So there we were, police, council and housing officers together with resident street champions and councillors, all gathered outside of the Oaktree Sports Centre in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, on a freezing cold December’s evening. In less than an hour it would go dark which left us with about 45 minutes to be briefed and to venture into the Oaktree Estate – would we discover a community where people care enough to act?
A community where no one wants to get involved?
Only a few months before I’d been out on the same estate with a similar group of people (see this blog). They showed me things that weren’t right such as the amount of litter and fly-tipping as well as evidence of council policies they, including the council officers, couldn’t understand, such as the automatic ‘tinning up’ of any house that becomes vacant. We also visited the now derelict Barrowhill Community Centre where residents questioned what would become of their community now the community centre had been closed down. They told me how they were waiting for the council to tell them what would happen next and were critical of the rest of the community for not wanting to get involved in any form of volunteering activity.
Be safe and feel safe
Oaktree is just one of three estates where a group of council, police and housing officers, together with a councillor and community member, have decided to adopt an asset based approach to community development, problem solving and community engagement. Mansfield’s Strategic Vision is for the people of Mansfield to be safe and feel safe – the first principle in how they will achieve this vision is for the council to adopt an asset based approach to their relationship with communities.
However, despite the workshops and a willingness to change, the group were still unsure as to how they would apply some of the theory on the ground, especially when it came to conversations based on the theory of Appreciative Inquiry. In traditional problem solving conversations service providers tend to start off by asking about what is ‘broken’ in an area, what needs fixing and what the community’s needs and priorities are. Once they have such a list they then go about taking agreed actions to fix all of these things. I believe this is the approach that many councils and police forces have taken over the past couple of decades, one that will be familiar to advocates of, ‘You Said, We Did.’
The theories behind Appreciative Inquiry and asset-based approaches, when applied in communities, don’t ignore complex social issues or problems with crime and ASB, instead they embrace them from a different perspective. As opposed to looking into the past in the hope that all that is broken can be fixed, we look to the future where a compelling vision of what can be achieved based on what is already working is created. Those involved then design the steps necessary to achieve this vision. As opposed to a continuous focus on deficits within communities the focus now is on what is already working well and on the assets and potential assets within that community.
Finding people who care enough to act
I was convinced that the Oaktree Estate had people within it who cared enough to act – that we would discover the assets within it and the ideas they had that would enable them, not service providers, to make their community a stronger and more cohesive one. Such communities are where residents: old; young and from all backgrounds are less likely to become victims of complex social or crime problems in the first place.
Following a briefing, where I intentionally avoided ‘theory language’ such as, asset; appreciative, discovery and vision setting as it can have the effect of switching members of the community off, we set out in groups to start up meaningful conversations with anyone who we might come across. With the comfort blankets of clipboards containing questionnaires or surveys safely left behind in council offices all we had in our toolbox was a mindset shift in our approach.
Time to discover
My group was made up of the local PCSO, a housing officer for the area and two council officers. Within minutes we came across John, our first resident (for all of the people I describe I have changed the names) with his five year old daughter Amy. I decided to take the lead with this conversation to demonstrate an appreciative approach, and after some rapport building found how John loved to do craft activities with his daughter. However, the nearest place that ran a variety of such activities was in the centre of Mansfield and the busses stopped at 6pm (the issue of public transport became an ‘elephant in the room’ for nearly everyone we spoke to and will be explored in a future blog).
I asked John and Amy what it would be like if a group on the estate could be established to run craft sessions for children outside of school – John was interested and Amy was excited by such a prospect. But would John be interested in being supported to set up and run such a group? ‘If it means Amy can do what she loves with children from around here, yes, I’d be interested.’ John went on to add, ‘actually, this is the sort of thing a lot of the Mums on the estate, especially the ones on their own would like. My partner and I think they get lonely and this is just the sort of thing that would help them.’
We ensured we left with John’s contact details and then moved on to the next person, Jane, with her three children – Cathy, the oldest, was eight. We walked alongside her by the open patch of grass that is in the centre of the estate while my colleagues asked her questions about what she loved about Oaktree. Jane told us how she had lived there all of her life, how she knew lots of people and how there were always people she knew who could help out.
Children have the best ideas?
We explained what we were hoping to help residents achieve in the area and asked her what she would like the estate to be like in a few years time, what would people be doing more of? But it wasn’t Jane who answered this question, it was Cathy. Her imagination had been inspired by what we had said so far, ‘we could have weekly picnics on this field in the summer. All the children could bring picnic teas and we could play games with the Mums and Dads.’ Would Mum be up for that? Jane replied how she would love to be part of something like that but where would they get the equipment from for the sports and games?
We told Jane how if enough residents wanted to set up a group like this we could help with a small grant, or how in the future we would be holding a participatory budgeting event where residents could vote on which groups get funded for activities like this.
Help doesn’t have to come from the Council?
Before we left I sensed an opportunity to check out something John had said. I asked Jane about the number of Mums on the estate who might be lonely or in need of some support. Jane confirmed how she also thought this to be the case and how there was nothing for them in respect of support. We had a chat about how support needn’t come from the council and how a ‘Mum’s Group’ could be self-supporting and able to help refer individuals to services if specialist support was needed.
With some support to get such a group off the ground, would Jane be interested in setting something like this up? She was. Jane went on to describe how she had friends who would also want to get involved. Both Jane and Cathy appeared inspired by the idea that they could do these things themselves, it was almost as if a barrier made up of the bricks of ‘only the council and housing can do these things’ had been knocked down for them.
The last person we spoke to, April, was already known to the housing officer as, ‘someone who had mental health needs.’ I stood back this time and let the others go for it and before long they discovered how she really liked where she lived and how she felt like there was a sense of neighbourliness – not much, but just enough to provide some comfort, especially amongst others who also had mental health issues. While April was talking about this I paid attention to her body language and tonality – she appeared upbeat and clearly felt good talking about this topic.
In Appreciative Inquiry this is the Discovery phase, where you find out what people like doing or love about the subject of the inquiry. But then my group got a bit lost, and as opposed to steering the conversation in the direction of setting a vision for the future, the group stated to ask questions about how safe she felt. April responded by saying how at night she often heard noises that made her afraid and kept her awake. This was comfortable ground for the group and the conversation started to be led by the service providers and how they could look to move CCTV and put up additional lighting to help her feel safer. I could see April’s body language changing; she slouched slightly as the conversation started to focus on what was perceived to be wrong in the area.
Time to step in
The conversation was moving towards a deficit based one and needed rescuing. I apologised and stepped in by taking April back to when she said there was a sense of neighbourliness. ‘That sounds like something which is really reassuring and supportive?’ I asked. April nodded – she appeared to perk up a bit, ‘what would it be like if in the future that sense of neighbourliness could be multiplied by 10, just imagine what that would be like if you can?’ I let this sink in for April and after about 10 seconds of silence something really interesting happened – she lit up, reached out, shook my hand and declared how, ‘that would be brilliant.’
The conversation was now back on an asset based footing. I helped to explore April’s vision for what her neighbourhood would be like with ‘x10 neighbourliness’ further when suddenly she came out with, ‘I used to do bingo calling years ago,’ do you think we could do bingo?’ We closed the conversation with reassurance that she could do anything she wanted to with the right support. April promised to be at a future event we would be setting up to move these community conversations along.
During the latter part of the conversation with April I explored the extent to which she would feel safe at night, when in the future she knew and got along with more people in her neighbourhood. She made comments about how she would be able to sleep well in the knowledge that the noises were probably just her neighbours and how she would feel much safer.
And the point is?
Some of you might be wondering how enabling groups and activities such as those described above would help with people, ‘being safe and feeling safe?’ Well, these are similar conversations others and I had in the communities I was a part of as a neighbourhood inspector. I saw how a Mum’s Group, established by two mothers who felt that they weren’t helping each other enough became a powerful source of support for Mums who felt lonely, who had mental health issues and who had difficulties coping with raising their children. The Mum’s Group become a strong community led organisation whose members worked alongside services to provide the type of support they believed would work to prevent children and families ever becoming ‘Troubled’ in the first place.
Several months ago I saw the Mum’s Group in action during its weekly meet up where over 40 mothers were running meaningful activities for each other and their children. I also spotted a Sure Start community nurse in the group. She had no uniform on and no badge to identify her – she was a professional who had been accepted as part of the group, as a part of their community, there to help support when required with her specialist skills. I spoke to one of the Mums that day to ask what this group had meant to her. She described how a few years earlier she had suffered from severe mental health problems, which were also affecting her children. But now she was much better and was helping to support others who had been like her. Quite chilling, in an almost comfortable way, was her description of how, ‘if it wasn’t for this group I would have jumped off a bridge by now.’ After decades of being a police officer you get a feel for when someone means what they say.
A new chapter – People who care enough to act
After 30 minutes out and about on Oaktree we came across 13 people who cared enough to act, including a young person who was ‘on the police radar’ who wanted to help get a safer biking group off the ground for his peers. During the debrief those who took part described how:
‘There was respect – for each other and for the community’
‘People want to talk about their problems, but it’s good to start on a positive note, people want to talk’
‘We shouldn’t judge people by the appearance’ and how
‘People do want to get involved, we just have to ask the right questions.’
As 2017 approaches we’re looking forwards to opening the next chapter for the Oaktree Estate, a place where people do care and do want to get involved.