Angela Fell: My Story of finding ABCD

Hello all, I’m Angela and I’m so happy to be able to say hello to you as a Nurture Development associate. Cormac invited me a while ago to join the Nurture Development team and it’s about time that I said a proper hello.

I absolutely passionately believe in asset-based community development.  Getting alongside folk and cheering them on as they put down the map and pick up the compass is one of my favourite pastimes.

Little has brought me as much joy of late as being part of the way my own neighbourhood in Wigan responded to COVID-19, seeking to do so in a way that invited people in, creating a shared sense of belonging and discovering an abundance of treasure and new friendships.  It’s been a homecoming.

I’ve also been cheering on a neighbourhood in Netherton, a village in Sefton, Merseyside for the last three years.  I’ve been a friend of this village since the 1990s and I’ll tell you more about that later. The way this village came together during the pandemic and want to continue being and doing together is inspirational.

If I can do more of this with Nurture Development, as an invited guest and alongsider, until I disappear into the woodlands with Jimmy the motorhome, then I’ll retire a happy & satisfied woman.  That’s my hope.

So how did I get here?  

If ABCD was a song I think I would say that I’ve always hummed the tune and known most of the lyrics and maybe occasionally misheard a few words, a bit like ‘Sweet Dreams are made of Cheese’, or ‘We built this city on sausage rolls’. It took a while for me to shift from ‘I want to make a difference’ to ‘I want to create space and conditions that enable people to come together and do it themselves.’

I started teacher training at Didsbury School of Education in 1988, just as the National Curriculum was introduced.  The experiential style of teaching at Didsbury suited me down to the ground.  Unfortunately, it was far removed from the real-life classroom experience.  My hopes for an AS Neils Summerhill approach to primary classroom democracy and learning in Wythenshawe didn’t go down too well with the adults if I’m honest.  The children loved it to be fair.  It became clear to me, and the school I was placed in, that national curriculum teaching wasn’t for me, when I cleared all the desks out of a classroom to teach RE through drama.  I tried to swap to Youth and Community Studies or Social Work, which were also taught at Didsbury, and was advised to get some life experience first.

Luckily for me, it was Manchester in 1988 and there was plenty of that life experience on tap.  I enrolled on the degree of life, whilst still holding onto my place on the teaching degree by the skin of my teeth.  The life degree didn’t come with a grant.  My placements were at the Hacienda, the Boardwalk, parties in Moss Side and working on the cigarette and confectionary till at a petrol station opposite a refuge and a residential children’s home.  It’s here that I discovered the gifts of people and the entrenched inequality within society.  It’s here too that I became acquainted and fell in love with one of the most underrated professions in the world, in my opinion – Playwork.  At this time it was guided by two assumptions that started to guide my way of being as an alongsider.

First assumption

Children’s play is freely chosen, personally directed behaviour, motivated from within; through play, the child explores the world & his or her relationship with it, elaborating all the while a flexible range of responses to the challenges she or he encounters; by playing the child learns and develops as an individual’

2nd assumption

‘Whereas children may play without encouragement or help, adults can, through the provision of an appropriate human and physical environment, significantly enhance opportunities for the child to play creatively and thus develop through play.

Playwork taught me to listen and to observe, to sit comfortably with risk and to watch out for play cues.  It was my early training in serving whilst walking backwards.  It also taught me to listen closely and deeply so that you could build into the play curriculum opportunities for issue-based activities and discussion starting from where children were at.

Unfortunately Playwork, like many other professions,  became institutionalised.  It was turned into PlayCare to meet the needs of working parents and carers.  OFSTED and health and safety became involved and learning how to make a fire or climb a tree were no longer seen as safe activities.  Playworkers became key workers who measured and reported on the way children met early learning goals. Thankfully we are beginning to see that this approach stifled development.

In 1997 I took a job as Childcare Development Manager for Netherton Partnership, an SRB Programme in Sefton.  It was a one year contract (extended to three) and I had targets to meet: to create a network of out-of-school clubs and a local management structure.  Many of our initial ideas around supporting the informal system just weren’t allowed.  They wouldn’t fit funding or inspection criteria. And so I became part of the system that set about dismantling community and associational life and the informal way that the Netherton community looked after its own children. Paid childcare arrived in Netherton. It was very well-intentioned, we hoped to create a co-operative, but we didn’t have the time for community building; we provided training so that all local jobs could be taken by local people, and they were.  Over twenty years later the charity, Fun4Kidz is still around and highly valued too.  In 1997 Netherton had a thriving associational life.  There was a parent and toddler group attached to every Church and Community Centre, volunteer playgroups too.  In 2016 when I was invited back to the community to help with an evaluation and a lottery application there wasn’t much associational life to see. Well-intentioned SRB, Sure Start, OFSTED and health and safety legislation had told this community that what they were doing didn’t meet the required standards. So they went home and let other people tell them and show them how to do it right.  And then along came austerity and the well-intentioned services disappeared. In 2017, the village of Netherton started the process of rebuilding.

In 2008, after a good few years working in rights, participation and engagement type roles I saw a job for an Area Manager in Wigan, managing an integrated service consisting of Youth Service, Connexions and the Education Welfare Service.  I thought this was my chance.  To get inside an institution and influence the way that services work with people. Not only was it in my home town, but it was covering the area I had grown up in.  A dream. Two years later I realised that this was impossible from inside.  I could see that life hadn’t changed for many of the children whose parents I went to school with.  I could also see that the system was restricted and couldn’t be helpful.  Annual plans and targets across the three services I was responsible for meant that there was little time to do anything other than what was measured.  In fact, I worked out that there was a gap in the month of May where it was possible to do something more creative or citizen-led. By 2010 I was disillusioned and was looking to go when along came Hilary Cottam’s Life Programme.  My Mum used to say to me that someone would have to knit me a husband  and this surely felt like someone had knitted me a job.

I spent five years in this role working so hard to get alongside community with some amazing friends.  Being human, being loving and co-creating with people who had been brought up by the system or had always been involved with many elements of it. It was the best and worst time of my life.  The way that families invited us into their lives and helped us to see the system through their eyes taught me everything I now know and crystallised my belief and passion in asset-based community development.  Of course, we need relational services, but we need stronger neighbours and communities more.

I remember when I secured the Life Programme secondment, Marie, a wise Youth Work Manager said to me.: “It’s the emperor’s new clothes.” The latest gadget, high profile programme of the moment.  People will lose interest. There’ll be a change in management,  and your programme will lose support and there will be a new programme in town.  At the time I remember feeling really annoyed with Marie.  “How could she say that?”, “This time it’s going to be different”, “This is special”. Marie was spot on.  I believe that’s what happened, even though others tell a different story.

I am sure that you will have heard Cormac tell his Humpty Dumpty story?  It’s here if you need to refresh.  As someone who has sat on both sides of the wall and often sat alongside Humpty listening to why she feels the way she does I feel I have some clarity of vision that is guided by what I feel is the right thing to do.

For me, it starts with ABCD, exploring what communities can do for themselves, with support and what they want to be done for them. Communities have forgotten that they can do things for each other.  We’ve been doing to people as individuals for so long that they now feel they need permission to do for and with others.  Rediscovering and connecting is the work, and it often comes last on the list, an afterthought when we have decided what services we need. Relational services without connected communities will never work. It’s like building a house and forgetting the foundations.

On the King’s Men side of the wall the ideas of social entrepreneurs, like Hilary Cottam whose work I very much respect, approaches such as Local Area Co-ordination (although this does contain the time for community building and you could say it straddles both sides of the wall) and Burtzoorg self-organising teams. Add this to the learning from place-based working initiatives like those in my town of Wigan and we have the garlic bread of the future I feel.

I’m hoping to be useful to neighbourhoods and communities that want to connect, organise and grow power and to institutions that want to shift from doing for to being alongside.

Angela Fell

You can read more about Angela in her bio here.

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