by Wendy Lansdown
I’m passionate about communities and what people can achieve in the place they live and love. I’m lucky to have two part-time roles within Cambridgeshire County Council that are all about this. Different roles, different directorates, different job descriptions. Same organisation, same aims, same values.
In Neighbourhood Cares we work in the fenland market town of Soham to help people live happy and independent lives in their community. Working alongside a team of social workers who see people’s strengths first has been amazing. When working with individuals they start by asking ‘What does a good life mean to you?’ occasionally it ends up with an assessment, often not. Rich conversations lead us down a different path. A few examples…
… Jack describes himself as having ‘mental health issues and whole heap of anxiety stuff going on’, he joined us at our second Soham Friendly Dogs session. These were inspired by a lady – who unable to care for her own – desperately missed having a dog. A group of volunteers responded by bring their dogs to the library once a month. Jack finds this a comfortable place to be, so much so that he became a volunteer and has now extended that role outside the group, walking dogs for people who can no longer do this themselves. He hopes to turn this new hobby into a microenterprise.
… We teamed up with Mike from Royal British Legion when we realised our organisations share some aims. We now co-host our Big Wednesday Pop In where 40+ people come together to hear about things of local interest (exercise classes, local history, social activities), and importantly to chat and connect with neighbours. When the Neighbourhood Cares pilot comes to an end this autumn, the Pop In continues under Mike’s leadership.
…We supported Bob and Andrew through the death of Bob’s wife, Andrew’s mum. Using their gifts as skilled gardeners we helped them find their way in the world again, by simply connecting them with people who need and value their support, we tell their story in an earlier blog.
… Last week a Repair café hosted at Soham Library appeared on Shop Well for Less – it was lovely to see some of our community friends on the TV, and people commented on how pleased they are that Soham library welcomes community projects. But all we really did was say yes when Umesh approached us and asked if we could push back the shelves and make space for some volunteer repairers. And in many ways that’s been what our pilot’s been all about – working out how we can say yes more often. In a time when the public sector is stretched close to breaking point, we often feel apologetic for what we as public servants are no longer able to do. It’s important to remember that we do still have a lot to offer, and whilst we may not have the workforce we once had we do have some great spaces and skills and we’re lucky to work alongside creative, inspiring communities who sprinkle fairy-dust in our buildings, if only we open our doors and our minds and work alongside them.
My second job is in the Strengthening Communities team where one of my roles is to lead the Time Credit Programme working with Tempo social enterprise. Time Credits are a community currency which people earn for volunteering with participating organisations. For an hour of time given they receive a credit which can be spent on a huge range of social, leisure and learning activities from after school clubs, to swimming, to entry to the Tower of London. In Cambridgeshire we work with 90 organisations – community groups, schools, churches, Child and Family Centres who offer credits for everything from reading with children to offering companionship, to IT support. Over 70,000 hours of time have been given.
Time Credits are about thanking people for their time and encouraging more people to contribute to their community, in the process helping older people, strengthening families and tackling poverty. Neighbourhood Cares is about Jack, Mike, Bob, Andrew and Umesh. Overseeing a programme is about focusing on strategic priorities to help our organisation cope with austerity– Supporting Independence, Strengthening Families, and Increasing Social Mobility.
But in the end it’s all about the same thing… people. Their strengths, their quirks, and their individual (often hidden) talents, which once connected with others can create community magic. It’s all about building on what’s strong, not what’s wrong, and in Cormac Russell’s words it’s about ‘getting a life not a service’ – except, on rare occasions when that’s what someone needs.
It feels to me like those two lenses – strategy and grassroots – need to meet more often. Each speak to the same truth – by valuing and connecting people we enable them to help themselves and others. I was late to the party today when I realised how these two overlapping worlds say the same thing in a different language. In the Strengthening Communities team we’re helping the public sector develop the Think Communities approach. It’s all about:
- People – resilient communities where people feel connected and able to help themselves and each other
- Places – that are integrated, possess a sense of place and support resilience
- Systems – in which partners listen, engage and align and support community-led activity
And in Neighbourhood Cares we talk about:
- Relationships – being human and connecting people to share their passions
- The power of the library – a place where people feel comfortable to come and connect
- Collaboration – working with our community partners to support and enable people to discover what a good life means to them
The penny dropped…
- People = Relationships
- Place = Library (or café, church, park bench)
- Systems = Collaboration
And one world supports the other. In recent months we’ve introduced Time Credits to Soham. We are learning that by putting time credits in the hands of local organisations and inviting them to use them as a community tool breathes life into this town in ways we couldn’t predict.
Volunteers earn when they support our events, fix stuff at a Repair Café or help someone apply for a blue badge. We’re having conversations about taking this to a deeper level, inviting Soham partners to help us think creatively about how Time Credits – a community tool to fuel local connections – can help develop our sense of place, we haven’t been disappointed…
….Viva have stepped forward to offer seats at their brilliant local performances in exchange for time credits – most recently with Sister Act, which went on to sell out at the Edinburgh Fringe.
… Soham Lodge, a local nursing home have asked if they can join. This nursing home doesn’t fit the stereotypical picture, they’ve just held their own Pride Festival and are up for thinking differently about their community role. Their first idea was to offer their accessible bathing facilities in exchange for Time Credits…our team have started a mental list of people who dream of having a bath again.
…Next month we’re bringing together local partners who want to become part of the local Time Credits story to work out how this might all translate in our community… I can’t wait to see what we come up with.
And perhaps there is something amongst this tumble of ideas that can help us as an organisation grapple with how we make the Think Communities approach into a living and breathing thing. Colleagues have started to capture it with this film. Perhaps by placing Neighbourhood Cares firmly in the Think Communities space we can break new ground and create our path together by…
- Continuing this blog….’Neighbourhood Cares…the Diaspora’ to chart how each of our team members takes our learning into new roles and use it as a compass.
- Holding a Soham focus. My colleague Charlotte and I both have roles which could enable us to continue to explore the potential in Soham, for me within my Strengthening Communities role, for Charlotte in a new, progressive ‘Changing the Conversation’ role in Adult Social Care. We’d cherish the opportunity to see whether, by investing a small amount of time, we can keep helping to connect, cheerlead and collaborate with this community as it continues to flourish.
- Developing a Learning Site. We’ve met amazing partners through our work in Soham. With Viva Arts and Community Group – we’ve bought a tuk tuk. Community owned, volunteer-fuelled local transport for the town. Together, we’re hatching a plan to grow our partnership, deepen our connections, build relationships, and tap into local talent, in order to – in the words of one of our volunteers – ‘Make Soham Shine’
And, whilst making Soham shine, can we help bring the two worlds together. This market town can offer a place where we can learn together…
- A place to explore…
a) How can we use the library to enable even more community action? By offering it as a place where people can bring ideas to life without cost, we can enable brilliant stuff to happen easily. Unpretentious and meaningful stuff that simply brings people together – Anwar had the idea for a Diabetes Peer Support group one month, he started it the next. Because there’s no cost he didn’t need a bank account. He also didn’t need a constitution, policies, insurance or the plethora of other stuff that stops so many brilliant ideas before they start. He simply brings people together in a space and provides the chance to chat and share.
b) Free use of the library is a generous offer and we need to acknowledge that the library has to bring in income. We’ve started discussing this with people who use it and they are telling us they want there to be reciprocal arrangement. In return for some free use of space they’d willingly give their time. One idea is for them to become part of the wider library team, Debbie, our Area Library Manager described a ‘custodians’ role. Soham has never quite established a Library Friends Group, something that thrives in other communities. And yet this library has friends, some of whom love it for its books, and some for so much more….it’s space, its welcoming atmosphere, the fact that there’s no label above the door identifying those who enter as having a problem. In a practical way, our custodians can help us bring in cash – opening up in the evening for new room bookings and promoting the space so that more people discover and use this community gem… By teaming up with Viva, and the recently formed Soham Community Association we also want to say yes to more new ideas and help bring them to life.
c) It’s wonderful that the pilot has not only generated learning which will be embedded across the council, it has also created a legacy for Soham itself. Our Locality teams will be using Soham Library as a base, and in so doing strengthen their links with this community. There is also ‘Enhancing the Conversation’ training being planned with library volunteers and staff to equip them with the skills to strengthen and deepen the precious conversations they have with residents as part of their roles.
2. Nurturing tender shoots of community activity and provide fertile ground for the new…
Helping to build strong foundations – just this year a host of new initiatives have taken their fledgling steps in the town; Soham Men’s Shed, the Monday Club (way too cool to be called a volunteer run Day Centre), Soham Community Association and, of course Nellie the tuk tuk. All spearheaded by strong competent community leaders. The council’s role isn’t to lead, we don’t need to, but can we connect, support and facilitate as they learn to fly?
There is an appetite from our growing volunteer team to test the boundaries, to think creatively about how much can local people support others to ‘have a life’ and therefore not ‘need a service’.
One way the team are considering doing that is through supporting people to build Community Circles
3. Sharing and Collaborating…one of our directors talks of ‘sheep dipping’ a positive contagion of ideas through experience. We want this to become relentlessly infectious – across the county, across sectors, regardless of hierarchy. We’re taking inspiration from Barnwood Trust’s Stewardship Circles. More about this idea in a future blog…We’ve learnt that it’s important to acknowledge our home grown talent, and that this can be really useful when it’s connected with external expertise. Through the Adult Positive Challenge programme we’ve started to work with experts such as Impower who have a deep knowledge of Behavioural Insights, and through Think Communities we’ve met Dawn Plimmer from Collaborate CIC and found out about her work with Northumbria University’s Toby Lowe, exploring the new and wonderful world of Human Learning Systems a world which resonates with our own.
There’s been so much learning, I could continue, but this blog is already way too long. Just a few of the things I’ve learnt which mean a lot to me, and I haven’t found space for…
- Life isn’t linear. People’s lives are complex and it’s rare that one intervention is the elixir, only by collaborating and sharing the responsibility (and then often the joy) with neighbours friends, community partners and colleagues, can we have real impact
- Working in a place – like Soham – that sees itself as a community is just brilliant, and having the library as the community space we work from has made so much sense.
- Relationships are at the heart of all we do. It’s ok to be friendly… Informal doesn’t mean unprofessional. Not everything needs a form, a conversation is a much better way to start. We’ve found that by having a human response you often come up with responses that are tailored to and with the person. Sticking within the law and our budget there is a lot of space for creativity.
- I feel very lucky to be in roles which give me a rare mix of perspectives within the organisation i.e. on the ground working with people and communities, and also a glimpse into the strategic world. I find this crossover offers valuable insights and whilst my roles have happened by happy accident, perhaps it is something the organisation could consider creating more deliberately?
- The Buurtzorg way has so much to offer; its simplicity, really devolving power – ensuring decisions are made as close to the person as possible, its values, its dynamics, and importantly, the focus on equal voice within the team. I’ve loved working in this team with amazing colleagues, together we tried to bottle the essence of our learning in our First Anniversary Sway. Whilst a year old, all this learning still holds true, though we should probably re-visit and add more recent reflections.
This is the toughest and the best job I’ve ever had, and we’re ready to share our learning, but I for one don’t feel quite ready to leave….we’re not done learning just yet.