As laid out elsewhere on this website, my role is funded by a grant from the Lankelly Chase Foundation and part of that grant involves me feeding into the work that LCF does across the country. It was for this reason that I found myself getting the train up to Durham to take part in a residential retreat at Beamish Hall, where I would meet other people whose work was being supported by the foundation across England and Scotland.
Once everybody had put on a name badge and warmed up with a drink, we were taken through a checking in session, which consisted of arranging ourselves along a line according to how we were currently feeling on a scale of 1 to 10. It was a great way to quickly see that many of us were sharing similar feelings about the space. We were then asked to contribute our thoughts regarding what we needed from the space in order to flourish and be engaged.
After this, the foundation staff outlined its learning so far, which would shape the retreat:
- The method the foundation uses to help it learn from its work is referred to as action inquiries. These inquiries should be conducted as collectively and collaboratively as possible, underscored by a belief that no single person or organisation has a monopoly on the truth. The inquiry we were faced with was: How do we change the systems that perpetuate severe and multiple disadvantage in (our place)?
- Following on from over 200 conversations, a series of core behaviours had been identified which help systems function better for people facing severe and multiple disadvantage. These can be seen in the nearby image.
- The last part of this learning that we were introduced to was that the issues we were addressing could be defined as complex under the Cynefin Framework, which is a problem-solving tool designed to help you assess the nature of your situation and work out the best way to react. It is a way of finding order where it might not feel present.
Complex situations are ones in which cause-and-effect are not easy (and may be impossible) to establish because the situation is constantly reacting to decisions that you may or not make. You can make informed decisions about how a path of action may pan out but a large number of variables make it impossible to predict with any meaningful sense of accuracy. The advice here is to probe, sense, and respond – to try out ideas and be prepared to react to the unfolding situation. Of the five categories, it was discussed that the work everyone in the room was involved in fits into the complex category.
After this, each geographical group was asked to draw a timeline of the work that we had done. Since I’m a relative newcomer to the borough, I was very grateful to be accompanied by: Monica Needs, head of participation and engagement for the council; Hannah Anderson, director of practice at Collaborate CIC; and Avril McIntyre, the chair of our Trustee board who was attending in her role as director of Community Resources. When it came time to present these back to the group, it seemed a few people were in similar situations to me and had found the exercise useful to get them up to speed on the work that had preceded them! It also allowed us to see where our areas faced similar problems and the different solutions that were being trialled.
Following a break, we moved onto the core part of the afternoon – which was a process known as landwork. This involved pieces of paper with the names of our places being arranged in a circle and were told to stand by our place. Each group then took it in turns to invite the other groups to congregate around us, as visitors to our place. One of the facilitators would then ask the hosts two questions – ‘What is great about your place?’ and ‘What are the issues in your places?’ which the guests would then listen to. Once this was done, the hosts would leave their place while the facilitator put the questions to the guests. The hosts were then invited back and asked to comment on what they heard back – what had the listeners got right? What had been overlooked? Before leaving the area and moving on, guests were asked to leave one thought behind. At the end of the day, these were collated by the facilitators who drew out the common themes to use as the basis for discussion on the second day.
As an example, the group from Gateshead commented that the guests had made a huge deal of one issue, the proximity to Newcastle, and completely overlooked what they felt was a much bigger one, that of high levels of substance dependency. This exercise was great at providing an opportunity to examine how we present our work, how we listen to others, and how others might perceive our work.
With the evening starting to draw in, we were taken through a check out which allowed us to reflect on the things we had discussed throughout the day – you can see those thoughts in the images here.
We started the day with another check in, bringing into the space some of the thoughts that had been developed over dinner. Following this, the facilitators presented us with the themes that they had drawn out of the landwork from the day before. We were told we could each make up to two marks with a bingo dabber and could vote by placing them beside the topics we wished to discuss (if you felt really strongly, you could have placed two beside a single topic). This gave us our topics for discussion and we were then told to find the discussion we wanted to take part in, with each conversation led by a different facilitator who would attempt to use a different facilitation technique such as ‘fishbowl’ or Deep Democracy to help us dig deep.
In mine, we discussed the ‘how’ of our work and reflected on reframing our work by asking who we were working with, as opposed to who we were working for – even this helps shift the dynamic and it forced me to examine how I intended to approach our next round of funding and other work. I found it useful to hear from people across the country about what they had thought they needed and what they actually needed. We talked about what our communities needed and discussed the need for what we termed an ‘asset-based supermarket’, a place where people could go to find help that they needed on a bespoke basis – ‘I’ll have a bit of social media training from you, some budget resources from you, a room to hire from you’ etc.
Such an approach would necessarily require sharing resources between organisations. One participant talked about how, instead of competing with a similar organisation for funding on their own initiative to combat knife crime, they would instead work together as a way of achieving a common goal – since we’re not working in the private sector, we don’t need to limit our imagination to a capitalist way of thinking when it can be avoided. Obviously, there will be times when organisations do find themselves in conflict over resources but that shouldn’t mean we act like that all of the time. Indeed, such an approach might even allow us to turn those ‘flashpoints’ into constructive conversations with other organisations.
We presented these thoughts to the wider group and finished the day by going back into our areas and addressing the following few questions with our colleagues, which we then brought back into a big circle for the final check out:
- How are we learning?
- What support we would like to enable learning in our systems
- What we would like from this residential next time.
What did I learn?
One of the great things about coming together like this was being able to benefit from the wisdom of the group – they had all faced similar struggles and could point out potential pitfalls and offer solidarity. It really helped me to feel less alone, that the work in front of us would be difficult but ultimately worth it.
Something which I’ve carried with me since then was the experience of attendees from Scotland, who felt that their work had been reduced to a monolith, Scotland, whereas the rest of the attendees were grouped by distinct geographical areas of England – we were allowed to be Gateshead, Barrow, Barking & Dagenham and so on. In thinking on this further, I think it also applies on a local level – how often do organisations group together disparate communities for the sake of convenience? Sometimes, the solution might be to accept the complexity and focus in even further to ensure that the ‘community’ you talk about actually exists.
I’ve taken a great deal away from this event and my hope in sharing my thoughts and questions about what I learned may prove relevant or of interest to the organisations and individuals that we work with:
- I have found the Cynefin Framework to be a useful starting point when finding myself in a new or unfamiliar situation
- Listen to learn, not solve: sometimes people just need to talk to you about their problems without hearing proposals – often the answer will come from them through discussion
- People have different roles to play within a space – it’s important to make sure people generate those roles themselves and that there are opportunities to scrutinise them
- Why do ‘cold spots’ exist in our area? Is it a lack of interest or a lack of opportunity?
- Build solidarity around the margins and work in, rather than relying on existing communities and working out
- We need to think carefully about the language we use both in our work and about our community. For example, in this line of work we talk a lot about resilience. Do people think of themselves as having resilience? Or do they see their work as resistance? Or survival?
- When thinking about community engagement, meet the community on their terms – it takes them just as long to travel to you as it would for you to travel to them! Making this effort also makes it clear that you value a community’s time. Similarly, 9-5 might work for you but it’s going to limit who you get to work with
- When planning an event like this, make sure you schedule enough breaks and prepare adequate refreshments! People need nourishment and great conversations can happen in a less formal setting – experiencing LCF do this well was really useful
- Power is already in a community, the work you do is about encouraging it to manifest rather than giving it people – it’s theirs to take
- A lot of work over the past few years has gone into getting senior executives to buy into radical/different approaches and while this has often worked, it has been stifled by middle management who were not brought alongside – they may feel more risk averse from not being at the top and from not have heard the arguments being made in favour of change
- While ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’, the good can often get in the way of the great – that is to say an unexamined belief that what you are doing is good can lead to missing out on doing great transformative work
- Lots of subjects are taboo, and people often don’t like talking about their problems – you need to create a space for listening and develop an understanding that it might take a long time for people to open up and begin a process of change
- It’s important to create systems of support and culture change within your organisation, to prevent stagnation, burnout, and animosity – it’s up for your organisation to work out what that looks like
What I would like to see, and will be working towards, is for the borough to have a shared platform of learning, where organisations across Barking & Dagenham can go to see if anyone else in the borough has had a similar experience and could offer a useful resource or advice. Currently, both existing residents and new arrivals are wholly dependent on finding the right person who can make something happen – in the first few weeks of this job, a lot of questions I asked could only be answered by a certain person and if they weren’t available then I literally couldn’t do anything until they were. Any such platform would be need to be decentralised, as allowing any one organisation or body to have control would perpetuate a lot of the power dynamics that the platform would seek to disrupt.
Three weeks before this event, I had a different job working in the highly competitive environment of magazine publishing, which was more focussed on how much profit had been generated than if the work was actually any good or useful – even when a sales target was met, it was still preferably to sell extra pages as “advertorial” than to use them to highlight real world issues. It’s taken me a while to reflect on why I needed to leave that job, and I think part of it was that I was working in a system that focussed on blame. When things went wrong, the first question was never ‘how can we remedy this?’ or ‘what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?’, but ‘whose fault was this?’.
It was incredibly refreshing to be in a space that was a vast distance from that mindset, to come together and figure out ways to help each other. These people were total strangers to me before the event, yet we had given each other insight into our work – the experience of people in Oxford, York, Greater Manchester, and beyond will prove useful in helping the people of Barking & Dagenham and vice versa.
I’d like to say a big thank you to the team at Lankelly Chase for setting all of this up and facilitating the work, to the staff at Beamish Hall for creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere, and to the rest of the attendees for their contributions and reflections on very difficult topics.
If you’ve liked this, feel free to share and any feedback is welcome.