The Centre for Citizenship and Community, a new collaboration between the RSA, the University of Central Lancashire and the Royal Society for Public Health, was formally launched at the RSA House yesterday. Grounding academic and social research in community practice, the Centre will bring together researchers and practitioners from universities, public bodies, voluntary organisations and business to implement community projects and guide social policy using a Connected Communities approach to social and community networks. The launch consisted of key-note speeches from the Centre’s associates followed by a series of discussion groups held by delegates from numerous professional backgrounds to debate the policy implications of the Centre’s early perspectives.
Co-production: a connected communities approach to social policy
In a plenary speech David Morris, Professor of mental health, inclusion and community at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and the Centre for Citizenship and Community, spoke about how the Centre will promote a vision of the ‘social value of empowered communities’ being integrated into public policy, with a culture of co-production emerging in public services. He stressed the need for policy makers to recognise the complexity and potential that lies within communities, to build innovations around shared community assets, and to use Connected Communities-inspired research to inform the production of community owned, networked social interventions.
Afterwards, RSA Connected Communities director of research Steve Broome criticised what he described as the standard ‘deficit model’ of viewing communities, which focuses exclusively on their problems rather than their assets and potential. In contrast he demonstrated how social networks approaches help us to understand communities using an ‘attribute model’ which reveals which assets in a community help people interact and support one another. He emphasised the prominent role that public services play in supplying or supporting these community assets, and went on to highlight the danger that ill-considered spending cuts present to social networks when community assets are not mapped or recognised. A forthcoming RSA report will develop these themes further, focusing on the viability of community assets and social networks in the context of government austerity.
Theory into co-produced practice: Murton ‘mams’ and ways to wellbeing
Examples of such projects were presented by Mandy Chivers of Mersey Care NHS Care Trust and Lyndsey Wood of the East Durham Trust. Both organisations are working in partnership with the RSA and UCLan to implement co-produced, network-based community projects based on findings from Connected Communities research. In Liverpool, Mersey Care is training volunteers from the BAME community in the principles of the New Economic Foundation’s ‘five ways to wellbeing’, while in Murton, a former mining town, the East Durham Trust has helped set up a new social group for single mothers called ‘Murton Mams’, in which the activities and programme are led by the members of the group themselves to help combat the widespread isolation among this group that the Connected Communities findings revealed.
Challenges ahead: austerity, tolerated harshness, and championing social networks
Following the introductory talks, attendees split into discussion groups to debate the implications of the presentations for public policy and community practice, and to begin to think about what the Centre can contribute to such debates in the future. Some key points that emerged from these discussions included:
i) The need for the Centre to promote and build the status of social networks in a context in which the very existence of ‘communities’ often seems to be doubted. The evidence base for a networked approach to public and community policy must be vigorously argued.
ii) The need to be conscious of the risk of ‘making a contrivance out of ordinary connection’. Co-production, in other words, must avoid the pitfalls of regularising informal, reciprocal relationships, or exposing what David Halpern has called the ‘hidden wealth’ of communities to overly harsh light where they would be better preserved by remaining hidden. An example given was the ‘spontaneous expression of citizenship’ of a train ticket saleswoman who enjoys smiling at her customers and once decided to give Easter eggs to her regulars; if a statutory system of formalised gift-giving on public transport was initiated, the spontaneity and charm of the exchange would doubtless be compromised.
Other challenges were also discussed. Morris and Broome both highlighted the dangers posed to sometimes fragile networks by austerity, growing inequality, and ‘externally enforced fragmentation’, while it was elsewhere noted that cultural norms are becoming less social, along the lines of what Hugo Young described as a growing ‘tolerated harshness’ in society. Other attendees urged that co-productive services must be genuinely co-produced with public services taking an active role, rather than simply deferring responsibility or ‘outsourcing by another name’.
The mood was on the whole optimistic, however, with numerous attendees stating that they welcomed the opportunity to network and debate issues in this way, and praising the new Centre as a valuable line of communication between community-oriented actors from the academic, public, private, and third sectors.
Based in the School of Social Work at UCLan and the King’s Fund offices in London, the Centre for Citizenship and Community will meet regularly over the coming months and offers organisations dedicated support for community engagement through:
- Strategies and integrated programmes for social and community- based commissioning
- Service development and redesign, based on economic modelling and cost-benefit analysis, organisational, leadership and workforce development
This is backed up by:
- Bespoke programmes of accredited learning and professional development
- Programme evaluation and research evidence.
Its associates will be posting regular updates from varied perspectives on the RSA’s blogging platform; in the meantime, more information on the Centre including contact details can be found on the RSA website. If you would like to be notified when the forthcoming RSA report on the impact of austerity on communities is published, or to be kept informed of the work of the Centre for Citizenship and Community, email firstname.lastname@example.org and request to be added the the RSA Action and Research Centre mail list.
Last week I was delighted to be part of a panel discussing regeneration in Pillgwenlly, a community in Newport, South Wales. The invitation came from RSA Fellow Wiard Sterk, who has been working with the team leading a major regeneration project in Pill, and asked me along to share examples of some of the inspirational community projects that RSA Fellows are leading elsewhere.
My family have roots in south Wales, but I haven’t been there in a few years – so I was somewhat intimidated to find myself speaking alongside people who know the area inside out, including RSA Fellowship Councillor Kathy Seddon, who grew up in Pill. It turned out, though, that one of the most interesting things about the evening was how much of what was discussed was familiar from projects I’ve worked with elsewhere.
Of course, it’s risky (and usually wrong) to assume that what works in one place will automatically apply in another, but a project I spoke about that seemed to strike a chord was Changing Chelmsford, a community organisation set up by RSA Fellows (led by Malcolm Noble, now chair of the RSA’s East of England region) in 2010. They’d hoped to start a conversation about how Chelmsford could become a more successful place, hoping to disprove the false notion – familiar to many places – that “nothing happens in this town”.
They’ve done this with resounding success. Since a first summer of events in 2010 attracted 120 or so people, they’ve held a ‘festival of ideas’ every summer, and sparked numerous initiatives and projects across the town. This year, over 500 people came to events, and an estimated 1000+ visited a temporary community space set up in an empty unit in a shopping centre. And when in 2012 Chelmsford bid successfully for city status, Changing Chelmsford was cited in the application as a shining example of community engagement.
What worked about the project? Here are a few rough thoughts I shared at the meeting:
- It worked across sectors. From the start, the project brought together volunteers, in the shape of RSA Fellows; officials from the borough and county councils; and professionals, particularly designers and artists. And, although it took a little longer, local businesses are now in on the act, providing support in kind for the annual festival.
- It focussed on real places. There are several fine buildings in Chelmsford that are currently not used to their full potential, most famously the former Marconi factory (often spoken of as the birthplace of radio). The group have increasingly focused their campaigning on these buildings, and have received some high profile media coverage for their efforts. More importantly, though, this has galvanised people around the project by giving them something solid to focus on.
- It supported practical projects. As well as campaigning, the group have worked to support individuals and groups in Chelmsford who had ideas for doing things differently. One example is Young Urban Explorers, a project led by a local architect Annabel Brown (and funded by RSA Catalyst) that challenged young people to seek out under-used spaces in the town, and then pitch their ideas for remodelling them to the council.
The project has been a huge success. However, as someone I spoke to last night commented, it’s frustrating when people talk about these kinds of initiatives in a way that makes them seem like plain sailing – which they rarely are. The group faced some big challenges:
- Volunteer fatigue. Anyone who’s been involved with community organisations knows that they often depend on ‘super-volunteers’: a small number of fantastically committed, dogged individuals who keep things ticking over. Changing Chelmsford was no different, and a constant concern in meetings I attended was to find ways of compensating people for whom the project rapidly became a full-time job.
- Reaching deprived and isolated communities. A persistent challenge for the project was reaching beyond the ‘usual suspects’ who engage in civic activity. The group made great efforts to reach out to all areas in the town, but in particular reaching the least well-off communities was a challenge. This did change, however, as the project grew in profile, and particularly through partnerships with organisations like the YMCA, who worked with Annabel on the Young Urban Explorers project.
These point to a few basic principles that seem to me to mark out many successful community projects: a combination of campaigning and practical action is often most successful; collaboration between different organisations gets things done quicker; and volunteer roles need to be rewarding and manageable if a project is going to last.
The RSA has worked, through research like our ChangeMakers project, to draw these kinds of conclusions about what works in social projects. In a few weeks, we’ll be sharing a handbook based on this work and the experiences of our Fellows and staff, that provides some basic guidance for people who want to improve their communities, and links to resources that can help them.
One thing that came up repeatedly in the discussion last night was the rarity with which good practice in community projects is actually shared between places and organisations. Some of these ideas might seem pretty basic, but I think working out what successful projects have in common – and spreading that knowledge as widely as possible – is time well spent.
‘The best ideas are simple ideas.’ This was the assertion of a friend I met up with earlier this week for a pie and a pint, with a side order of his own-recipe barstool wisdom.
I found his stance difficult to agree with at first – it reminded me too much of my terrifying old English teacher gesturing at my waffly essays and barking, ‘What’s your argument? If you can’t explain it in ten seconds then you don’t have one!’ Yet over the course of this week I have come to see that he has a point. While we must always be mindful of the complexity of the problems we face as a society, if an idea cannot be expressed or enacted in a way that is meaningful to others then it is of very limited value.
Last Tuesday’s launch event for the new ‘Science, Medicine & Society Network’ at University College London served as a lesson in this principle. The Network is a new international academic partnership bringing together experts in health from a range of disciplines, and I had been worried that I would understand little of what the distinguished panel of medical clinicians, political scientists, lawyers and anthropologists would be discussing. Refreshingly though, the central, easy to comprehend message of the event was that although the challenges to global public health are complex and varied, the solutions must be grounded in simplicity, attainability, and relevance to the communities they affect.
For example, Lord Nigel Crisp, the former NHS senior manager and author of Turning the world upside down: The search for global health in the 21st century, spoke about his discussions with public health officials around the world on the question of how to reduce maternal mortality. An Indian government minister had presented a complicated series of rubrics and metrics, lofty policies and programmes, and a confusing mishmash of approaches that Lord Crisp struggled to follow let alone imagine being implemented. In contrast, an official at BRAC, the hugely successful Bangladeshi NGO, responded to Lord Crisp’s question simply: ‘Empower the women’. In recent years, this radically simple approach has contributed to a dramatic fall in Bangladesh’s maternal mortality figures.
Another speaker at the event offered a different example. Professor Cyril Chantler shared a story that he likes to tell his UCL first year medical students. When he was a consultant to Guy’s Hospital in the 1970s, a young boy was brought to see him with rectal bleeding apparently caused by a small cut on his skin – a straightforward diagnosis, one might think. However, Prof. Chantler suspected that the underlying cause was more complicated than this, so he began to investigate further. Why did he have this cut? Because he was constipated. Why was he constipated? It transpired that the boy’s family, who lived in a poor neighbourhood, did not have an indoor toilet and instead shared a communal lavatory with other households in the street. The roof above this communal toilet leaked, and the little boy didn’t like getting his head wet, so he stopped going to the toilet. Prof. Chantler said that he likes to challenge his students to suggest a solution to this problem: many say that the family needs an indoor toilet. This may be correct, but Prof. Chandler is not a plumber. The more politically-minded students might suggest that the socioeconomic situation is the problem, and that the boy’s family should not have to be so poor that they share an outdoor toilet with other people in their street. This also has the ring of truth, but again it is beyond Prof. Chandler’s capacity to change this from his clinical consulting room. So what did Prof. Chandler do? He gave the boy an umbrella. The boy no longer had to get wet when he needed the loo, he stopped getting constipated, and the bleeding went away.
I was again alerted to the potential for apparently simple ideas to help solve complex problems when the RSA, in partnership with Kingfisher PLC, hosted a seminar this week on the subject of building ‘sustainable, stronger communities’. Luminaries from business, the public sector, think-tanks, and charities discussed the potential for businesses to help promote community cohesion and social change through initiatives such as those pioneered by Kingfisher, including the online local networking website StreetClub. Much of the debate centred on whether initiatives like these should be high-concept, ambitious attempts to organise society and ‘create new cultural norms’, or whether a simpler, lighter touch was called for, striving to ‘do one thing very well’. Personally, I found the latter option more compelling. StreetClub’s core strength in encouraging neighbours to share tools is reminiscent of that other simple idea I blogged on recently, the Big Lunch. Both of these schemes harness the latent potential for communities to become more connected around a simple excuse to get together; to borrow a ladder or to share a lunch. As one attendee at our seminar sagely observed, successful initiatives like this ‘don’t change communities; they create the platform for change’.
Simple ideas which create the platform for change are what the RSA’s Connected Communities programme is all about. Our research found that some older people in South East London have low wellbeing because they are isolated and don’t have any way of transporting themselves away from their homes; we’re developing a project that will provide them with a social environment a free lift in a minibus to help them get out and about. We found that people’s mental wellbeing can suffer when there is a lack of social support; we’re going to identify key members of local social networks and train them as peer support counsellors.
Complex problems: simple solutions. My friend in the pub swears by this equation, and so, presumably, did the little boy who trotted down the street with an umbrella every day. It’s an equation I’m coming around to too.
One evening last summer, for reasons I can neither adequately remember nor explain, I found myself at the ‘alternative’ 300th birthday party for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the outdoor courtyard of a former squat in Geneva.
Being neither an expert on Rousseau nor a French speaker, I sat awkwardly through the lengthy speeches from local historians and activists, while an English-speaker patiently filled me in on the history of this cooperative-run apartment block; how it had been earmarked to be bulldozed to make way for a supermarket in the midst of the city’s 1980s housing crisis before being squatted by a band of community activists who had, eventually, secured ownership rights to the building.
Finally the speeches ended, and the party switched to an activity I could understand: eating. Heaps of sausages and vegetable cous-cous appeared as if from nowhere, and people squeezed alongside each other on long picnic tables to tuck in and chat. Any divisions among the group were invisible as private tenants and former squatters alike talked and laughed and kept each other’s glasses filled with cheap red wine. Nobody seemed to object to my presence as an uninvited stranger taking far more than my share of sausages, a greedy Anglo-Saxon unacquainted with their continental and collectivist ways. They explained to me that, while this was a special occasion, they often met as a group to share a meal, and that this ritual fostered the community spirit which enabled them to successfully organise and manage the once dilapidated but now thriving property. I remember feeling a distinct sense of warmth, a convivial and exciting atmosphere as people bonded over the breaking of bread.
This is the kind of scene that Tim Smit, the founder of Cornwall’s Eden Project, has been creating all over this country through his latest brainchild, The Big Lunch. He was at the RSA last night, along with the broadcaster Fi Glover, Linda Quinn from the project’s backer The Big Lottery Fund, and Jonathan Carr-West of the Local Government Information Unit, to discuss what can be learned from The Big Lunch project about community building.
The title for the evening’s event was ‘Where Does Responsibility For Community Lie?’, and this is a question that greatly interests me as a project developer on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme. Is it possible for a third party or an external campaign to help build social capital and encourage a community spirit, or can such feelings only be aroused by people acting independently and spontaneously? Does government have a role in creating the conditions in which communities can flourish? What is the role of business and the third sector? And what the heck do we mean by ‘community’ anyway?
Smit and his co-panelists had much to offer on these subjects and much besides. Smit talked about how food, and the British institution of the Sunday lunch, is a crucial element in encouraging people to gain the confidence to knock on each other’s doors and turn strangers into neighbours. This, in short, is what Smit claims an external project like The Big Lunch can do; in his words it can ‘give people permission’ to overcome shyness and take responsibility to act in the community.
Smit said that he hopes that within ten years the pizzazz of ‘The Big Lunch’ branding and publicity won’t be needed, and that a regular, grassroots ‘neighbours day’ will have outgrown the initial project. But he also sees the potential for something much bigger to emerge out of the initial small-talk that occurs over an outdoor dining table. Especially keen Lunch organisers are invited down to The Eden Project for training as social activists and organisers, and are encouraged to develop the confidence to help mobilise communities in new and potentially radical ways. In the modern context of the traditional, hierarchical modes of centralised politics being seen to be losing relevance and influence, Smit says that ‘the potential for a really powerful social force’ lies among horizontally-organised groups of citizens.
Back in the present, Carr-West was on hand to discuss the impact of The Big Lunch to date, following the publication of his report on the project. Headline figures of 8.5 million participants over four years, with 82% reporting that they felt closer to their neighbours as a result, are remarkable, but some of the more qualitative observations are just as significant. Conversations, he said, weave the fabric of communities and allow people to feel better about themselves while also building social capital. He pointed to evidence that an increase in social capital is good for people’s health, it’s good for the economy, and it helps to lower crime. Furthermore it cannot be monopolised – or cut – by governments as it is held collectively in society. And yet the public sector does have a role, he maintained, in helping to connect community activists with one another to run services, provide social support, and enact change, with local councils especially well-placed to facilitate a kind of ‘connected localism’.
All of this may sound like a lot of lofty talk when placed alongside Big Lunch photographs of people wearing face-paint and cutting Victoria sponge cakes underneath lines of bunting. But the culturally ingrained custom, built up over millennia, of people coming together around food in an atmosphere of sharing, warmth and safety, allows for social connections to form. And as the RSA’s Connected Communities programme helps to show, our social networks go a long way to determining our wellbeing, our employability, our health and our ability to get things done in society. And that is something that my erstwhile dining companions in that housing cooperative in Geneva are living testament to.
Yesterday I was interviewed by a researcher from the University of Manchester who is working on a collaborative research project examining the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. The project aims to explore how people use social media in their daily lives and the extent to which people’s use of social media reflects local issues, events and concerns. It is part of the Manchester eResearch Centre which exists to explore how the recent explosion in social media and the interactive web opens up opportunities for understanding societal issues and concerns. So far so interesting…
Having already interviewed a community forum, the police, city council and local MPs, the researcher is in the process of recruiting and interviewing individuals who live in South Manchester and are ‘well-networked users of Twitter.’ She’d got in touch with me via someone she met at a networking event, who had given my name as someone who he thought would fit the bill. I was slightly surprised – I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati‘. Aside from that, I don’t use Twitter all that much to share information about or discuss local issues, so I wasn’t convinced I was quite what she was looking for.
I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati’.
Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed, not least because I was keen to hear more about the research project, and mindful of potential connections or overlaps of interest that might emerge through having the conversation. I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from anything else, it was interesting to be on the other side of the voice recorder for once – there’s a lot to learn from being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing.
Answering questions on my use of Twitter, the role it plays in my professional life, my personal life, and the connections between my use of Twitter and the community in which I live made me think about all these things in a particularly reflective way.
I was asked questions relating to how I use Twitter to provide information to other people, to organise debate and discussion, to gather support and interest and to portray sentiment in relation to various local issues, concerns and events. Like I’ve said, I don’t really think of myself as someone who really knows how to use Twitter to great effect, so it was curious for me to discover that I had at least something to say in relation to each of these lines of questioning.
On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised.
In answering the questions, I began to give examples and the discussion turned to the inclusiveness or otherwise of the Twittersphere. On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable some members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised. Aside from those members of society who do not have access to an internet enabled device, there are those for whom Twitter simply doesn’t appeal. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and why should it be?
My interviewer mentioned one member of the community forum she’d interviewed who was deeply negative, resistant, and unable to see any potential benefits of using social media to engage with the local community. We talked about professionals such as teachers, nurses and social workers, whose day jobs are are structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to be tweeting all the time alongside doing the job.
They may also already be part of existing communication networks that they are used to and that work well for them, or they may feel that using Twitter is a quasi-work activity that they’d rather not get involved in after hours. There’s the public bodies for whom it is very difficult to use Twitter in the organic, instantaneous way that it needs to be used because of the need to adhere to policies and have all public communication formally approved and signed off. And there are people for whom Twitter is confusing, off-putting, boring or simply not their medium of choice
I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Twitter is a sort of bubble – a group of relatively similar people talking to each other about the things that matter to them. It is easy, when you’re part of that bubble, to imagine that all the important voices are being heard, that anyone who wants to be included in the debate will be. It’s also easy to feel – if you find yourself amidst a storm of retweets – as though you’re really making a difference, that the important people are listening and that you’re at the heart of the action.
But there’s also a world out there that doesn’t live itself out on Twitter. For all the unique opportunities and connections that Twitter may facilitate, there are plenty of people outside the Twitterverse who may be doing really important and valuable things without tweeting about it, or whose voices are easily overlooked. The research I took part in is due to be published this summer and it will be fascinating to find out more about the ways in which Twitter represents, enables or excludes people from participating in community life. In the meantime, I’m very happy to hear any thoughts. Use the comment function below, write me an email, post me a letter (wouldn’t that be novel?) or, if you really want to, you can even send me a tweet.
Here is an interesting Guardian piece on a transnational YouGov-Cambridge study. The research compared attitudes towards responsibilities of the state versus those of individuals in the UK, US, France and Germany.
To summarise, when it comes to the role of the state on issues like ‘a decent minimum income for all’ or ‘helping poor children get ahead’, British views are significantly more continental than atlantic. With the exception of company pay – on inequity of salaries, Britons are more liberal than Germans and French, if not as liberal as Americans – the results put the US on the individualist side, and UK, Germany and France broadly on the statist side; which highlights once again that the conversation on public services in the US is a very different one to this side of the pond.
What is just as interesting as the results, however, is the way the study is structured. It takes a classic two-dimensional approach: state versus individuals.
What about views on the responsibility of, and for, communities?
They are a pillar of social power just as much as the other two dimensions. And given fiscal pressures on both sides of the Atlantic, an increasing amount of challenges will need to be dealt with via this ‘third dimension’ (e.g., as my colleague Matthew Parsfield pointed out recently, in Mental Health, or as our CEO Matthew Taylor has argued, in Care).
But as so often, communities get left out of the equation – what statisticians would call an omitted variable. Arguably, without taking this third dimension into account, there is a lack of depth in the insights generated.
My hunch is that we would see a picture emerge that is more complex and informative than the binary US/Europe divide. But perhaps there is already some comparative data out there, maybe even longitudinal – might a reader point me in the right direction?
The RSA is well positioned to work across all three dimensions internationally, as we have strong Fellowships in all four countries (altogether we have Fellowships in 101 countries, the US being the largest one with almost 800 Fellows), as well as Fellow- and staff-led projects in the US and Germany. I will elaborate on these in my next blog posts.
Also, I am looking forward to the upcoming RSA Lecture with Tim Smit, CEO and Founder of the Eden Project, who asks the very question: ‘Where does responsibility for community lie’?
Mental health is a globally pressing issue. Conservative estimates suggest that 400 million people worldwide suffer from various mental illnesses, while the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the world’s leading cause of the burden of disease, with mental health problems already exacting a greater toll than tuberculosis, cancer, or heart disease.
Yet look at this global picture more closely, and to some observers it appears as though this burden might not be spread evenly around the world. With recovery rates for schizophrenia and depression in the USA, UK, and other wealthy countries worse than those in Nigeria, India, and other developing nations, it looks as though the poor world is outperforming the rich when it comes to dealing with some mental disorders.
Theories as to why this may be abound. These range from the perhaps outdated and stereotypical idea that there is a greater tradition of family and community solidarity in economically developing nations, to the social anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s theory that a combination of greater stigma and “disgraceful” normative care practices in the West often mean that sufferers of devastating mental disorders like schizophrenia concurrently experience a range of other afflictions – ostracism, homelessness, poverty, substance addiction and a set of humiliating interpersonal experiences that she calls ‘social defeat’.
Last night, in his RSA lecture entitled ‘The Global Mental Health Crisis: What the rich world can learn from the poor’, Professor Vikram Patel of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine offered a slightly different perspective. Focussing on access to care, he gave examples of the relative ingenuity of mental health care practices in countries like India, where he has done extensive work.
There is, he said, no shortage of psychiatric professionals in wealthy Western nations; for example California alone has more psychiatrists than the whole of South Asia. Despite this, some 60% of people with mental illness symptoms in the USA do not access any form of psychiatric care. The UK, even with its free-of-charge National Health Service, only performs slightly better, with 40% of sufferers not seeking or receiving treatment. As explanations for this he pointed to the sometimes alienating, over-complicated professional culture of DSM-influenced approaches to mental illnesses in the West, and the remoteness of psychiatric practitioners to their patients in both lifestyle and outlook as reasons for people not knowing about or feeling they can access services.
By contrast, he presented a model of public health in India that, with limited resources in the form of professionals or pharmaceuticals, utilises lay community health workers to provide collaborative, locally appropriate community-based care. Specially trained lay workers operate under the direction of psychiatric professionals to provide outreach services, ‘psychiatric first aid’, and social interventions based in the home, in a Wellcome Trust-funded controlled trial, documented in a series of documentaries available online.
Back in the UK, the RSA is looking to draw upon a similar approach as part of its Connected Communities project, which seeks to explore ways of building resilient communities in which people’s wellbeing and life satisfaction benefit from social connections with their peers. Working with Nicky Forsythe of Positive Therapy, we shall shortly be launching an innovative Talk For Health peer support programme which will train key members of community networks as lay counsellors, giving them the confidence and knowledge to take the therapists’ skills of empathy, non-judgemental listening, and conversational support out of the doctors’ surgery and into the hands of the community. In Bristol, we’ve just launched an innovative tablet computer app called Social Mirror, which volunteer health champions will use to help people map their social networks and, where necessary, receive suggested social prescriptions. Simultaneously, we are working with Talk To Me London to launch an exciting pilot project in New Cross that seeks to encourage Londoners to engage in conversations with strangers, with participants identified by their ‘Talk To Me’ badges which show that they are friendly and willing to chat. The designers of the project promise that it will “be the most innovative, culture-changing campaign of our times”, so stay tuned for more on that.
With ever-increasing strains on public health and social care budgets, and worrying research that demonstrates links between social isolation and the risk of mental illness and death, it is hoped that we can learn much from Professor Patel and others in the ‘poor world’ who are demonstrating that innovative, ingenious social interventions can help manage the burden of mental illness by supporting connected communities. Keep checking this blog, follow #RSAConnected and @SocialMirrorApp on Twitter, or email email@example.com and ask to join the relevant email lists to keep updated with how this work progresses.
Matthew Taylor has recently written several blog posts about the need to reconsider care. His suggestion that secondary school pupils should be required to do 100 hours of caring as part of a compulsory work experience programme seems like a good one for lots of reasons.
Acquiring the skills of caring early in life can only be an advantage, and raising the profile and status of care are important likely benefits of such a scheme. In general I think working with young people in schools is a valid way to try to achieve cultural shifts across a generation.
Shouldn’t offering care be something that we all do, in some form, and continue to do throughout our lives?
But I also think that it can be an effective strategy for sidestepping our own responsibility to contribute in areas that we recognise as important, but might not want to engage with directly. For those of us who left school years ago and are busy working full time, developing our careers, or in Matthew Taylor’s case, running the RSA, the idea of doing a bit of hands-on care as well might seem unfeasible, not to mention unappealing.
If we are in broad agreement with Matthew’s arguments, shouldn’t offering care be something that we all do, in some form, and continue to do throughout our lives? It occurs to me that there might be scope for companies and organisations to set up schemes in which employees are encouraged to offer their time as voluntary carers during work hours.
There is at least one precedent in which a company has decided to donate employees’ time to charities. The housing association, First Ark Group, has recently made the decision to donate 500 days of staff time to volunteer in local good causes. In the Guardian’s report, published on Monday, First Ark explain that they see their responsibility to the community as extending beyond doing their ‘bread and butter’ work in the best way possible. Being a force for good and building genuine connections with the community are also key priorities and donating staff days is one way of making these things happen.
There is plenty of evidence to indicate that volunteering is good for us. It’s not just good for our communities and for the organisations, individuals and groups who receive voluntary help, it’s also good for the volunteer. In addition to the fact that volunteering brings the opportunity to learn new skills and build different kinds of relationships, it’s also good for our overall wellbeing. It has the feel good factor.
So, if an organisation were to introduce a caring scheme, what would it mean for the workplace? I suspect it would be likely to increase morale amongst staff, raise pride in the employer, develop a reputation for being a socially responsible organisation. If staff throughout organisations, from chief executives to managers to cleaners were all expected to participate, it would give the entire workforce a shared experience and sense of solidarity.
What about the likely costs? How could any company afford to donate staff time to offering care? What would the impact be on individuals’ time management and workload? According to First Ark, these problems are easily ironed out quickly, and all it takes is a bit of adjustment. Tot up the amount of time staff waste at the water cooler, and we already know that being present at work 100% of the time doesn’t amount to 100% productivity.
It will be interesting to see how First Ark’s scheme works out, and whether they continue with it beyond this year. It seems to me that if we really care about care, we should be prepared to demonstrate that by actually getting involved ourselves. The way working life is structured makes it a tall order to expect people to volunteer to care in their spare time, but I wonder how prepared we would be to do it if it became part of our working lives.
Kayte Judge FRSA ran ‘We Are Bedford’, a project supported by RSA Catalyst that used empty shops as creative spaces. In this guest blog she shares her experience of setting up pop-up shops.
The number of empty shops in our town centres continues to grow year on year. For many, this slow and steady emptying of our retail spaces is a creeping portend of doom. And while, no doubt, the changes to our high streets and town centres are inarguable, what we cannot say with any certainty is what will happen next. We simply do not know.
What is clear is that retail is changing, and both large and small retailers are leaving town. Those voids offer an opportunity for innovation and playful reinterpretation of our social spaces. Pop-up shopkeepers have emerged, seeing opportunity in the remains of the retail boom and bust, trying, failing, trying again. They have been leaving tracks. Lessons have been learnt and can be shared.
I have been involved in empty shop work since I was awarded RSA Catalyst support in 2010. I applied in order to explore the use of empty shops as arts venues. I knew exactly which shop I would use and what I would do in it. I imagined hot flasks of tea, blankets and incongruous deckchairs, fingerless gloves, hot breath billowing into the unheated shop air and a cellist playing on the raised lino clad flooring where the till used to be. It was going to be beautiful.
What I didn’t know was that the shop was owned by an offshore pension fund, an absentee landlord of the most inaccessible kind. It wasn’t to be. Instead, myself and another Bedfordian, Erica Roffe, were offered, in an almost spooky act of serendipity, seven empty shops in a new development. Seven. Seven unfinished, un-floored, un-heated, un-lit, shops in one area of town. We formed a nebulous ‘thing’ called ‘We Are Bedford’ and 20 cold weeks later the area was brought to life through just £1000 RSA Catalyst funding, an army of volunteers and an almost supernatural amount of willpower. Over 4000 people visited the arts galleries (there were three), audio art installation, burlesque life drawing classes, craft space, live music venues, tours, archaeological sites, buskers, junk modelling workshops and boutique, authors talks, and ticketed performances. It was March 2011. Before the year was out, and via a further Catalyst fund, we would open a Pop Up gallery, a ‘Monster Draw Big Draw’ event, and a six week Pop Up Emporium stocking only locally made or designed goods. We then decided to spend the money in the best possible way: to offer a bursary to others in grants of up to £500. By winter 2012 the money was spent, lessons were learnt and my pop up shop keeping days were over.
Throughout my work I had the support of Dan Thompson, the founder of the Empty Shops Network, author of the Empty Shop Toolkit and a leading light of empty shop work on a national scale. An RSA fellow, Dan, (based in the South East) has since authored Pop Up People, a report which gathers the data and examples of pop up and empty shop work throughout the country, and Pop Up Business for Dummies. Both of these documents feature the work of We Are Bedford as a case study among many and would be a vital first port of call for anyone thinking of treading this path. For me his support was vital and subtle. It wasn’t so much the practical support offered (although that was invaluable) it was the moral support. Pop Up shopkeepers exist in the margins and loopholes of a bureaucracy that is designed to squash innovation and it can be a scary ride at times. They are human, and vulnerable and responsible for everything that happens in those empty shops. Dan listened when I needed to rant about paperwork, or rates bills, or the madness of it all. He came to visit.
We Are Bedford was a temporary project, powerful, but of its time. It had to end. Others have had more staying power. Reading based RSA Fellow Suzanne Stallard is an artist and founder of Jelly, an energetic charity championing the creative arts. Jelly started in an empty shop space due for demolition under a compulsory purchase order in 1993 with a six month lease and, 20 years on, jelly has grown, emerged and changed shape dependent on it’s location and space, occupying and using over 50 properties. Currently they are using a nightclub (as a sound and performance art space), 3-storey office block (as a creative space and studios) and various empty shop fronts for pop-up shop window exhibitions. Since the beginning jelly has played a strategic role in Reading’s cultural life, enabling art to appear in unexpected places and creating opportunities for people to look on and join in. Much of their work now involves working in partnership with emerging art groups, local communities and they believe in the power of the arts to delight, intrigue, challenge and enrich. Jelly is committed to forming creative alliances and partnerships that encourage art and cultural life to flourish, responding to the opportunities with the changes in the High Street. This has been a long-term commitment to empty shop work and is undertaken voluntarily. You can find out more about how they continue to survive on their website.
There is plenty to be done in empty shops. Pop-up shops are a place for playful piloting, quick and dirty prototyping, fast failing, and, sometimes, soaring successes. The town centres of the UK need new ideas. If you have an idea, or have seen an empty shop opportunity there is information available, although beware: while empty shop problems seem universal, the solutions are often hyper-local.
Key points to consider if you want to set up your pop up shop
- Research your target property’s landlord
- Prepare to persuade your landlord to be amenable to pop up shops
- Surround yourself with helpful volunteers
- Be creative – and exciting – this will attract supporters
- Take advice from others with experience – with a mentor for the tough times
- Be flexible, and be resilient
Look for the long term – and remember, fail to plan, plan to fail.
To get you started visit the following sites and take a look at the documents below
- The Empty Shop Network
- The Pop Up People Report
- Pop Up Business for Dummies
- Meanwhile Space
- Meanwhile Project
Get in touch
For those of you in the South Central region Suzanne and myself are happy to help where we can. We are working women who juggle a number of things, children included, so please allow us up to five days to respond. You can contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
If you are located in the South East region, then Dan Thompson would be willing to help – again via email firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck planning for your own pop up shops!
Kayte Judge and We Are Bedford also feature in the RSA Catalyst video
I often leave Fellowship events with every intention of blogging about them, but time slips by, my inbox beckons and the moment passes. But last week I went to an event that has inspired me to pull my finger out for three key reasons – it showcased a brilliant and practical FRSA project, is a great example of ideas being shared between different groups of Fellows in true RSA collaboration style, and (most importantly) it taught me something new about how RSA Fellowship enables people to provide unique approaches to today’s problems.
RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children
Sue Child, Headteacher Oakwood School
Driving Ambition is a project that has been running in Banbury since early 2012. It brings together RSA Fellows, schools and industry to attempt to raise the ambitions of students in the local area.
Fellows in Surrey, keen to hear good ideas put into practice, invited project lead Peter Jordan FRSA to share his experiences with a room full of forty-odd professionals, including three local head teachers.
I won’t try attempt to précis the entire Driving Ambition project (you can read more about it here), but Peter made some pretty common sense points for anyone wanting to bring together the worlds of industry and education in their area:
- Work with your local schools. You need a key point of contact at each of them, and success depends on the quality of these relationships. Also, be patient and prepared to work around busy school timetables. In Banbury this paid off – the North Oxfordshire Academy (where the original contact was a brilliantly innovative Head of Catering) has now employed someone to work full time on student career development partly as a result of the Driving Ambition project.
- It is hard to involve local business. Do everything you can to attract them – attend local working breakfasts, send letters, pitch to companies – but don’t expect too much from them. This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
- Use your RSA network of local Fellows. In Banbury local MP Tony Banbury spoke at the launch event. A local vicar is now working closely with the ethics teams in two schools. National Grid (a Director is a local Fellow) are running one and two-day workshops on energy use with props, including a model town. A local photojournalist is working with students who find it hard to express themselves verbally, documenting local work life to share across school. And Peter, with his 15 years at Unilever and 20 years at Kraft Food HQ, knows an awful lot about supply chain – he’s running classes for year 11′s on turning raw materials into consumer goods. He’s called them ‘a day in the life of a cheese slice’.
- Only do what you feel comfortable doing. When starting the group felt under some pressure to do something unique or radical, that their idea wasn’t ‘innovative’ enough. But their aims were simple – just open the eyes of the students to the industry that already exists in the area, particularly beyond working in retail.
Which brings me to my own learning point. When asked what Fellows could offer that the many excellent charities and enterprises out there could not, Sue Child, Head Teacher of Oakwood School in Horley in Surrey said what excites her most about the prospect of it in her school “is that RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children”.
We spend a lot of time in the Fellowship team trying to think about how we can standardise our support for Fellows, and ways we can share universal experiences and good models for up-scaling. Whilst this undoubtedly has value, what Driving Ambition has taught me is the key power of the local nucleus, of forming those key relationships (school/business) before building your model, and of being flexible to the community need where you are.
This is what strikes me about Driving Ambition, why I feel so enthused about it – it is modest but it is working. It is not a registered company (or even a CIC), it doesn’t have a snazzy website (or even a blog), it isn’t promising global expansion anytime soon. It is local but scalable, deliverable, and has a clear impact. Whilst I’m not about to use this blog to contribute to the debate around localism (or even an area-based curriculum), I think there is something to be learned from this project about the value that groups of passionate and flexible Fellows can add to their communities.
This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
What next? Well the Driving Ambition team in Banbury have just been awarded Catalyst support to help them reach more schools and more businesses in the area, so they will be (modestly) scaling their project in 2013/14. And the Surrey Fellows group are in talks with three local Head Teachers looking to replicate and drive ambition in their area.
All this model takes initially is a group of committed RSA Fellows to get it going, so if you want to launch something similar in your area then get in touch.