When the roots are deep, there’s no reason to fear the wind
‘When the roots are deep, there’s no reason to fear the wind’ is an African proverb, and one which we have used to steer our approach to community building in Gloucestershire.
Over the years I’ve found the metaphor of a tree a useful one, not least as our story in Gloucestershire has branched in different directions. This blog attempts to share the story of those branches as they have spread and been nurtured, whilst always paying attention to developing deep roots through building shared values and principles.
The journey into Community Building started in 2012, with the Barnwood Trust, a charitable foundation dedicated to ensuring Gloucestershire is a place where everyone with a disability or mental health challenge is valued for who they are and what they can give, can do the things they love, and feel fully welcome in their communities.
Barnwood worked with Nurture Development during those initial years to introduce the concept of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) and initiated some hands-on practice. It wasn’t an easy path, there were many knocks and bumps as we made mistakes and learned together, but there were also seminal moments that shaped our future.
One of those seminal moments was the hosting of a 2-day conference in Matson, Gloucester. The event was held at the invitation of Jennie Watkins, an elected member of Gloucester City Council and now Deputy Leader. Jennie used her convening power to bring together over 100 people from community groups, housing associations, the police, council and residents. During those 2 days the group was introduced to core principles of ABCD. One of the 100 in the room was Gareth Hooper, an Environmental Health Officer. Gareth is now a great advocate of ABCD, but he found the initial 2 hours, 56 mins on that first day particularly tough. He said, “If people have such ability to help themselves, why on earth are they bombarding me with e-mails and phone calls all day?!” However, over the duration of the two days, something changed in Gareth which led the Council down a new path that would fundamentally affect how they worked with residents across the city. You can read more about Gareth’s experience here: https://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/where-were-you-when-they-compressed-the-atom/
“Thanks to Gareth’s thoughtfulness and tenacity, the Council decided to learn more about Asset Based Community Development, and sometime later embarking on a new approach to stimulating community-led action in Gloucester” (New Shoots – Ruth Saunders, Head of Communities, Gloucester City Council)
Since that initial 2-day conference in Matson, Gloucester City Council have continued to embed asset-based principles across the organisation. This has been made possible by strong leadership at all levels of the organisation and particularly at political level as this has enabled ABCD to be included in the last two Council Plans from 2013!
Since 2013, the Council has dabbled in projects where there is an opportunity to do something different. These projects have included Community Building in specific wards, changing the way they give grants and adapting processes to make sure the Council can enable residents as much as possible. Our intention has been to try and change the way we work with residents, build relationships, encourage inclusion and learn where we should step in or step back. This isn’t an easy line to tread but, through reflection and flexibility, we have been able to permanently refine some of our processes for the better.
One of our greatest demonstrations of the potential of Community Building was the placement of a Community Builder in a brand new, large housing development on the borders of the City. Kingsway is a community of around 3500 homes, and mix of social, affordable and private housing and a place where nobody knew each other. The Community Builder spent two years in the area: asset mapping, making connections, telling people they ‘could’ rather than they ‘couldn’t’, supporting new groups to do what they felt passionate about and linking those with shared interest. The most important thing about his work is that he didn’t actually do anything- the residents did it all!
Three years later the fruits of what that Community Builder didn’t do are long-lasting. Kingsway Runners has over 1000 members on Facebook and has runs going out from the estate several times a week with groups from beginners to advanced but describes itself as a “friendly, social running group”. It really is quite a sight on a dark night to see hundreds of runners with their flashing lights running up the roads through the estate. Kingsway Runners was the catalyst for Kingsway Parkrun, a weekly 5k running event which brings hundreds of runners to the area every Saturday morning. Since this Parkrun began Gloucester has benefitted from two further park runs being set up in the City – imagine the health benefits of all that activity!
It wasn’t all about running in Kingsway; Kingsway Cycling Club, another group of residents, ride out weekly with group rides for many levels, taking different routes and distances depending on the level of the rider. This is completely self-organised by residents who love to cycle and has been happening since the Community Builder supported residents to set it up over two years ago.
And, it wasn’t all about sport! Men in Sheds was another group set up by residents who wanted to find a way of men in the area getting together and doing something they enjoyed. The group get involved in charity work, events and help each other to learn new skills and of course in doing so helped them to maintain and develop their wellbeing and mental health.
Kingsway is just one example of the power of Community Building and how planting a small seed can lead to deep roots and wide branches! Most recently the Council, with partners, has embarked upon developing a Community Interest Company to host Community Builders across the City, in every ward, for a period of 10 years. This work has been the product of a two-year partnership with Barnwood Trust and Gloucestershire Constabulary which saw a Council Officer and three Police Community Support Officers seconded as Community Builders for 2 years. They were able to experiment with a new way of working which they would eventually be able to bring back to their organisation to influence the culture. An evaluation of the two years has showed us how building relationships with residents, working with them on possibilities rather than problems, and supporting their ambitions, has changed the way residents see the organisation and has started to lead to a more effective partnership with the community.
When you think about what we achieved in two years on a small scale, with a small number of Officers, the potential of a 10-year widescale project is an exciting opportunity for us all!
You can read more about the work of Gloucester City Council in this report by the Centre for Public Impact https://www.centreforpublicimpact.org/community-building-gloucester-necessity-austerity-right-approach-residents/