Today was the first day of community organising training under the Locality scheme. I travelled up by train from Euston on the 07:10 with the other four Cambridge House organisers – Ahmed and Zara in the picture. We got into Chester Station and with help from Lawrence Walker, got taxis to Trafford Hall, about ten minutes away.
RE:generate Trust and photos
Each person was asked to sit for their photo on arrival and to complete a simple form that gave some idea of their hopes and fears for the training. When we gathered for the opening plenary, it became clear that a group of 47 organisers and the other staff would be quite cramped in Trafford Hall’s largest meeting space. Sitting in one large circle, Stephen Kearney – RE:generate’s CEO – introduced the Office for Civil Society, Locality and RE:generate Trust as the three national partners for the community organisers programme. He introduced Helen Wallis-Dowling who is RE:generate’s Director of Training and Julia Olsen who with Stephen founded the Trust and is now their Director of Development. Julia explained that we are going to learn about Root Solution – Listening Matters (RSLM) which has been developed over twenty years by the Trust. She emphasised that it provides a structure – or as she put it a trellis – on which to grow community change from the bottom up. Stephen said the training was all about a power shift in communities.
The day’s first exercise asked us to chose a photo from a wide range of images laid out on tables in a neighbouring room. Once we had each made our choice, we shared it’s meaning for us with another participant and then in fours, looked for common themes or ideas. We came together to share with the whole group our reflections on the photos. The themes were varied but spoke to the diverse nature of the group. We were told about a reflection wall where we can post public comments. We were introduced to Giles Edwards Producer of BBC Radio 4’s Four Thoughtwho is covering the training as part of developing a half hour documentary on the organiser programme for next March.
Key themes for organising
Stephen and Julia pointed out that we had already passed through the three stages of RSLM. We had started on our own looking at what touched us in the photos – personal growth. Then, we had shared our meaning with another and in a small group – taken local action. Finally, we had brought our reflections to the plenary – linked to wider society. Stephen went on to suggest that all three realms needed to be addressed or communities fail to thrive. To bring change, he said, we need to build trust, offer respect and develop relationships. Julia drew up a diagram of the action-input-reflection-action cycle through which RSLM will take us.
What’s an ideal community?
Before lunch, we were all asked to create an image or model of our ideal community. Helen offered us a great range of creative materials to get started with from old wiring roll innards to paper and dolls. Like eager school kids, we got stuck in. Once most had tried to develop their personal vision of community, we were asked to work in groups of four or five to develop a single linked-up community from our personal ones. Of course, explaining our ideal community and searching out common and conflicting elements took time, until lunch intervened.
After lunch, we were back in the same groups but now had to explain our careful construction to another group of four or five and create a single community from both the group offerings. Of course this unearthed compromises and conflicts not faced by groups on their own and forced some reassessment. The resulting community was then given an agreed name and we retired from the models and images to a quiet five minutes of reflection in plenary. By this stage, we had developed four utterly different models of the ideal community and we took an hour to share each with the whole group before a break. We were given four questions to discuss in our group, taking us through the classic sequence: what do you think, how does it make you feel and what have you learnt. When we returned, to the plenary we unpacked what individuals had learnt from the extended exercise and how it related to community organising.
One day in, two to go
At the end of a long first day, I have managed to meet a good proportion of the other organisers. We have built a fair foundation for collaboration between the different groups of organisers. We have handled some minor conflicts and come through unscathed. A good start to a longer process.
Two issues arose today which shed interesting light on the participants and the programme. Early on, I asked what hashtag we were using for the training. Stephen decided that the group should decide whether they were happy for people to tweet and blog about the training. After loads of useful discussion, 12 people voted to allow tweeting but the majority were either unsure or opposed. I was surprised that people were so reluctant to share the occasion with others but as a result, decided to only blog or tweet afterthe training. (My decision was also helped by the poor 3G reception around Trafford Hall and limited access to wifi!)
After supper, Neil Smith from the OCS came to join the group and spoke for a few minutes. He is the senior civil servant responsible for the programme. Whilst his colleague Matsuma was with the training all three days, he had ridden over by motorcycle to recognise this milestone in the programme’s life, the first training of community organisers. However, protocol meant that he could say little about the programme without the minister’s agreement and so when asked questions by the organisers answered with ‘no comment’ too often for comfort. The gesture was great but without any substance to his presence, participants felt let down and confused. Some said they were angry at his reticence and that was a shame!
More about RE:generate Trust can be found here.
In Autumn 2010, Neil Smith made several presentations around the country about the Big Society for which his team at OCS remain responsible. Neil Smith’s Presentation