Sunday, 7 October 2012

Funny Money

In 2000 I bought a book called Funny Money: in search of alternative cash by David Boyle. Around that time I was really interested in Time Banks and Local Exchange Trading Systems, having been introduced to them through a training day organised by Groundwork Black Country, who I worked for then. I remember being really inspired hearing stories about Edgar Cahn and the US Time Dollars and Time Bank which he founded.

I don't think that we ever got any alternative currencies going through Groundwork, and at that point in my life I was mostly still socialising with people I knew from university - a number of whom had become accountants. They clearly thought I was talking nonsense when I mentioned this sort of thing, and I remember debating it with a friend who graduated in International Business and being told in no uncertain terms that there was no way that the economic system we have would change, and these sorts of things wouldn't work. Not being well-versed in economics (or business), I didn't have a particularly strong position to argue from, I just remember feeling incredibly angry about the economic system and passionate about alternatives which promoted what seemed to me to be a much more equal world. It's strange looking back and realising that these conversations took place before Freecycle had even started. I'm so pleased that what I was so angry about is now written about by people who know their stuff and expose a lot of the myths around economics - for example in People First Economics (well worth a read).

You can therefore imagine how delighted I was to meet up today with a good friend from Bristol who has already swapped her pound sterling for Bristol Pound notes and hear how the local currency works. Hundreds of independent businesses have signed up to accept the Bristol Pound, and the whole system seems really easy to start using. But what made me tingle with joy was when my friend explained that she had eaten in a restaurant that doesn't (yet) take the Bristol Pound, and accidentally left the tip in Bristol Pounds. The waitress happily picked it up and said 'brilliant, I can get my lunch tomorrow with that from my local shop'. Wow!

My friend's Bristol £5 and £1 notes - beautiful

I'm feeling inspired to re-read Funny Money, and related books that have been gathering dust on my bookshelves for the last decade ... and perhaps look harder at the opportunities for introducing alternative currencies in some of the projects I'm involved in, such as East Coseley Big Local - especially as the Local Trust are exploring alternative, community-based economic approaches. We've also discussed time banks in relation to some community asset based health improvement work I'm doing - it feels as though these ideas are grabbing peoples' imaginations and feel possible.

I'll start by proudly showing people the Bristol Pound note which I exchanged today with my friend Carrie, and use it as reminder of what is possible when people come together and believe they can make change.

You can follow the Bristol Pound on twitter: @BristolPound
There's also interesting work being led by Localise West Midlands

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Books, Boxes and Bunkum!

The amazing cake we ate at the CDX event 
The following is an edited version of a presentation I gave at the CDX AGM and celebration event held on 29 September in Sheffield. It was a strange day, wonderful in that a lot of brilliant people were all in one room (members of my ‘tribe’ as Ken Robinson would refer to it), and very sad in that together we considered and agreed a motion from CDX board to dissolve CDX (a charity and limited company) after 31 December this year.

However I hold out great hope that we can become a very different sort of network, unconstrained by the requirements of being an organisation, albeit without access to the skills and experience of wonderful staff members.

My thinking on any day, week or month is shaped by whatever I’m reading - and I’m often in the middle of four or five books at once. (I’m not a completer-finisher!) I read mostly non-fiction at the moment, and I find lots of links from what I read to what I’m experiencing. This was the case with the Starfish and the Spider - in this instance it was a book I returned to when thinking about CDX’s future, as I imagined then that we might be moving towards being a leaderless organisation.

I found some of the thinking in the book really helpful at the time, offering ideas for a different way forward. It doesn’t all feel as relevant as it did a year ago (see my last post) but the thinking around circles feels useful to focus on now. Emma Lees suggested to me that circles could be the replacement of infrastructure like CDX. The authors say that circles are important to nearly every decentralised organisation. Circles share a common heritage and tradition, but each independent, autonomous circle might have its own particular habits and norms.

I reflected on circles that I’ve been invited in to. Sal, Sue and Jill from changes invite me to be part of work they are developing, with others, and to joint reflection sessions. They are also initiating some circles around feminism and community development which I’m looking forward to being part of.

I’ve started a few circles which I feel have a community development approach and values at their heart:

  • I have started Action Learning Sets. 
  • I co-organise a regular community engagement networking event in Dudley. 
  • It probably wouldn’t be considered community development, but I recently started Jelly in Brierley Hill - co-working events. It fits with my approach of creating circles that bring in a diversity of members, and where collaboratively minded people can connect and support each other. 
  • My work requires the development of circles - they have names like Community Forum, or planning group ... but they are all circles as far as I’m concerned, some with affinity to other sorts of circles, such as Big Local, but when I’m involved they link to a tradition of community development because I bring that with me. 
  • Outside of my paid role I set up a non-fiction book group, because I wanted a way to reflect on things I read and find interesting in a group setting. 
One of the books I’m currently reading is How to be Free by Tom Hodgkinson. According to the sleeve notes it is:
“a simple, joyful blueprint for modern living. He shows that consumer society has led not to a widening of freedoms but the opposite, and that the key to a free life is to stop consuming and start producing. We are not consumers, we are creators!” 
CDX AGM and celebration event
And just as the Starfish and the Spider book prompted me to reflect on CDX, so did this. It’s not a direct analogy, but I can’t help feeling that as members we often waited for CDX staff to offer something to us, rather than being creative, proactive members of a network. As mentioned in my last post, CDX activity was shaped by funding from the last government and their regional arrangements. This resulted (in my view) in CDX members being put in to boxes. Regional events were held annually, with members living near a border feeling they had to ask for special permission if attending an event in their neighbouring region was more suitable for them. Around the board table (I was a trustee for 4 years), individual members were often identified by the region they were based in. And with CDX closing, members are, quite rightly, raising concerns about our national voice.

I think there are new ways to look at all this now, thanks to online social networking. It is actually all down to my involvement in CDX that I took a deep breath and plunged myself in to the online world, in spring 2012. We had recruited the brilliant Sophie Ballinger partly for her skills and experience in using social media, and I thought it important to learn something about it - I didn’t want her to feel that her chairperson didn’t know what she was talking about (which I didn’t for a while!)

A great thing about being connected online is that the boxes we get put in fade away, as does the waiting to be offered something. I don’t need a CDX event to prompt connections and conversation, I can start them any time online. I don’t need to worry that I’ll only meet people from the West Midlands, I can talk to like-minded people living in Liverpool, London or South America. So what can those of us who thrive online do to encourage and connect with those who don’t?

I’m also in the middle of reading The Element by Ken Robinson, which is about how finding your passion changes everything. I’m discovering that one of my passions is writing - but in a way that I wouldn’t have known was possible a couple of years ago. I love writing as part of a dialogue online, responding to other people’s blogs. It feels very different to any other kinds of writing I’ve done.

So let’s expose some bunkum around online connecting.

Bit of bunkum no 1: “I don’t have time”. As I said to CDX members, they no longer receive a printed magazine from CDX. If they had found the time to read that and found it worthwhile, then they should be able to find at least a little time to read interesting articles or blogs online.

Bit of bunkum no 2: You need a smartphone or tablet to be connected and and networking online. Of course it makes it easier to fit in to your day, but providing you have access to the internet, you can make time to sit at your computer (desktop or laptop) and connect. Why not take your laptop to a coffee shop and spend an hour or so browsing?

Bit of bunkum no 3: You need to be on twitter or facebook or in those confusing to navigate forums. I disagree. Some of the loveliest connecting I do online is in other people’s spaces - their blogs. I’ve come across some amazing reflective and justice-minded people who share their thoughts and struggles, share really useful information and ask really good questions. (For example, the appropriately named Next Starfish blog by Steve Moreby.) I love to sit and reflect on and respond to their questions and stories. And if you write a blog yourself it’s the most brilliant thing when someone who reads it takes the time to leave a comment - they are joining you in dialogue.

Bit of bunkum no 4: You have to read and comment on a blog post within a day or two, otherwise the discussion is over. I am sure many people posting on community development and related topics don’t mind when you find a post and respond to it. The joy is the discussion. The person who posted should get an alert to say someone has commented, they no doubt won’t mind on which post.

Bit of bunkum no 5: If you’re going to host your own blog you should post once a day, or once a week. My view is that it’s your blog. Write as often or as infrequently as you like. Don’t make it a chore. Don’t do it if you don’t like writing! (You have other passions - do something with them). But if you do have a go, try and use it to connect. Email a few people and ask what they think about it. If you do use twitter send out a few mentions.

And my closing plea is that if you don’t want to be online don’t feel bad - but don’t keep giving reasons why to those who are. Instead make use of their passion. Ask them if there is anything good they’ve seen that you might like. Ask them to email or print it for you. And if you’re doing something interesting or exciting, find people who are connected online who can share it (the team at Podnosh often do this, very effectively). Invite them along with a role to blog or tweet about about it, or take photos of it and post them online. That way more people can connect to you and what you’re doing.

I was really pleased to receive this tweet following my ramble through all of the above:

I’m looking forward to ongoing discussions and work with people like David Wilcox, Nick Bird, Emma Lees and others around how we can develop online and offline networking as national infrastructure organisations shrink, merge and close. If you have any thoughts or ideas please do comment here, and if you’d like to join our discussion and activity do let me know.

Thanks again to those who commented on my last post, which helped my thinking around this, and especially to Nick Bird for ideas around my presentation and ongoing thinking.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Community development, spiders and starfish

Twelve months ago I was a member of the board of CDX (Community Development Exchange), coming to the end of a two year period as the chair. For much of the time that I’d been chair I’d found our focus on regional networks (and less so regional networking) quite constraining. The focus was required due to our core funding being from the government, and our last government invested heavily in regional structures - we had well staffed Government Offices in the 9 English regions, supporting local authorities and local partnership structures, and there were well resourced Regional Development Agencies responsible for economic development. Despite the change in government in 2010 and the abolition of regional government structures, the activities and discussions in CDX often focused on English regions - even though of some of the regions didn't even have regional community development networks.

Inspired by ideas and observations in a book by Brafman and Beckman - The Starfish and the Spider, I put together a paper for the CDX board with our then CEO, Nick Beddow. The thinking took hold, and over the last year, as CDX’s resources have diminished, staff and trustees have been encouraging a ‘starfish approach’, looking for CDX members who are natural catalysts who could set up starfish meetings.

Later this month CDX members will meet at an AGM at which the wind-up of CDX is proposed. Those of us active in community development who have been close to CDX are keen to keep and strengthen our connections and, in different ways, continue doing the things that CDX was able to do because it was a staffed network. Along with Steve Sparrow and Sue Robson I’ve been asked to input a little about local ‘starfish activity’ that we’ve helped to make happen in Liverpool, Durham and Dudley.

From a CDX perspective, the Dudley/West Mids starfish started with a Community Engagement Network event in Dudley in July. My colleagues agreed that we would promote it to CDX members across the West Midlands, including members of community development network in Sandwell I had recently come across but the members of which had been unaware of CDX. We ran the networking event as an open space session, enabling a range of issues and ideas to be discussed.

From a personal perspective, I had been thinking that a lot of the things I do in my work are starfish activities - bringing people together around different projects and ideas, and bringing community development values to them. I use things like the Community Empowerment Dimensions as described by changes to prompt discussions around community development values without getting bogged down with struggling to define community development to people who don’t identify with it.

Today I’ve returned to The Starfish and the Spider book and re-read sections on the five foundations of decentralised networks and on the role of the catalyst. 

The pertinent points for me are:

  1. That circles are important to nearly every decentralised organisation’. They share a common heritage and tradition, but each independent, autonomous circle might have its own particular habits and norms.
  2. Circles don’t form on their own. Catalysts spur groups of people to action. They are inspirational figures, who move on when their job is done (like Mary Poppins). Catalysts are peers (not the boss), who develop trust and collaboration (they aren’t directive), who thrive on ambiguity and connect rather than organise.
  3. Ideology is the glue that holds decentralised organisations together, and is a strong motivator for action.
  4. Decentralised organisations are usually built on preexisting decentralised networks - providing a platform to launch from.
  5. Inherently hyperactive champions spread ideas in decentralised networks. They are relentless in promoting or selling a new idea.

If I consider the many projects, initiatives and networks I’m involved in and help to make happen from a CDX perspective, I still think they could be considered as a range of different starfish activities, because what I do is not managed by or through CDX. However the principles of decentralised networks must apply throughout the network. I’m coming around to a feeling that the Community Empowerment Network events I plan and facilitate with colleagues in Dudley aren’t decentralised (starfish) activities. This is because a small group of us organise and lead them, and the wider programme of work that they sit in. While the events themselves promote networking and connecting, there isn’t the kind of ongoing, horizontal networking which occurs in decentralised networks like twitter and online forums, with the occasional exception of when our event participants take each other’s details and contact one another directly.

A new programme of work I’m involved in developing focused on considering assets and services holistically feels much more decentralised in nature (I 'm in the process of creating a collaborative blog to share it). I hadn’t remembered the language from the book around circles, but it’s great to re-read it. What we’re trying to do with six pilot collaborative projects is to initiate independent and autonomous circles. We’ve found people willing to take on the role of enablers, the idea being that they enable (champion?) collaboration. Our early thinking around collaboration has used the Community Empowerment Dimensions, so if we can embed this, it provides a shared ideology. We’re sort of building the circles outwards from a cross-sector action research project team - though a struggle is that many members of the circles work in a highly centralised organisation - our local authority. In no way would I claim to be inspirational, but I feel that I have a role in this activity as a catalyst, and I am left reminding myself (as a community development worker would) that:
  • I must step back - not direct or lead
  • I should connect people rather than organise people
  • I must move on when the job is done (how will I know when that is?)

I think perhaps the catalyst role is a shared one in this particular programme of work (if indeed the whole idea actually applies), and I think those of us who are catalysts are also acting as champions. My colleague Bridget Brickley is champion for a whole systems approach to all that we do, and Donna Roberts is a champion and brilliant advocate for genuine collaboration. 

On the face of it Dudley's work on collaboration, assets and services has nothing to do with CDX. Except that I have been a CDX member for many years, and bring community development values to all that I do. And Sam Axtell, a colleague over the border in Wolverhampton is doing some brilliant different but similar work in an activity called MakeSHIFT. She brings community development values to her work. No doubt if I look further others will be doing similar but different things. We’re not networking community development practitioners or managers, as CDX did. But we’re developing independent, autonomous circles, responsive to our own particular environments and communities (professional, geographical, interest or identity), within a tradition of community development. And we connect to each other to share and learn from each other, through both face-to-face and online conversations. 

Is that what CDX might be looking for at a time when many spiders (centralised organisations) can’t survive, but the day of the starfish has arrived?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Pot Luck: exciting and brilliant!

Today saw the launch of, a site which hosts can use to organise communal meals, and invitees can make offers of things to bring. A few weeks ago Tessy Britton and Laura Billings asked a few people if they would like to host meals on the launch day. I immediately said yes, as did Maurice Specht in Rotterdam. 

So this morning, as I prepared things to throw in the slow cooker, I eagerly followed Maurice’s tweets from his pot luck breakfast in Rotterdam, and then showed his pictures to my colleagues when I arrived at work. Here’s Maurice’s recap of his morning

I arrived at our pot luck dinner venue, the Secret Coffee Club, about half an hour before we expected people to arrive, and Marc and Rachel and I laid the table. When everyone had arrived we were 16 in total, 10 adults and 6 children. By the time we sat down to eat an hour later the children there had all made new friends, and the adults, some of whom hadn’t met before, were chatting and laughing away, sharing stories and jokes. 

It was a really warm, un-pressured feeling. Lots of lovely food was being offered, passed around and enjoyed. We had noodles, chicken rice, veggie chilli, egg fried rice, dips, lots of fruit and then cheesecake, rocky road, ice creams and more!

As well as our yummy dinner, people bought other things to share (sharing was the theme of our evening). Oliver told me a little about going to the Paralympics. Stuart showed us a quadcopter and how to fly it, and answered all sorts of questions about it. Donna and Jack bought some fresh eggs from their 3 hens to share. Joyce told people about the Caribbean cooking lessons she is running (and recruited some trainees), and Marc explained what INSIGHT for Carers do. Tony shared his washing up skills in abundance!

During the evening Maurice Skyped us, so we all said hello to him and I heard a little about his meal before the connection went. We also linked up by video through a Google Hangout to Steve and Kirsty in Liverpool, who are planning a pot luck dinner soon at a local cafe in Wavertree. I briefly showed them what we were up to.

As I travelled home after the dinner this evening I reflected that this was one of the most exciting and brilliant things I’ve ever done. I was actually comparing it to my wedding! Here are 3 reasons why it was so brilliant:
  1. It really didn’t take much organising - as soon as Marc had offered the venue it was simply a matter of popping a few things on the Pot Luck website, sending a few emails, texting and tweeting a few folk and then making one dish for dinner.
  2. It wasn’t stressful at all being a host - quote the opposite. It was actually more like being at someone else’s party. Everyone just got on with their own thing, made sure others were looked after if needed, and chipped in to the clearing up. Like Maurice, I feel there is trust that needs to be placed in people. We often try to do too much, when actually people can do it for themselves.
  3. By the end of the evening everyone was saying how much they had enjoyed it, asking when the next one was and giving their ideas on when we should hold it (a weekend) and what we should do.
The buzz that I felt by the end was similar to feelings I’ve had following large events I’ve been involved in organising ... but without any of the tiredness and stress that results from organising them. And who would have known that 5 days ago we didn’t have anyone booked to come to our pot luck dinner! That is how simple this is - you ask people, and they come :)

There are more pictures from the Rotterdam Pot Luck breakfast and the Brierley Hill Pot Luck dinner on my Storify archive. I may put together a little video too ... and might also be on Adrian Goldberg's BBC WM radio show talking about Pot Luck with Tessy and Maurice. 

Thursday, 30 August 2012

A top-down approach to scaling up (aka making stuff happen)

I was talking to Tessy Britton and Laura Billings yesterday and Tessy mentioned this post, in which the following TEDx Talk by Jason Roberts features.

 During the talk Jason shares three steps to making things happen:
  1. Show up (or be present - bring your skills to the table)
  2. Give it a name (and a nice logo)
  3. Set a date and publish it (blackmail yourself)
I’ve had the luxury in my work over the last 10 years or so to let things evolve, take time planning them, ruminate over them and work to quite nice or just self-imposed deadlines. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t get things done, I hugely over commit myself and can find myself involved in delivering activity on a range of different projects all in the space of about 36 hours if I don’t manage my calendar well. But think I’m also having a bit of a go at Jason’s way of working which, for now at least, I’m rather enjoying. And, inspired by Jason’s talk, and my chat with Tessy and Laura, I have developed my own version of the three steps. 

  1. Put yourself in the presence of (aka keep pestering) people as energetic and enthusiastic as you are
  2. Steal a name - and an idea: take a top-down approach to scaling up
  3. Set a date and publish it (and then get really worried about how soon it is!)

I’ve learned some of this by watching. In March 2011 I participated in some training which would help me to be a host of a social media surgery. Luckily for the social media needy of Dudley, my colleague Mel also participated in the training with me. Left to my own devices, it would have taken 2,3 or maybe even 4 or months before a surgery was up and running in Dudley. The idea of finding a venue willing to have us for free and finding volunteers to surgeon all felt a bit daunting to me. But thankfully not to Mel. She just asked, offered a little in a return, called a few contacts who could give time to help others and within a month we were hosting Dudley’s first ever social media surgery.

I’ve been sharing an office with Mel for 18 months now, and something must be rubbing off on me. I’m getting ideas or being offered opportunities and then going straight to people I suspect might be up for making them happen quite quickly and without too much fuss. 

Pestering tools

A key tool for pestering people who you seek to collaborate with is twitter. Within hours of suggesting something to a couple of people you already know reasonably well you can have your collaborators roped in and, if necessary, a time and date in the diary to get it all sorted.

Other social media tools are good for longer chats with the more the distant folk - Tessy, Laura and I chatted via Skype yesterday, and having trialled it with Honey Lucas recently, I can see the potential for Google Hangouts for progressing things with a group.

Taking a top-down approach to scaling up

What on earth does this mean? I’d never heard of it until Tessy mentioned and explained it to me. And I’d been doing it without knowing it! Social media surgeries are one example. The social media surgery + platform enables new people to come along and use the social media surgery model in their own locality or community, utilising the resources provided by the platform. The more people that do this, the better the idea becomes - because there are more options for people who want to attend or help out at surgeries.

Perhaps my experience with social media surgeries was useful when I came across the idea of Jelly on the Coffee Birmingham website. The more I read, the more I liked the idea, so I tweeted Marc Carter and Lorna Reid. We agreed a meeting date two weeks hence, I did a little more reading about Jelly on the UK Jelly site and some preparation for the meeting, we met and divvied up the tasks required to promote and run a first event. I made a record of what we’d agreed, also shared it with Odilia from Hub Stourbridgeas they may well run Jelly events in Stourbridge in the future ... and that’s it. A few tweets, a bit of planning, one meeting, getting stuff done... and launch (it will be on 24 September in Brierley Hill). No time for stalling, over-thinking it, or putting any organisational barriers in the way. I am making use of contacts I’ve developed in Birmingham to explore how other Jellies work, and will go along to the next Birmingham Jelly, which is before our Brierley Hill Launch, but that’s all stuff I’m doing in my own time, out of interest, it’s not really required to make this work. We’ve used what’s already there online and are helping to scale things up.

Encouraged by how easy this has been, I’ve now somehow got myself involved in the (international!) launch of a new Pot Luck initiative, thanks to Tessy and Laura, who emailed me about it less than two weeks ago, the launch date being less than two weeks from now! If all goes to plan, the website will be up in the next day or two, invitations will go out via me and anyone else I can rope in to this. Organising this has involve no meetings at all. The boundlessly enthusiastic Marc Carter is hosting the dinner at the Secret Coffee Club and hopefully I’ll have some lovely photos and video to share in couple of weeks, proving that Brierley Hill can do Pot Luck just as well as Glasgow ... Rotterdam ... and wherever else gets involved.

And my learning so far: I’m starting to understand how some of my colleagues in the public sector feel when they think I’m trying to make them do things too quickly. I’ve made myself write this blog before the websites are up for either Brierley Hill Jelly or Pot Luck, because I need to experience sharing things before they are finalised, as it’s what I will increasingly be asking of others.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Karen and Margaret

Karen Strunks (@karenstrunks on twitter) is probably known to most people who might be reading this. A generous online communicator, someone who makes things happen and who builds bridges between online and face-to-face relationships, in person Karen is warm and welcoming with a big friendly smile.

Scrolling through my twitter feed this morning I spotted this tweet from Karen:

I felt immediately worried and at the same time bad that I hadn't spotted earlier tweets about this. A quick click on Karen's profile and I found these tweets:

Still worried about what was wrong with Karen, I clicked on to @createdineire's profile and tweets, wondering who this was. It took me to Margaret, Karen's mum, who I recognised as I had met her at the most recent Social Media Cafe in Birmingham. (Karen organises the Social Media Cafe.) And reading through Margaret's tweets I saw the most lovely thing - updates on Karen's health and lots of thoughtful and caring conversations between Margaret and Karen's friends on twitter. Here's just one of many examples:

I quickly ascertained from Margaret's tweets that Karen had an operation on gallstones, and felt very relieved to read that she is getting better and Mum approves of the care she was getting in hospital.

When I started using twitter two and half years ago I never anticipated seeing it used in such a caring way. The public conversations and updates from Margaret have enabled Karen's followers and friends to keep track of her improvement and send get well messages. I feel as though I'm always learning, from people like Karen, about helpful and creative ways to use twitter. Now Margaret has become my twitter heroine, which is why I wanted to write and share this story. (I also love this poem on Margaret's blog, which I will now follow.)

Get well soon Karen x

In case you don't know Karen, here's some of the stuff she does and makes happen:

She initiated, runs and is the Creative Director of the 4am Project (it's brilliant, check it out)
She runs the Birmingham Social Media Cafe
She manages a hyper local blog for Wake Green Park in Moseley
She is part of the brilliant Talk About Local team
She blogs about all sorts at A bit more of Karen
And somehow she also has time to be a professional photographer! (site here)

Friday, 20 July 2012

Curry in the community

Thanks to a friend from Yorkshire having been working in Dudley this week and staying in a hotel in Oldbury, I ventured to a new restaurant called Little Bangla. Despite having lived about 2 miles away for 11 years, I'd never been to Langley High Street, but a good reviews on Trip Advisor suggested that Little Bangla was worth a visit. I was intrigued when I looked at the restaurant website to see a page called Working with the Community

As we walked in the door we were greeted with warm handshakes and a friendly welcome by the owner, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of tables full, given it was a rainy Monday evening.

Little Bangla owner Zak
The food and service were great, enhanced for me by conversation with the owner, Zak. I asked him about the work he does with schools, which includes giving cooking lessons. He also works with local councillors, supporting the Mayor's charities. He is of the view that while he still needs ensure the restaurant is a going concern, there is much that businesses can do to support communities, both nearby and overseas. He hopes that if other businesses see him making connections in the community that they might follow suit.

Zak has been surprised at how useful social media has been for his business - he proudly informed us about how swiftly they have generated friends on the restaurant Facebook page and he is starting to use twitter more (@littlebangla1). The restaurant gives Facebook friends offers, and apparently around 90% of customers are regulars, there being little passing trade along Langley High Street.

Behind the bar there were a collection of 32 lovely awards which Zak had ordered to give to school children the next day. The restaurant recognise 2 pupils from each class of both Langley Primary School and Causeway Green Primary School, and give a meal at the restaurant to the child and their parents/carers, an award and a certificate of recognition. I've Storfied Zak's tweets with photos from the Awards Ceremonies this week.

I just love Zak's approach to life and business (from what I was able to see and hear of it in one evening) and wish that more local business people worked in this way. I'm feeling quite despondent about the likelihood of businesses in East Coseley linking in to the great opportunity which Big Local offers (see my post here), but I feel very cheered to know that there are people like Zak in the world. And even more cheered to find out that I'm within the delivery radius of Little Bangla! Though I will of course be eating at the restaurant again and look forward to hearing how the children liked their awards dinner.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Lamenting my languishing reflective place

So... I haven't posted here for a good while. Which perhaps means that I haven't created enough time and space lately for considered reflection.

In community development reflection on your own practice, values and beliefs is intrinsic to your work (whether it is paid or unpaid). I am fortunate to have carved out some time for reflective activities in my work, for example I convene an Action Learning Set, and I participate in sessions which prompt reflection on my work and approach, such as an event earlier this week for facilitators trained to use community influence frameworks Voice, echo and DUO. I also read a lot of blogs and try to reflect on what the authors say and add to the conversation.

However I'm concerned that I've been rushing around doing so much that I haven't given deliberate thought to how I am putting community development values in to practice in some significant activities I'm working on.

One of the activities is supporting the East Coseley Community Forum to get people involved in Big Local. I've been blogging a lot about what I'm hearing, seeing and doing in East Coseley, and it's been brilliant that my colleagues are also contributing posts, it feels like a real team effort. But the purpose of the sharing is for updates and information, not reflection.

I'm also working on a community-led health improvement project which is focusing on community assets, and there is so much in what we've done already which warrants reflection. I have been reflecting through dialogue with my colleague, but I often find that writing things down helps to unlock deeper thoughts and draw out new thinking and ideas.

These concerns are shared as a precursor to a more concerted effort to reflect on my practice, and share reflections here and in other spaces I'm creating to promote shared learning. I'd love to hear how others make time and space for reflection, and what helps them.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Trevor Hopkins and Trojan Mice

I am looking forward to attending a learning session on the practical application of asset based approaches later this week. The session is provided through the West Midlands Public Health Observatory Learning for Public Health programme and will be delivered by the engaging Trevor Hopkins from Asset Based Consulting and co-author of A Glass Half Full.

Trevor delivered an introductory afternoon seminar last month which I attended (the slides from the session are here). I Storified tweets from the session. The session included descriptions of 'deficit' and 'asset' approaches, applications of an assets approach in relation to health and wellbeing, case studies from Sandwell and Coventry and thoughts about community asset mapping and JSNAs (Joint Strategic Needs Analysis).

Trevor opened the session by saying that he would be challenging - that felt exciting to me. He asserted that a problem is a management issue - managers can deal with it, whereas a dilemma is something you can’t solve - it’s what leaders do. Trevor thinks we have a dilemma around public health and how we deal with it. He talked about recovery and resilience, using the example that personal networks and support are as effective as a flu jab ... if we can have both together then it’s even better. This reminded me of work that the RSA have been doing around whole person recovery and connected communities

Trevor explained that a deficit approach to health is a pathogenic approach which focuses on disease and death, and leads to disempowerment and dependency. (He challenged us to find more deficit ‘d’ words, which of course I tweeted. @lizzie_banks suggested depression, disorder, disengagement, debilitating and disaster!) 

The features of a deficit approach were described as including policymakers seeing systems or institutions as the principal tool for the work of society, a structure which is designed to permit a few people to control many other people and people being seen as clients or customers. This brings to my mind a description of neoliberalism in David Gauntlett’s excellent Making is Connecting:
“ the belief that markets are the only lens through which to run anything, or to assess the value of anything. It is manifested in many ways, and becomes apparent when individuals are seen as simply customers and consumers, and workers become faceless ‘service providers’. It means that the ‘voice’ of people is denied, because they can only express themselves through choices within the existing market, which is not genuine self-expression at all.”
Trevor highlighted that traditional approaches result in production a great deal of the same thing, whether goods or services. Then to overcome the issue that people are different and may have different needs or problems services are targeted at at those needs and problems, resulting in communities an individuals being ‘segmented’ and posts such as ‘obesity co-ordinator’, ‘smoking cessation co-ordinator’ being created. However people aren’t a condition, nor are obesity or smoking single problems, they are complex, wicked problems.

On organisational change, I liked what Trevor shared: that a lot of organisations see organisational change like a Trojan Horse. The organisational development team are hidden inside and come out at night! A better model is Trojan Mice - lots and lots of them nibbling away. What a fantastic vision, and imagine all the diverse challenges which could be made if there were lots of people making them. This makes me wonder whether the idea of trojan mice is similar to the idea of horizontalism:
“Horizontality or horizontalism is a social relationship that advocates the creation, development and maintenance of social structures for the equitable distribution of management power. These structures and relationships function as a result of dynamic self-management, involving continuous participation and exchange between individuals to achieve the larger desired outcomes of the collective whole” (from Wikipedia)
Trevor suggested that social sciences are going to save public health and referenced Ivan Illich and his publication ‘Medical Nemesis’. I’ve just come across Ivan Illich in Making is Connecting. I found this passage in chapter 7 useful to reflect on.
“Whilst big, uniform systems may have been developed with the intention of helping people on a broad and democratic scale, Illich argued that they always reach a point beyond which they cause more harm than good. Schools, for instance, are originally intended to provide an education - of course - but once they are established into an institutional system they become machines to deliver schooling - conformity to rules, and memorization of a set body of knowledge without necessarily learning or understanding - which is then measured as an end in itself. Therefore, Illich suggests, the institution of school makes people stupid, institutionalized medicine makes people sick, and the institution of of business ruins the planet. This sounds gloomy, then, but his solutions, based on more individual and community-based engagement, helpfulness and creativity, may be of interest."
During the seminar we heard from two officers involved in asset based projects in Sandwell and Coventry respectively. Marianne Munro, a Community Development Officer for Sandwell MBC shared the story of the Friends and Neighbours project and Kate O’Hara shared the Coventry Asset Based Approach which is linked to their 10 ways to wellbeing. Having heard both case studies I was left with a niggling frustration that both case studies seemed to be presented as a journey from initial stages of mapping, listening and networking, working towards goals of a structure, for example a formal partnership or Community Interest Company, with governance and sustainability plans. I can’t help feeling that this shouldn’t be the prescribed destination of asset based work, and it feels inherently unsustainable compared to other outcomes which asset based activity could result in. 

I return to the excellent Third Sector Research Council paper by Eileen Conn, as referred to in my last blog post. In Community engagement in the social eco-system dance Eileen’s description of vertical, hierarchical system of relationships fits with Trevor’s description of a deficit approach and Illich’s issues with institutions:
"... the nature of the relationships is primarily vertical and hierarchical: tightly regulated to ensure compliance with organisational policies and constraints including employment and contract laws, and financial and managerial governance. They are generally divided into segments, subjects and topics. The organisation structures, and management and governance systems, have co-evolved with the vertical hierarchical system of relationships."
I would have thought that an asset based approach would be concerned with creation and nurturing of the horizontal, peer system of relationships - Eileen suggests that to be healthy and strong 
"the roots for these social relationships need to be appropriately tended. The way grass roots grow… is an instructive image for this. Grass that grows strongly and healthily, and is difficult to uproot, has a strong and intertwining mat of roots. These are like the strong interconnections in a community, all giving strength and support to the whole. If the grass is separated from its mat of roots it loses its strength and its intrinsic nature. These social networks, and the need to nurture them, are fundamental to resilience."

Have the projects in Sandwell and Coventry been looking at communities through a lens which results in them looking for things like the institutions which initiated the projects? Eileen Conn helpfully describes issues with the lenses through which we see communities in this video clip

Trevor highlighted questions which arise if we agree that the solutions to health inequalities might be in the hands of individuals, their families and their friends: What does that feel like to health professionals? How can they do their jobs? He suggests that an infinite model of power is helpful. I think a very real focus on barriers people face and social justice is also helpful.

There was lots more covered in the first seminar, but I think this post is getting rather long. So .... was Trevor challenging, as he had promised? 

Perhaps some of the things that he said may have been challenging for participants who are working in vertical hierarchical systems of relationships, as I observe from the outside that such organisations squash creativity and assertive challenge of the status quo. However I didn't find anything challenging in what Trevor shared or suggested. It sounded to me like absolute common sense, and I really connected to the community development roots in what Trevor talked about, and welcomed his references to social justice as being fundamental to asset based approaches.

Two things I found challenging in the experience of attending the seminar were:
  • The style of the seminar not being asset based, given the content was about asset based approaches. I felt there were missed opportunities to share some of the assets in the room - particularly the knowledge and experiences of participants. I wonder if a better balance of time could have been achieved so that we became participants rather than an audience. Or perhaps different ways of sharing the case studies so that they were discussed rather than presented. Of course I say this with appreciation for the task that the organisers and presenters had, and there was an awful lot packed in to an afternoon session, which I greatly appreciated having the opportunity to attend.
  • Being the only person in the room who was visibly using a laptop/ipad for note taking and tweeting. I don’t think anyone else was tweeting (I expect some people aren't allowed due to organisational social media policies) and I felt a little self-conscious about it.
Finally here are some resources I recommend if you would like to find out more about asset approaches, and an online network (ABCD Europe) where the asset based practice and approaches are discussed.

Monday, 12 March 2012

“Must you be so linear?”

I’ve just participated in the second Ageing Well Dudley stakeholder session, helpfully facilitated again by Carol Hayden (I shared reflections on the first session here).

Ageing Well Dudley activities have involved Appreciative Inquiry interviews and group sessions in two areas of the borough with contrasting demographics; Brockmoor and Pedmore. From the interview information some composite fictional profiles of older people in each area were put together and shared at the stakeholder event to get us thinking about:
  • What type of support would make a difference to this person’s quality of life?
  • What support could be found without relying on statutory services?
  • What is needed to extend this sort of support
  • How would you use £1000 to make this happen?

The group I was in were given a pen picture of the fictional Mrs Bates, a 73 year old retired dinner lady who is a council housing tenant in Brockmoor. Her husband died 8 yrs ago, she does a supermarket shop at the weekend with her daughter, shopping locally is not as easy as it was as she is less mobile. Her daughter and son-in-law are moving away, and she won't have to look after her grandchildren any more, she will miss them but is a bit relieved as it was becoming hard work. Getting things done in her home is difficult. She would like a grab rail but has been told that the council don't fit them. She waited 6 months for hole in ceiling to be fixed. She doesn't know who to ask for advice and help, she doesn't want to speak to social services.

Some of common features of discussions about the pen pictures of older people included a need for some listening, them having someone to talk to, seeing an older person as a whole (not a broken arm, in the case of one who had been in hospital) and older people knowing about services and activities when they need to. Then, in groups we were tasked with developing an idea to share with others in the room which could be done with £1000.

Dudley Social Media Surgery
I described to my group the model of Social Media Surgeries and that the beauty of them is that it is people offering their time and a bit of knowledge which creates connections in the room. Here are the ingredients for a Social Media Surgery, as compiled by Nick Booth in 2009.

I was wondering if a similar model of voluntary, peer support could be developed in a neighbourhood.

Nick stresses that social capital is the most important ingredient:
Think of social capital as the stock pot of your social media kitchen; you need to keep it constantly bubbling away. By the way, it has to be home made and hand made. In an emergency you can borrow some social capital from your neighbour, but please take care to return it as soon as you can. Some people are tempted to use shop bought social capital. It never works.
Nick recently updated his recipe as he thought it should be more simple and is mainly about being there - here's my version of the simple version for an older people's peer support meet-up:
  • A free room with some chairs and where you can buy or blag a drink (a cafe is perfect)
  • A host – the person who’s happy to choose a time and date and check with the people at the venue that it’s ok with them. On the day they welcome people, introduce them and just make sure people are ok
  • At least one volunteer helper from the neighbourhood and hopefully at least one older person from the neighbourhood looking to make new connections. 
  • Zero expectations – high hopes can kill enthusiasm. Expect nothing and be delighted by what does happen.
My difficulty today was that in starting to share this idea I was struggling to communicate, partly because  most people were service providers and immediately started think about giving advice, and what if the person volunteering gives the wrong advice … and so on. What I am thinking about isn’t really about advice at all, it’s about an impartial person giving their time freely to sit with someone else who lives in the same neighbourhood and is perhaps feeling a bit isolated. Admittedly the volunteer helpers might need to people who know a bit about what goes on in the area or have experience of accessing services and navigating through services, but there is no way that such an activity could be expected to match exactly a the needs or questions of an older person with a service provider who has an answer (see Nick's recipe: have zero expectations).

The Third Sector Research Council recently published a fantastic paper by Eileen Conn which helps me to understand why I’m struggling to communicate my idea. In Community engagement in the social eco-system dance Eileen describes two systems, as below.

The first is the system of relationships which we see in our public sector agencies and formal voluntary organisations:
... the nature of the relationships is primarily vertical and hierarchical: tightly regulated to ensure compliance with organisational policies and constraints including employment and contract laws, and financial and managerial governance. They are generally divided into segments, subjects and topics. The organisation structures, and management and governance systems, have co-evolved with the vertical hierarchical system of relationships.
Eileen calls this a vertical, hierarchical system of relationships. Eileen explains that this is very different to civil society - which is not like regulated organisations, where people are recruited to particular defined jobs. Instead, individuals, when they come together voluntarily through their shared interests, connect to give each other mutual ‘peer’ support in some way. These personal connections are the source of nourishment for the horizontal relationships between peers. Eileen explains that for the horizontal, peer system of relationships to be healthy and strong
the roots for these social relationships need to be appropriately tended. The way grass roots grow… is an instructive image for this. Grass that grows strongly and healthily, and is difficult to uproot, has a strong and intertwining mat of roots. These are like the strong interconnections in a community, all giving strength and support to the whole. If the grass is separated from its mat of roots it loses its strength and its intrinsic nature. These social networks, and the need to nurture them, are fundamental to resilience.
I guess what I was making a fumbled effort to convey in the meeting today was an idea for a very easy to manage way for some of those roots to give a bit of their time (an hour or two a month, or less) in a hosted space to connect and intertwine with neighbouring roots, perhaps with a look towards that whole other system of vertical, hierarchical relationships and tips on navigating it, but as much, if not more, with a view to people in similar situations sharing, connecting and learning from each other. It could be that the first time someone attends they end up sharing a recipe, or a story about living in the area 50 years ago… but they have had the opportunity to be listened to and to connect. No-one has put them in a box clearly marked with a service area.

My idea was about this, but I appreciate that it’s difficult to see that if you’re used to doing things for people, providing services to people and if you’re looking at the world from through the windows of your vertical structures. Eileen explains this really helpfully in this video clip:

So I’ve come away from the meeting feeling that I may have been less than helpful to my colleagues (in being inadequate in conveying my idea) and that I might have destroyed my idea by exposing it to a different way of thinking, which is very linear: a person is seen as having a problem, a service provides response. As the character Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation says to Captain Jean-Luc Picard: 
You humans are so linear… although you can occasionally break the patterns of thought that so limit you. While you know better from personal experience, you still engage in this linear thinking that so restricts your understanding …
I feel that I am frequently guilty of linear thought, and I think people who provide services often work in culture which encourages linear thought. In order for older people in Dudley to become empowered, connected and like the intertwined roots of grass needs us to stop worrying about linear solutions all of the time, and facilitate emergence. Rather than only providing the solution to what we see as a person's problems, can we do more to tend the whole lawn - allowing each blade of grass to lean towards the sunshine?

Sunday, 29 January 2012

A Community Lover's Guide to Dudley

There’s growing excitement in the office I share with Melissa Guest at Dudley CVS about gathering stories for a Community Lover’s Guide to Dudley. Mel and I have volunteered to edit this book, which will be available to view online and to order in hard copy on demand.

The following from the Community Lover’s Guide to the Universe site describes the background to the idea. 

The idea for Community Lover's Guide to the Universe was conceived in Rotterdam in April 2011 by Tessy Britton and Maurice Specht.

 Following the fantastic response to the collaborative book Hand Made (45,000 online readers), which was published in Autumn 2010, the idea evolved that we might be able to start producing local versions of Hand Made.

There are now over 35 confirmed voluntary editors.

Mel and I are drawing up a list of around 15 people who we will ask and support to contribute their stories. We are looking for projects local to Dudley Borough which originate from a person or group (rather than an organisation). The projects will involve 'hands-on' doing, learning or other creative elements and seek to include, involve, or share with others

I hope that sharing these stories will encourage those who work in our local voluntary and public sector to think a little differently about how we can make the most of the passion and energy we have in our communities.

This links to wider work in Dudley to respond to the government’s localism agenda and the changing relationship between the local public sector and communities and citizens. In particular through Our Society in Dudley Borough we’re starting to talk about community assets (we include social, human and cultural assets along with built, natural and financial assets in this thinking). The stories in the Community Lover’s Guide will offer practical examples of the ideas we are exploring. I’m also looking forward to reading stories from around the world and finding inspiration in other places. Mel and I met up with Steph Jennings who is working on the Community Lover’s Guide to Birmingham with Nick Booth and already has some amazing stories to share.

Please do get in touch if you have suggestions of people whose stories we could include in the Dudley edition.