Reviving the heart of communities with START

What is clear from 2020 is that we need a change. How we materialise that change, engaging people as citizens, will be a key foundation onto which we build our future. One approach is starting with the skills, resources and ideas already present in the community, generally referred to as an asset-based approach. Not only does this allow us to reframe the identity of our communities and citizens, but it can also generate positive conversations and ideas on how to move forward. There are a few models out there, and today we get the chance to hear from Alister Shaw, regeneration practitioner with CPR UK, and ‘START – The Heart of Your Community’.

Thank you so much for joining us today! Can you tell us a bit about your background and how that led you to working in community development?

I was raised in Dublin and my family were heavily engaged in the voluntary sector, working with families and social issues in what were believed to be some of the most deprived communities in the city. From an early age, I was exposed to some of the challenges life can throw at people, but I was always raised to treat people with value and dignity irrespective of the circumstances in which they found themselves. Following my studies, I spend a number of years working in the private sector, but I returned to my roots working with communities in 2003, shortly after my wife and I had moved to North Nottinghamshire.

I cut my teeth in asset-based community development while co-leading a national neighbourhood management pathfinder in Manton, North Nottinghamshire, beginning in 2003. We focused heavily on meaningful community engagement, implementing a social capital and participatory/resident led co-production approach, long before those terms were common language and even less commonly practiced. 

Since then, I have been developing START organically, seeking to introduce it into communities of practice, where there has been appetite and a desire to approach community development in a more positive and rewarding way. One of them is Westfield Estate in Sheffield, together with the Westfield Big Local resident-led partnership. 


What is START?

‘START – The Heart of Westfield’ is a way of discovering the Skills, Talents, Abilities, Resources and Time that we already have as a community, and then connecting people so we can use what we’ve got to make our community the very best it can be for everyone who lives and works here.

Our core principles are:

  • People are the most important part of any community
  • The best communities are created when people connect and work together, using what they have to support each other
  • The best communities are ones where everyone is valued and knows they are valuable for who they are and how they can take part
  • The best communities are where people know they belong, and there is a real sense of belonging
  • The best communities welcome new people to make their community even stronger
  • The best communities have a strong heart that keeps the community ALIVE!

I’m passionate about exploring and developing the START model because I believe it to be the answer to so many failed attempts to engage communities in a meaningful and sustainable way.

This is all about changing the narrative from a deficit approach, traditionally focusing on what’s wrong with a community, to a much healthier focus on what is strong in a community.


How does START work?

Through an intentionally relational one-to-one conversation, START reveals, captures and applies the Skills, Talents, Abilities, Resources, and Time that exist at an individual and collective level in a given community. Once this locally enhanced intelligence is uncovered, it becomes possible to make connections between people with similar interests, or to join the dots between what one person has with what another requires.

As the number of conversations increases and more people begin to take part in START, we begin to see a whole range of practical out workings.


How do we begin applying START in our local communities?

Over time I have moved away from asking people what is wrong with where they live as I discovered we can change the narrative and perception of an area by asking the question of those around us (residents, colleagues, service providers, children, everyone!): What are three good things in our community, and one thing we would like to change?  This paints a vastly different and more positive picture at the same time as challenging some of the stereotypes and stigmas that communities often wear.

The START process involves a series of steps that allow trust and relationship to be established using a conversation that focusses on the individual rather than the wider community.  The key is to develop a context in which these relationships can be built and nurtured, and where these conversations can happen.  It is also important to understand that how people engage with and participate in START can come in many different ways, and that the process takes time. But this is not about doing ‘fast’, rather to do ‘right’!

I’m keen that the approach benefits many, but also aware that unless properly introduced at the right time and with the right approach, it may become another ticking box exercise. If readers want to find out more or are interested in getting START off the ground in their local communities, they can reach out to me for support (


How are communities responding to START?

The START conversation typically leaves participants on a high, with a realisation that they are both valued and valuable members of the community. It shows them that they are somebody and they have something unique to contribute. It doesn’t seek to identify their needs or problems. It doesn’t even promise or attempt to fix or make life better. Rather, it focuses on and values them as an individual, drawing out who they are and what they have in and of themselves, as well as exploring their aspirations, hopes and dreams.


Collectively, this builds a picture of the richness of human assets that exist within a community. In turn, it allows people to be who they are in practical ways, as part of their community.

It is still relatively early days for START Westfield, with the pandemic both delaying, but in other ways acting as a catalyst for the process. The redeployment of the START Westfield Coordinator to the foodbank, from ½ a day each week to 9am-4pm 5 days a week during the first lockdown, resulted in a huge number of new relationships being made. This led to many START conversations, as a result of the trust established during this time. These conversations simply began with a genuine “how are you?”.

I believe START has the potential to make a timely and lasting impact in this community as people ask the question, ‘what next?’.


What do you hope going forward?

START is an approach that is both transferable and scalable. That being said, it remains unique to each community where it is introduced. This is because it allows the unique riches that lie beneath the surface in every community to be uncovered. It is used to revive both the heartbeat and the blood flow that keeps a community alive.

My desire is to see START benefit communities across the UK and beyond. It is particularly relevant at this time, when people are looking for ways to make the most of what we have and appreciate what is actually of value in the aftermath of the pandemic. This is exactly what the focus of an asset-based approach should be.

Thank you Alister!

Alister Shaw is an independent consultant and regeneration practitioner who has a wealth of experience relevant to resident-led and place-based social action from his work in the Faith, Voluntary, Public and Private Sectors over the past 25 years.

Currently trading as CPRUK, Alister’s core activity is supporting resident led regeneration programmes and mobilising social action at a neighbourhood level.  In providing facilitation and delivery of Asset Based Community Development and Co-Production approaches, Alister supports resident led partnerships to design and deliver collaborative lasting solutions to locally identified priorities.