Category Archives: Community enablers

Community Voices: how digital media can engage, enable and empower

Kim Townsend is Community Voices Outreach Manager with the Media Trust, and when we met up recently at the community enablers workshop I asked if Kim would like to share maybe 10 learning points from her extensive experience with their innovative projects. It turned out just five gave us a wealth of insights – including digital media isn’t just for young people, as this photo shows.

1 It’s about people and communities first, technology second.
When the department for Communities and Local Government first launched Community Voices back in 2008 it was originally called Digital Mentors. Media Trust won the bid to deliver the programme and after some deliberation with CLG we decided to change the name to Community Voices to reflect our belief that any intervention into communities needed to be about people first and the tools being used second (in this case digital media, but we believe the same would go for any type of project – sport, arts, gardening etc).
What is more we believed that in order for community media projects to work well they needed to be conceived and lead by the communities themselves. Our approach was to empower communities to lead their projects themselves through training, mentoring, funding, and outreach support, and thus sustainability was built in from the core.
This idea has served us well over the past three years and we have seen many communities grow and achieve some amazing social outcomes through digital media. For example 71 year old Margaret from St Helen’s applied to us for support for her and her friends from the ‘Monday club’ at Morley Way Community Centre to get online for the first time. Her application explained how they had heard about online technologies but didn’t know how to access them and so they felt left behind. Because the application came from the community themselves there was a good demand for the computer classes that we supported them to organise. Fifteen ladies attended weekly classes for 6 months and are now able to do online shopping and be more in touch with their friends and families as you can hear them talk about in this film.

I don’t think that there would have been the same result if this had been a top-down process instead of a bottom-up idea.
2 Support is more valuable than funding
During the first two years of Community Voices we piloted several difference levels of funding, £1,500, £7,000, and £14,000. At the end of the two years we found that the difference each community made to their lives, and the quality of the media product produced, didn’t differ greatly between the funding levels. What made the biggest difference was the community drive as mentioned above, and the level of support they received from volunteers and our Outreach Manager. In an independent evaluation we had done the recipient communities themselves said that the outreach support they received was the most valuable of all the types of support we offered them.
Media projects in themselves don’t actually cost that much to do, a lot can be achieved with low cost equipment and sharing local resources. But for a community who have never used digital media before, someone to guide them through the decision making process of things like what equipment to buy, how to run their project, how best to get an audience for what they have produced, and how to avoid the common pitfalls is invaluable.
3 Digital media isn’t just for young people
There seems to be an assumption that digital media and young people go hand in hand, so much so that I think digital media projects for older people are sometimes overlooked. One of the project ideas that I always think is quite sad is young people using digital media to interview older people in the name of intergenerational work. To me, that is just reinforcing a stereotype that digital media is not for older people it’s for young people.
Some of the best digital projects we have supported are run by older people. For example, Vintage Radio, a community radio station for the over 50s in Birkenhead, which was set up by and is run entirely by over 50s. They have built such a name for themselves that they now run training for young residents of the YMCA where they have their studio. This reversing of the stereotype is incredibly powerful I think! Watch Lynda’s story of her involvement here.

We have also supported a group of older people in Reading who wanted to learn music technology and form their own band. Learning to play musical instruments on iPads has made a huge difference to their lives as they explain in this film.

4 Sometimes community tensions will get in the way
I’ve worked with some communities whose answer to anything always seems to be ‘yes’. These communities are so inspirational and their ‘can do’ attitude means that they achieve such a lot. But not every community is naturally like this. We’ve all been a part of groups where tensions are apparent, and they stem from the fact that everyone cares so much about the cause they are involved in, which in itself is no bad thing. I have worked with some communities, though, where factions have become apparent, friendships have been broken, and members have left the group because of these tensions. Managing this dynamic is tricky, and ultimately it does affect the project at hand. A light touch is always the best in these situations I have learned, after all, for us this is a job, but for the people we work with it is their lives. Ultimately the happiness and empowerment of the people involved is the main goal and if digital outcomes have to be put to one side to achieve this then so be it.
5 Flexibility is key
For people who are overcoming barriers in order to use digital technology, and who are using it to speak out about issues personal to them they need their own time and space to develop their projects. Activities may not always happen to plan, and outcomes may not be achieved exactly on time, but allowing the project to be community lead and to develop in the communities’ own time is key. The outcome can still be incredible, even if it is late according to your timescale. One such project I have worked with is a youth club for people affected by HIV and Aids who wanted to make an animated film. It was important to them to make sure everyone was involved and that the young people were able to tell their stories, this was a long process and has meant that the film has been made slightly late according to the timescale of Community Voices, but as you’ll hear in this audio the result has been incredible.

Respecting the importance of emerging community enablers

One of the interesting side discussions sparked at the workshop we ran last week – on how community enablers can use digital tools – was with Eileen Conn, who has developed a very illuminating model of how local residents, groups and agencies interact. Eileen is a little unusual in being a community activist, in south London, who also worked for many years in Government.
Eileen suggests that agencies and organisations that have paid workers operate mainly in vertical, hierarchical mode, because of the accountabilities and procedures inevitably involved, while citizens and small groups operate more horizontally, through relationships. Here’s one of Eileen’s slides:

Trying to work together can be challenging. In my experience residents can get pulled into formal committees and panels where they may be uneasy and end up cut-off from those they are meant to “represent”, while “officials” can find the way groups operate rather frustrating. After an earlier interview – which you can see here – I wrote:

Eileen suggests we should consider the distinction in physics between matter and energy waves – where organisations with staff are the matter, and informal groups are more like energy. Drawing on complexity theory, Eileen suggests thinking about a “social eco-system dance” in which some relationships are primarily vertical hierarchical, and others horizontal peer-to-peer. That may be more useful than bottom-up and top-down.

The problem is that community development workers may be co-opted into the hierarachy – a charge made by Nick Massey of Forever Manchester, who I reported here … which led to further discussion and rebuttal here.
Anyway, the issue surfaced again last week when, as part of the workshop, we invented some local community enablers. That was a generic term I used to cover the various types of community organisers, builders and development workers increasing operating in neighbourhoods. Background here on different models.

One group invented enablers who were “home grown” – that is, they emerged from the local community rather then being part of an external intervention. Eileen makes the point in this interview, after the workshop, that in developing models for community enabling we should pay attention to this emergence. As I reported in my earlier post about the workshop, there’s a bit difference between the development of action in an area that emerges naturally over time, and that which may be accelerated/imposed by external interventions. Anyone who is being paid will have targets and timetables to meet.
This may be also be important when we consider the role of digital media. As Eileen remarks towards the end of the interview, once we came to that part of the process in the workshop there was a tendency to throw in all sorts of tools … even though we had spent a lot of time focussing on the need to be clear about the tasks, and the preferences and capabilities of those involved.
Perhaps thinking about media ecologies in relation to the social eco-system will be helpful. There’s an interesting blog on that here.

Digitally enabling the fictitious communities of Slapham

Our exploration into the skills, roles, and approaches of community enablers – and how they can use digital tools for network building and neighbourhood change – took a big jump forward last week with a workshop of some 20 people to play through these issues in the fictitious town of Slapham.
Local community organiser Mark Parker hosted our event at the recently-rebuilt Cambridge House in Southwark (a terrific venue), and my colleague Drew Mackie tweaked the Slapham game that we first developed for Community Matters, and then used in a workshop with the Forever Manchester Community Builders.
Over five hours we developed stories about what was happening in the four neighbourhoods of Golson, Tarley, Blaybeck and Stobben – and how the community enablers Beatice, Dave, Hawa, Matt and others were helping citizens collaborate to tackle the challenges there, using a mix of methods. This is a first report with the material we generated, to allow participants to add their thoughts if they wish. I’ll do more detailed analysis later.

I started off with a short presentation using some of these slides from the Manchester workshop, including the one above. The main point is that in any situation it is best to consider the context, the purpose you are trying to achieve, the people who will be involved, and only then the nature of the processes and methods that may enable action. Otherwise you may jump to the latest shiny tool. We describe  the process in detail in the book Social by Social.
That’s fine in theory – but how to help people work out what it means in practice? That’s where the Slapham game comes in. Here’s how it was played:
We split into four groups, each taking one of the neighbourhoods on the map below. Scroll down for neighbourhood descriptions.
Slapham Neighbourhoods
There were then three stages to the game:

  • First, groups read the scenario and added extra material to their adopted neighbourhood, including the assets and issues. They then passed this extend scenario to the next group – who inherited the challenges.
  • The groups then took the neighbourhoods that were passed to them and created two characters: community enablers who would help local people address the issues. We asked for names, a cartoon if possible, history, skills, character traits and a summary of what they were trying to achieve.
  • Thirdly, the groups examined a set of cards with tech tools and chose those that the community enablers might use. These were the same as the cards we used in Manchester, coded for personal, group and public use, and rated as basic, intermediate and advanced.

Social reporting game cards
I asked each group to do a short presentation about  their area and enablers, and also captured reporting back on the technology plans. Apologies for the quality of the video in the Stobben tech report back – glare whited it out. I have created a gallery of all flip charts as well.

The game certainly produced a lot of lively conversations during the day, and discussion afterwards. I’ll do a further post on one with Eileen Conn, which I found particularly interesting. Among the points I took away were:

  • Several groups invented enablers who had lived in the area … and their approach could be quite different from those were introduced from outside.
  • There’s a bit difference between the development of action in an area that emerges naturally over time, and that which may be accelerated/imposed by external interventions. Anyone who is being paid will have targets and timetables to meet.
  • Technology can increase the divide between initiatives in a community, because of the different levels of access and skills people have.
  • It is important to use a mix of communication methods, and also to aim to join up the online and face-to-face networks that evolve. The people who are active online are not necessarily those who are active in local projects, and vice-versa.
  • Technology should be used to complement and enhance community activity, not drive it. There’s a danger that those who are familiar with tech tools will push forward with their favourites.
  • However, technology can substantially speed up developments, if used appropriately.
  • We should not believe that young people who may be using Facebook personally will favour that for group use. They are as likely to use Blackberry Messenger for that.

On reflection, we should have offered groups a wider range of both tech and non-tech methods – as we have done in other games. By only offering tech solutions we distorted the plans.
While groups were highly creative in developing tech-enhanced plans, covering one or two years, these were probably unrealistic in practice. Several people made the point that you won’t know what methods to use in the longer-term until you have got started.
In  practice the way that tech tool are used will be highly specific to any situation, enabler and local people … and we need to do far more to explore that complexity in practice.
Overall I think the session worked well – but I’m keen to get more comments from participants!

  • People generally said it was a lot of fun, a chance to meet new people with similar interests, and a creative way to explore the issues.
  • The game was a good way to emphasise “start with context, people, purpose – don’t jump to the tools”
  • We generated a lot of material that we can analyse further
  • The community enabler characters were great … and will find their way into the next version of the Slapham scenario. Drew and I are developing Slapham as a virtual lab for a range of games.

We’ll be talking with Mark and others about the potential for a further large event. Meanwhile, if you wish to run a session yourself do feel free to download the material and go ahead. If you get in touch, Drew and I will be glad to provide some additional guidance … or come and run it with you if you have some budget.
Finally, a big thank you to Mark and Cambridge House for hosting, and to everyone who came and contributed so much on the day.
Update: Interview with Eileen Conn: Respecting the importance of emerging community enablers

Update 2: since 2012 Slapham has become Slipham. You can see here how it as used in May 2016 to explore the role of community connectors in helping older people find services and opportunities in their community.

Joining forces for community enabling

My earlier post Knitting up a strong community – starting with its strengths sparked comments from Emma Lees and James Derounian. Both took issue with some points I had added to the main report – which was about asset based community development – from an article by Nick Massey. Nick contrasts ABCD and community development. James has guested blogged here before, and responded very rapidly to my suggestion that he draft a post. Here’s he challenges Nick – and endorses Cormac’s call for different styles of community enabling to join forces. Further background here. James writes …
This post responds to comments from Cormac Russell and Forever Manchester’s Nick Massey and their promotion of an asset based approach to community development. I guess very few would argue with the central tenet of “starting with what you have, welcoming new people into the community, taking a citizen-led rather than professionally-led approach, building relationship power.”
And Cormac has a graphic and memorable way with words: For example about the importance of social justice and welcoming in “the stranger at the edge”. Similarly the idea of paid and unpaid community development workers offering a “halo of support”. So far so anodyne. Interesting too, is the contention – which I agree with – that communities typically may generate about 100 ideas for their improvement. Of which some 50+% are self-directed, that is things that a community/residents can do for themselves. Interestingly this echoes research that I & colleagues did in 1996 looking at “Parish appraisals – a spur to local action?” (appraisals were the forerunners of Parish Plans and now Neighbourhood Plans). In which we concluded that community-generated ideas “most readily carried into effect tended to be those whose implementation lay largely in local hands (1996: 326). Furthermore about 53% of actions were “directed at the local community itself (the parish council, community groups, local people in general (p.320).
I also very much take to Cormac’s key question for community developers/organisers of all hues: “what did you not do this week that enabled citizens to step up?” Absolutely – the paid/unpaid organizer/developers is servant to community members and majority aspiration. Get in or get out of the way! And no argument at all with the 6 strengths of community-based working:

  1. Build on strengths ABCD
  2. Shared core values
  3. Commitment to social justice
  4. Citizen-led action
  5. Power through relationships
  6. Shared ‘calling’

It’s really Nick’s assertion that sticks in the craw! That traditional “community development is driven through formal meetings, is agency-led and engages with at best 20% of local people in their communities, usually people who work within established, well-organised and properly constituted groups. This leaves over 80% of people remaining on the outside who would never engage in this way.”
I just don’t recognise this portrayal of community development. Furthermore, why are we not talking and sharing more along the lines of interrogating the contention (which I instinctively) believe that:
Community Development + Community Organising = a DIY brighter community future
Join forces – don’t reinvent or schism!

Knitting up a stronger community – starting with its strengths

Several interviews and articles have given me further insights into the asset-based approach to community development – one of the main philosophies I’m reporting in the exploration of community enabling. Here’s a round up, with links to resources at the end. It reinforces earlier insights from our People Powered Change exploration.
Last week in Surrey the Lower Green Community Community Association, which is part of the NESTA Neighbourhood Challenge programme, organised an ABCD workshop with Cormac Russell.
Jenny French, LGCA secretary, had been impressed by Cormac’s approach at a workshop in Manchester which I reported last year.
Cormac gave us some great stories and presentations – including reference to the work in Thornton Heath – and in this interview Jenny explains how the approach has worked in Lower Green. It’s about finding what people need, what others can offer, their aspirations, and then making the connections.

In a class to learn English, the teacher asked what people liked to do in their spare time … they said knitting … so this led to the Knit and Natter group where people both learned the language and produced some great knits. These could have been sold, but the group decided to offer them to men in a local hostel as a way of giving back to the community.
The arts group took off well, learning to make things together … then decided they would join in the knitting. As Jenny said you can knit up a new set of relationships all for little more than the price of a ball of wool. “It’s been fantastic – that people knitting together is actually knitting community”

At the end of the event I asked Cormac if he could summarise the essence of ABCD. He emphasised starting with what you have, welcoming new people into the community, taking a citizen-led rather than professionally-led approach, building relationship power … all things demonstrated very practically in Lower Green.
Cormac also said that he felt there was great scope for the various community building and organising approaches to find some common cause.
Earlier I had spoken to Matthew Bowcock, who is chairman of the national Community Foundation Network, as well as deputy chairman of the Community Foundation for Surrey

Matthew says that we could do a lot more to share stories in communities by using social media. When I asked what stories he was hearing, in visits around the country, he said that on the one hand people might be pessimistic if they were relying for change on traditional approaches of agency-led development and funding.
On the other hand, he found people optimistic and energised when they looked at the strengths they already had in their community … and sought funds only when they could do no more themselves.
He said that many community foundations were changing the way that they operated – shifting from administration of national funds, to the development of communities of engaged local philanthropists. Overall this was part of a tide of change, where people recognised a contract between themselves and their community, with rights but some obligation to give back.
In a blog post for New Start Magazine, entitled The Big Sobriety, Nick Massey applauds the asset based approach to community development – while warning that funding is also essential.
Nick is chief executive of Forever Manchester, which is a community foundation that raises money and distributes it to local people and groups trying to make a positive change in neighbourhoods across Greater Manchester. It has the first team of ABCD community builders in the country – as I reported here. Nick writes:

Traditional public sector and foundation-led funding have succeeded only in creating dependency among targeted communities. Providing resources on the basis of need simply underlines the perception that only outside experts can provide real help. Therefore, the relationships that count most for our local residents are no longer those inside the community, those neighbour-to-neighbour links of mutual support and problem solving. Instead, the most important relationships have become those that involve the expert, the local authority, the health provider, the funder.
This virtually ensures a cycle of deepening dependency, particularly with funders, as problems must always be worse than last year, or more intractable than the next neighbourhood, if funding is to be renewed.
It’s a ‘find it, fund it, fix it’ culture. It’s unsustainable and it’s time to change it… it doesn’t work.

Nick adds:

Traditional community development is driven through formal meetings, is agency-led and engages with at best 20% of local people in their communities, usually people who work within established, well-organised and properly constituted groups. This leaves over 80% of people remaining on the outside who would never engage in this way. ABCD is about new ways of working that appeal to this wider audience.
Three months into community building in Lostock, Manchester we have engaged with 100 local residents whom we had never met before, all now talking about what they can do together. That is ten times more people than we engaged with in the local area partnership there in the last three years.
We are already seeing that local people are starting to think about what they can do for themselves. But still while they wouldn’t think twice about raising money for Children in Need or Comic Relief, it remains out of the norm for them to think about raising money for themselves, for their own simple yet exciting ideas.
ABCD is about conversations and talents, and we see our role in coordinating these, connecting neighbours and looking with them at future ways of funding their ideas, often from within. This is where our community building team are starting their work.

I’ll be gathering resources and interviews about other community enabling approaches. Meanwhile, Tessy Britton has a valuable analysis of participatory paradigms here, leading towards her Creative Collaborative approach.

Update: James Derounian responds in a guest post Joining forces for community enabling

Hyperlocal insights for community enablers exploration

Here’s a post from my personal blog, highlighting some insights for our new exploration into community enablers and digital tech. The interviews with Sean Brady, Lorna Prescott and Annette Albert are particularly relevant – and the growing use of
The Talk About Local unconference in Birmingham yesterday was a highly sociable and enjoyable chance to catch up on the development of hyperlocal blogs and online communities … and also gather some insights for Socialreporters’ new exploration into community enabling and digital tech.
Here are the video interviews that I shot. I’ve summarised below, with links to each interview. The playlist is here.

In thinking about the new exploration, I was particularly interested in Sean Brady’s description of how he became a network weaver after being a parish councillor (referencing Tessy Britton and Eileen Conn along the way), and Lorna Prescott’s conviction that people working in local communities can start using digital tools easily with some support. Nick Booth and Dave Briggs provide some tips on how to do that.
Annette Albert provides an honest assessment of what it means for a non tech person to run a local online community – an enormous achievement on her part, with 1200 members. Vicky Sargent and Steve Brett emphasise the need to blend online and face-to-face activity to engage people in neighbourhood plans.
The online community notice board got a lot of mentions as a way to curate information about events, online activity and wants and offers. I can see that becoming even more popular. Franzi Bahrle is taking an interesting approach with VisualBrum.
On the wider front, I was particularly interested to hear from Will Perrin and Alex Delaney that TAL and Media Trust will be collaborating in future. Maybe there’s scope for a tie-in with People’s Voice Media, whose Institute of Community Reporters I wrote about recently. Philip John and Simon Perry talked about the Hyperlocal Alliance, and Dave Briggs has invited everyone to join in developing the Hyperlocal Handbook.
Here’s the interviews

The first Talk About Local unconference was in Stoke on Trent in 2009, as I reported here, and where I shot these interviews.

Playlist for TAL09 here.

Our next exploration: community enablers and digital tech

We are starting a new exploration at socialreporters: what are the skills, roles and approaches of community enablers, and how can they use the new digital tech tools for network building and neighbourhood change.
I’m using the term “community enabler” to cover people who may call themselves community organisers, builders, mobilisers, development workers, or network weavers. I hope people will find that acceptable as a neutral term, at least for now. As I wrote here, in a post for the People Powered Change exploration, there are many different models for neighbourhood change.
As I explained here, this exploration has developed from a number of storylines I’ve been following recently around network building, digital literacy, games, and hyperlocal media. The initial supporters are Community Matters – who are particularly interested in helping people understand the different models – and the Media4ME project. That aims to support people in neighbourhoods with high levels of ethnic diversity use social media to improve communication between communities and with local public sector bodies.
I’ll be working with long-time collaborator Drew Mackie, and anyone else who would like to join in. This post is by way of marker, and I’ll be adding detail over the next few weeks.
We’ll start on the lines of the current exploration with Nominet Trust, which is into ways that digital technologies can support young people to engage socially and economically with their communities. As I’ve outlined in this editable Google doc, the process will be:

  • Initial research into the community enablers.
  • Identifying and develop some main talking points
  • An event on May 10
  • Further research and discussion online, and other meetings
  • Leading to a report on community enablers, advice on using social media as part of neighbourhood change, and a kit for social reporters.

However, that may change … since this is by its nature an open process, and I hope to find various opportunities for collaborations as we go. There’s details in the doc of the event on May 10, and do get in touch if you are particularly interested – although places are limited. There will be other opportunities.
The next steps will be to expand the outline in the Google doc, and log research there. I’ll report developments on this blog. You can sign up for email updates top right, or subscribe to the category RSS feed in the sidebar. Comments very welcome, of course.
Update: I’ve now posted a report from the Talk About Local unconference this weekend, which offers lots of relevant insights for our exploration.
Earlier explorations