this is very much the world of science, technology, business and the market thinking of government.

What Wilber calls green consciousness is a pluralistic, non-directive leadership very able to spot problems but not at all good at coming up with solutions. The search for consensus can be endless! Green has powered civil rights, environmental movements and feminism.

Wilber characterises this heady mix of amber, orange and green as very much powering an increasingly polarised public culture. What amber, orange and green have in common is that they think they are the right way to view the world.  He rates amber and orange as being in the majority in the population (maybe 65%) and green as `the leading edge` at around 25%.

A quantum leap on from these forms of consciousnesses is teal which is present in between 5-10% of the population and destined, he believes, (because of the limitations of the other consciousnesses), to be a future leading edge. Teal is ultra-humanistic leadership with strong holistic problem-solving capabilities. It takes deliberate ongoing personal effort to develop and sustain teal. That teal is real and operating in the world is evidenced in, for example the ground breaking research on organisations by Frederic Laloux, as well as my book (Cowan 2019).

To flesh this out in ways that start to shed new light on community development, I say this about teal coloured consciousness in my book:

“The ego is not in the driving seat. There is a quest for wholeness, bringing together the ego and deeper parts of the self. A more expansive, embracing self is there. Teal is not fearful and needing to control. Problems become challenges. How can we grow from engaging with this problem? There is a healthy development of self and concern and interest in others. Teals develop themselves inwardly, spiritually. But they are able to connect this with complex realities. Life is always teaching us about ourselves and the world.  Teal has thinking and rationality, teal has doing, and it also has being the person I can be. Teal will tap into all kinds of knowing from analytics to the wisdom to be found through emotion and intuition”.

This gives us another take on community development`s objective of empowering others to be in control. Unlike the other forms of consciousness, which think they are right, teal understands these other forms of consciousness and can work with them. It is a particularly subtle form of leadership which holds the space, for example, for community activists to take those early steps, and then more steps with more people and so on.

Jim Cowan`s book The Britain Potential is available via Via the website, subscribers can get the first chapter as a taster, which some university lecturers are beginning to use to run a project with students.


Wilber, K and others. (2008). Integral Life Practice. Integral Books. Pg 74

Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing Organizations. Nelson Parker.

Cowan, J. (2019). The Britain Potential. Arena Books. 2019. Pg 27