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.