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.

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