Sari is Community Southwark’s Social Action & Communities Officer. Sari tells us about her three year social action project and the many and useful learning and insights along the way.
“I’ve been leading on a grassroots community organising project called Camberwell and Nunhead Connected for almost 3 years now, funded by The National Lottery Reaching Communities fund. It is in its last few months and I’ll take this opportunity to give a quick overview and pick out anything we have learnt which might be shared usefully.
Connected is a pilot project which aims to improve health and wellbeing by increasing agency, connections, knowledge and activities at a hyper local community level. The project focused on council estates, primarily with Resident Associations and a GP surgery; we had some seed funding to offer and my energy and support as a paid organiser.
The project is exciting because it truly gave us scope to evolve and put the communities in charge. It was difficult, too, because a clear offer was hard to articulate initially. The first step to bringing it to life was finding Community Organisers and training with them. There I developed a strong framework which allowed for the organic nature of this kind of work whilst keeping its integrity, and most importantly helping us to act. I recommend their training heartily to anyone who wants to do social action better and more meaningfully.
I’m really proud of how the projects have progressed, particularly on two of the estates. This is partly because they were our first projects and having enough time in an area is important for community organising. To give an example of the work; on one estate I found a resident passionate about starting a magazine. This magazine is embarking on its 4th issue now and led to an influx of new residents getting involved; new projects have proliferated including a campaign against an out-of-control waste problem. At their recent AGM there were 45 people, I’m told previously 10 people was a good turnout. See edition 1 of the magazine here as an example: Life On Lettsom Magazine_issue1
Ultimately, my job has boiled down to building relationships. All the groups I’ve encountered have suffered from a lack of engagement; often one or two people trying to do the work of a whole community. This isn’t fair, representative or sustainable. Agency, knowledge, activity, wellbeing – and friendship! – need plentiful and real connections to grow. Surveys and a few events are not enough. Engagement means constantly encouraging more and more meaningful connections in a community.
Building relationships takes time, skill and often comes through having a mutual aim in mind:
– Time is a privilege that many don’t have, so finding people who are willing to share their time is precious. Take notice of those people. Coming to the end of this project, I can say the most important thing has been finding the right people to work with. One of our most brilliant resident activists has now become a professional community organiser herself.
Listening within a community is a big part of the process. Door knocking and having 1-2-1 conversations is one way. Street outreach and events, too, and building an informal culture of listening. Doing this is a real skill, which needs to be developed. One of my improvements to Connected project was understanding training and developing leadership as key. See Community Organisers training (I’m not on their payroll, promise).
– Listening is a good way to start building but soon a tangible project is needed. A mutual aim that lights people’s imagination. Without that it all starts to feel a bit aimless. Ideally it becomes a positive feedback system between action and building relationships, leading to more action and more connections.
Connected projects have organised around everything from free art activity packs and magazines to revamping physical spaces such as gardens, TRA halls and disused spaces. Of course, all of this takes resources. The Connected project had that to offer, and there are funding opportunities out there (Community Southwark can help). But I’d like to acknowledge that a burden is being placed on volunteers and communities to ‘get active’ where services were previously there to support people’s health and wellbeing. That said, research is proving that a community of connections itself makes a strong contribution to health and wellbeing.
The great thing about my job building relationships is that I’ve built myself countless new friendships. Leaving these projects will be sad, but I genuinely believe that most of them will continue to grow and even flourish for years ahead”.
See our latest report here: Public Camberwell & Nunhead Connected Mid-Year3 Report.