Looks like there’s demand for big improvements in community activities that cross the town-gown divide in Cambridge – and that demand is coming from both the resident community and the students too.
Local councillors and I dare say some of you are probably getting a bit bored of me going on about community-action-related activities in Cambridge. Early on after leaving the civil service and sinking my teeth into various community things in Cambridge, I realised that a social-media-first approach simply wasn’t going to work. A bit of a shock to the systems given that during downtime in my final weeks in the service I’d given a fair amount of thought to applying some of the things I’d learnt in various policy teams and in civil service social media circles to my home town.
Making assumptions without doing the research
The two biggest incorrect assumptions I made were on the strength of institutional working relationships across the city – especially in an era of cuts, and on the take up of social and digital media across the city, which turned out to be far more patchy than I had anticipated. I also had to get my head around not being part of a large institution any more. Back in the civil service, the strength of your department’s brand name opens doors for you and gets things done. When you’re a freelancer, organisations can treat you in a manner above the plague but below the black death. At times it felt like the only people that mattered were those working within organisations that had ‘manager’ or ‘director’ in their job titles.
Turning up to community events – lots and lots of them
My mind is turning into a bit of a blur in terms of the numbers of events I’ve been to in recent times. It sort of gives me an insight into what it must be like being a councillor or an MP – feeling obliged to turn up to all of these events. I’ve found it exhausting – and (despite mental health condition) I don’t have the excuse of a full-time job competing for attention at the same time. Recently I managed three different events in one day, crashed out completely the following day before managing one on each of the three days that followed. That’s hard going for anyone – and I wouldn’t blame any individual whatever their position in life for saying that one event per month was enough for them.
The importance of face-to-face relationships
I’ve actually spent (other than telling everyone who’s asked, about Puffles) a fair amount of time asking questions and listening. This has been both face-to-face and online. In both the south and west of Cambridge, there are vibrant and fairly affluent communities that function with little online presence. Both the talk by former Treasury Minister Melanie Johnson (see here) and a superb local history talk by Jeremy Lander that busted a series of myths about Queen Edith (we named the school and the area after the wrong Edith) were ones that had little publicity online but were standing-room-only when I arrived at both venues.
“Why not leave such communities alone as they are?”
People in generations older than me locally have often commented that they feel they should be using social media more, but have a number of things stopping them. Cuts to local government means that past grant funding means existing community facilities are no longer viable. Having read some of the reports and minutes of various meetings, three years worth of cuts are really biting some areas. The risk is that unviable community facilities get sold off to international property speculators who then convert them into rabbit-hutch properties which then cannot be converted back. Leaving my own community ‘alone’ does not mean it will remain as it is. All the more likely, it will fall victim to the desires of the wealthy interests circling the city rather than the needs and wants of the people that live here. Cambridge being my home town and pretty much the only place in the world I’ve ever really identified with (the ‘non-uni’ bit), I feel a sense of responsibility to the place that I’ve never really felt with anywhere else. It’s like saying that if Cambridge goes, I’ll have nowhere else to go. Therefore I’m choosing to fight for it.
“So who wants what then?”
I’ve spoken to a number of individuals within various community groups, enough of whom like the idea of a community engagement strategy for Cambridge. (See the slides embedded in this blogpost. No – really, I’d love to have your feedback!) Very recently, both Transition Cambridge and some of the students within the Cambridge Hub have backed the long term aim of such a strategy. (ie making Cambridge a city greater than the sum of its parts – the slidepack mentioned above explains). In conversation, we’ve discussed how a number of useful tools that could emerge from a strategy will help strengthen both communities and the financial sustainability of community facilities.
One example being a single online tool that allows people to search and filter for community halls and rooms for events and meetings – similar to the way hotel bookings work. You pick your day, time, geographical area, nature of event, number of people and your budget and click ‘search’. Making something like this would require a lot of groundwork – not least locating all of the places available and linking up/improving their bookings system so that they all synchronise, then training enough people in communities to make it work.
Where do we begin to start with this?
A great start for me would be having a community action summit (as per the title of this blogpost). A comfortable, accessible venue where anyone who wants to make a difference, along with interested representatives from organisations that could make a real difference, would come along to thrash out a whole host of things. This wouldn’t just be about getting people to agree to a vision for where we want to get to, but also identifying problems as well as ideas on how to overcome them. Ditto identifying our current ‘baseline’ – i.e. finding out what’s already out there. Furthermore, such a summit will need to identify follow-up actions and events. For example I was at the Cambridge University Student Union Societies Fair – which (apart from saturation-bombing by pizza firms which I found highly intrusive) as always was a fun occasion. In 2012 I asked if Cambridge could host a similar one, but for all the town and community groups that exist in the city – see here. I also asked in 2011 if the city could have a ‘hack day’ (see here) to build some of the tools that communities need eg for booking halls.
How do we make something like this happen?
I’m more than happy to be a lead facilitator on this. But there are a whole host of things that I don’t have.
Organisational skills and capacity
For those of you that don’t know, my mental health issues mean I can’t work full time – I’m in long term recovery from a crisis last year. There’s no way in my current state I could organise and deliver such a summit alone. I also don’t have access to funds or people-power directly to deliver it. Hence why I’d be relying on an established group such as the Cambridge Hub and/or Transition Cambridge to bring together some of their volunteer activists to help with things like booking venues, setting things up and publicity to make it a successful day.
High-level community champions to change institutional mindsets
For whatever reason, when your email address says .gsi.gov.uk at the end of it, stuff happens. When it doesn’t, little does. Certainly at this frontline level. Hence to get some of the institutions on board, we need some active community champions. I’m looking particularly at holders of public office as well as those that chair or convene existing groups, organisations or networks. The reason being is that if we are to have a community engagement strategy that covers the city, at some stage we will need people who can commit the institutions that they work for. (This makes managing working relationships much easier down the line because you’ve got something to hold those institutions accountable to).
Who stands to benefit and how?
I dare say that some of the biggest beneficiaries from this are children and young people. A community engagement strategy will have written into or flowing from it agreed protocols on consultation and engagement so that:
- Whenever there is a major development happening within the neighbourhood of a school/schools, councils host active outreach events in the schools explaining to children and parents whats going on. (See my issues here)
- Whenever young people are doing volunteering or community-related work, institutions and community groups know when to expect them and what to expect – such as with Duke of Edinburgh Gold, National Citizens Service and the Prince’s Trust. (Again, see my issues here)
- Whenever there are offers of grant money for various things, such will be the strength of working and communications relationships that far more people will be aware of what’s available, and be invited to contribute and develop ideas. (Again, see my issues here)
- We’ll have some method of feedback that people attending events can contribute towards so as to make them better in the future – whether fairs and fetes to events hosted in council premises. (See here as an example – and also here in terms of learning from mistakes)
- We’ll have a method of publicising what worked really well – such as the Liberated Feast Event here. (So successful was that one they’ve organised one for November – see details here)
- It will be easier to publicise online community groups (such as the 20s Hotspot that hosts events for people in that age bracket – nearly 600 members in and around Cambridge at the last count) to events otherwise ‘off the beaten track’ such as those by Cambridge’s English Country Dancing Society.
- It may also make it easier to start something new. I would love to see Cambridge form a “Late Starters’ Orchestra” along the lines of the ELLSO in London. Can Cambridge’s music teachers get together to organise what the Duxford Workshop have outside of Cambridge? Or, as is my personal favourite, rollerblading lessons for both children and adults like they have in London.
Food for thought?