"For a long time in the UK we have spent a lot of money trying to locate better ambulances at the bottom of the cliff," he explains.
"Then we moved to prevention and it was about getting in earlier – so now there are fences at the edge of the cliff. But we need to be building better communities, well before people get to the edge."
Mr Russell is the managing director of Nurture Development in Ireland and director of Asset Based Community Development in Europe (ABCD). He will be the key speaker at the Herald Society Ideas Exchange in Glasgow next month.
The event, which includes the Herald Society Awards 2012 and is presented in partnership with the Big Lottery Fund in Scotland, will offer delegates a chance to hear ground-breaking ideas for challenges facing the public and voluntary sector.
Approaches don't come much more ground-breaking than those promoted by the Chicago based ABCD Institute, of which Mr Russell is a faculty member. They mean, for example, that a public health nurse's job shouldn't just be about going in to see the new mum at number 57 and weighing her baby, then going down the road to 53 and dressing the older people living there. "They should be asking: how can I make the connection between the older person and the young mum," he explains.
Linking communities is the priority for the ABCD strategy. Thus the methods Mr Russell preaches for re-engaging and strengthening communities depend on finding not leaders, but natural "connectors".
That doesn't mean ignoring the services people need, like the weighing and the dressing, he adds. "It isn't a get out of jail card for government". But what it does mean, he says, is that talk of the Big Society and top-down theories of mobilising grassroots action are wrong-headed.
He describes the debate about austerity and cuts as one-dimensional. "We have two tiers, the professional class, who manage the assets and resources and are seen as 'experts', and a tier of citizens or clients, characterised by their needs, dysfunctions and pathology.
"A critical piece of my message is that that is not how people live their lives. They have resources and those resources are neglected."
It isn't just people who can be assets, Mr Russell says. He cites "below the radar" associations in communities such as photography clubs, or book groups as hugely important.
He gives the example of a Cumbrian project which began as the Fat Man's Pie Walk – a group of retired and obese men who worked exercise into their lives through a regular Saturday morning five-mile walk, beginning and ending at the pub.
But this slightly unpromising public health initiative led to discussions about the skills at repairing and fixing things which they shared, he says. One of the men, inspired by an Australian movement, decided they should set up a second-hand bike repair project, which has had impressive results.
"They have done more to engage vulnerable young people than anything else in the area. Young people come along and get a bit of mentoring and they are doing something practical. These guys who could have been treated as obesity statistics were then seen instead for their skills."
What if all the money people of retirement age spend on redeveloping property in Spain, and the energy invested, could be retained in these islands, he asks, rhetorically. "Older people have huge combined assets," he claims "But many older people see their neighbourhoods as hostile places."
His prescription is a staged process of organising neighbourhoods. It involves finding "connectors": "People who are passionate about getting others into relationships rather than getting people to follow an agenda," he says. "I know ways of finding them and teaching others to find them."
The next step is a conversation about what people care about enough to get involved and with members of the community to clarify what local priorities are, he adds. "They are almost never the same priorities professionals highlight. It is not what people are angry about, it is what they care about." By knocking on local doors, experience shows that almost everyone has something they care about enough to get involved, he says.
"My job as a community builder is to connect them with like-minded people."
The next stage is a conversation within the community about what needs to happen. For example, it is a good place in which to be old, yet includes young people? Are there places for people to stay, and jobs for them?
"We ask: what are the 100 things that must happen for that to be the case? Which ones can you do yourself, what help do you need, and what do you expect the state to do?"
Here, experience shows the largest part of that list is within people's power, he says. "We generally find people can do 67% of what is needed through collective action."
The Big Society as a concept has not had a huge impact on his work, he adds, although Mr Russell did sit on a Government reference group on community organising. It is just that the ambitions of Big Society will be realised by citizen action, not government direction, he says.
"We've been disabling communities for years," he adds, "and that needs to be fixed first. Otherwise the danger is that Big Society volunteers end up pushing the ambulance to the bottom of the cliff."
The Herald Society Awards and Ideas Exchange is on November 2 in Glasgow. Visit www. herald-events.com/ societyawards/ideas-exchange/
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