Monday, 14 February 2011

Keeping Empowerment Working - learning from the South West

Last week I was really pleased be part of a gathering of 80 delegates from the South West for Keeping Empowerment Working. I was invited to the event in Bristol by Isabel Livingstone, Voice and Influence Co-ordinator at the South West Forum. The South West Forum supports voluntary and community sector networks, groups and associates in the South West region. Isabel was keen for me to share the empowering approaches to engaging communities which we have developed in Dudley, and are involved in more widely across the West Midlands Region through the Take Part Pathfinder.

The day began with a warm welcome to the Southville Centre, the fantastic venue which we spent the day in. The Southville Centre is very successfully run as a social enterprise and has an array of community activities on offer behind its welcoming doors.

Making the case for empowerment

We then heard from 3 speakers, each providing a very different perspective on empowerment. Simon Burall from Involve had been asked to make the economic case for empowerment, and shared with us details of a tool which Involve were funded by the government to develop, but which is no not being published by the government. The tool is for non-economists to make the case for effective engagement. The tool encourages you to put financial value on the benefits of engaging which can be valued this way, such as health improvements, crime reduction and reduced duplication. The tool also asks you to think about the costs of what you would do if you didn’t engage, and if you do engage to consider what is going on in the wider context which your focus on your engagement activity draws your attention away from. If you’d like to see the tool, do contact Simon Burall, Director of Involve.

Sue Warr from Dorset Partnership for Older People Programme then made the social case for empowerment, with an inspiring description of their approach, services and activities, involvement of older people and outcomes. Amongst other fantastic things, the programme has made over 250 small grants to groups in Dorset. 14 of these projects run by local people are estimated to have saved the taxpayer £600,000. A £370 investment in a table tennis table has led to a social network which supported a man to leave hospital days earlier than expected after an operation.

Peter Lipman from Transition Towns Network was asked to speak on the environmental case for empowerment, though like the other speakers he felt that the economic, social and environmental case are fundamentally inter-related. Peter shared some local initiatives underway and in development, including the Bristol pound, a new local currency to be launched later this year. Those behind the initiative believe it’s better to run a money system that shares out all the benefits and profits that a money system can make and not just benefit a small number of people controlling private banks.

There were then opportunities to reflect on and discuss what we’d heard from the speakers, pose questions to the speakers, think about what had worked in relation to empowerment in the South West, have lunch and then attend 2 of a selection of 8 workshops. I attended a workshop facilitated by John Skrine from Creating Excellence in which John presented some of the thinking behind the Big Society and we talked about this in relation to empowerment. I then delivered a workshop on whole area approaches to empowerment, describing those which have evolved in Dudley and Wolverhampton, facilitated by the involvement of both areas in the Black Country Take Part Pathfinder

My reflections

Reflecting on what I heard and learned, and conversations I was part of at the event, there are three things which stand out for me – around understanding empowerment, using online social tools and our values.

Understanding empowerment

I noticed that when people are introduced to the community empowerment dimensions developed by changes they find them really useful - a delegate fed back that this was something useful they had learned during the conference. (The 5 community empowerment dimensions are described in brief at the bottom of this page , they are from changes DiCE evaluation and planning framework

Using social tools

The second thing which stands out in my mind is how different attitudes to using online social tools are. I was speaking to on officer from a Housing Association over lunch and she mentioned some community activists she works with who would like an online ‘chatroom’ to be able to meet and talk in online. She confessed that she wasn’t up to speed with social media, so was interested when I suggested that her residents could join and set up their own group for free on the Our Society networking site and be part of a wider conversation there, linking in to people from across the country.

This was quite different to the reaction when I mentioned the Our Society online activity in the first workshop I attended. While some very legitimate issues were raised about the accessibility of websites, the fact that not everyone is online and web savvy and that some don’t like online networking, the discussion ended up in a place which seemed to reject this way of networking. This was in contrast to the effort that the South West Forum and Isabel Livingstone in particular have gone to in order to ensure an online space for bring together people, tools and information at Empowerment Works in the South West, built on a free platform (blogger) thus not requiring future financial support. Isabel had also gone to great effort to involve people in the conference itself through an array of online social tools – people were tweeting from the event and others from around the country were tweeting in and watching the live video feed of the speakers. Still others have been reading and adding to blog posts on the site, and writing their own blogs as a result of being involved in the event, including Simon Burall, and me!

As someone who has discovered online social tools in the last 12 months, I am astonished at how much they are now part of how I connect with others, they offer a whole new dimension and level to other networking tools we might make use of, and enhance face-to-face networking in so many ways. I can’t help thinking that those relying on face-to-face gatherings, emails and static websites will be missing out on wider conversations with friends they haven’t met yet but would find great to know!

Our values

The third thing which stands out in my memory from the day is how welcoming and eager to network the delegates were, and the feeling of a really strong shared value base of everyone I spoke to and heard from. I really felt at home among this collective of people, and will close this post with a question I heard asked twice during the day Mark Robins, Senior Policy Officer with the RSPB (of which I’m proud to have been a member since I was 7): “Are we too timid in expressing our values?”

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