Michael White influenced our lives in more ways than we could ever describe. For us, and for many other family therapists of our generation, he showed the way into a conceptual universe where we could extend our hard-won skills and knowledge of how to work with couples and families into the realm of culture and politics. He worked tirelessly to take ideas from other social sciences, philosophy, ethnology, and sociology and use them to develop practices for therapy. He is probably best known for his writing and teaching about externalization and using the narrative metaphor in therapy, but these influential notions are only a small part of his broad and complex body of work.
A vibrant strand of Michael’s work, one that was extremely important to him, is less well documented and disseminated in the United States than his work with individuals and families. This is his work with communities. We continue to be inspired by this work, and we do not think it is as widely known as it should be… .
Beginning in the 1990s, Michael’s therapy workshops were sprinkled with references to his work with communities. When he brought up these groups and communities, it was to speak the words and share the knowledge of community members, not to highlight his role. The ideas and practices that constitute narrative community work arose in collaboration and consultation with many people in many communities.
Michael brought the skills and practices of narrative therapy, a commitment to collaboration, and a conviction that each community had its own particular knowledge and skills. But even more than in other areas of his work, the impetus and the structure for community work were developed in partnership with colleagues and with community members. It is difficult to attribute any single idea or practice solely to any one participant.
Michael’s strong, careful emphasis on collaboration in narrative work presents us with a conundrum when we try to properly, academically, cite two of the publications we are drawing on most heavily for the first half of this paper. Neither publication is conventionally attributed to an author or even to a group of authors. ‘‘Companions on a journey: An exploration of an alternative community mental health project’’ (Dulwich Centre, 1997) lists no author. It does have this note on the inside front cover:
This newsletter has been created through a collaborative process involving many different people, including: Sue, Brigitte, Veronika, Mem, Janne Barton, Leanne Black, Laurie Lever, Ralf Matters, Michael White, Jussey Harbord, Shona Russell, Cheryl White, Jenny, Claire Ralfs, Chris McLean, Carol Molenaar, Linda Higgins, Helen O’Grady (copy editing), Jane Hales (layout), Barbara Stott (cover design), and David Denborough (co-ordination and writing).
‘‘Reclaiming our stories, reclaiming our lives’’ (Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia, 1995) states on its front cover that it is ‘‘an initiative of the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia.’’ Each of its two parts ends with a long, long list of acknowledgements divided into ‘‘Aboriginal people’’ and ‘‘Non-Aboriginal people’’ who contributed to the project, but no authors are conventionally listed. This very inclusive and bothersome-to-editors-of-academic-journals style of attribution comes from a strong ethical commitment to collaboration. Narrative community workers and consultants do not see themselves as in possession of pre-existing solutions or expert schemata for communities or organizations. We do believe that narrative therapy offers skills and experience in how to cooperate and collaborate with the members of communities and organizations in useful ways, but we believe that we are most useful when we are ‘‘de-centered but influential’’ in our approach.
The narrative community work projects with which we are familiar have all arisen in response to requests from individuals or groups within given communities. They have come about through already-established relationships of care and respect among people in the community and people in the consulting group. This makes for a different set of starting relationships than those that arise when a consultant or group of professionals proposes a project without an invitation. Michael (White, 2003) called work with communities ‘‘community assignments’’ because he believed that it was vital to understand that narrative consultants were ‘‘being assigned a task by these communities, one with clear terms of reference, and one with clear limits in regard to what it is appropriate for us to be undertaking’’