Community Participation

One of the key aims of the project was to involve more people into the community life and work happening on the estate. The Green Zone project was also given a remit to work to the Federation for Community Development Learning community development values. The key values are as follows:

  • Equality and Anti-discrimination
  • Social justice
  • Collective action
  • Community empowerment
  • Working and learning together

A fact sheet and poster, which summarise these values, are available at  http://www.fcdl.org.uk/publications/index.htm

Community development is a long-term, value-based process to address imbalances in power and bring about change founded on social justice, equality and inclusion. The process enables people to organise and work together to identify their own needs and aspirations; take action to exert influence on the decisions which affect their lives; and improve the quality of their own lives, the communities in which they live, and societies of which they are a part.

Forums and techniques of Community Participation
In order for the project to gain recognition and traction, we needed to identify existing forums where people participated in community activities, and to try to create accessible forums for communities or interest groups on the estate if none existed. There were advantages and disadvantages to each of these forums. We aimed to help facilitate a diversity of opportunities to get involved in the community life on the estate.

Discussion email list
The discussion email list of the Redbricks estate is semi-legendary. It is called “Shout‟ and when it started in the late 1990s it was a pioneering example of a hyper-local digital community. It continues to mirror the community activity and sometimes community disputes
of the estate.

An email list such as this makes it quick and easy to disseminate information, get feedback for ideas, recruit volunteers, let people know about opportunities, ask for resources and help.
There are also no costs attached if you are already connected to the Internet. People can work together to build a supportive online community where requests are quickly met with support.
However, it also has disadvantages: You have to know about the list and be connected to the Internet to be able to access it. You have to filter through quite a lot of information if the list is busy and not all of it may be relevant to you. Email can have a tendency to polarise
views and foster disagreement.

Formal Tenants meetings
By formal, we mean meetings where there is an agenda, chair/ facilitator and there are minutes taken. Their advantage is that decisions can be taken and projects moved forward
in an accountable way. It helps if these meetings are open as this prevents a sense of exclusivity or secrecy. However if you find that open meetings are getting disrupted you could choose to have part of the meeting open and another part only available to committee
members. Group agreements on how participants want the meetings to run can be helpful in addressing problems. Records of meetings allow you to check decisions and to keep a record of what jobs people took on so that the process of moving projects along can be clear.

However, these kinds of meetings can be barriers to participation for those that are not used to more structured kind of meetings. The structure, which is seen as efficient to some, may be seen as restrictive to others.

Informal networking and discussions on the streets and in gardens
Informal organising and networking outside of any particular forum or structure is at the core of much community organising. The unofficial bonds of friendship, community pride and the enthusiasm that they bring can very strong. When people get together to “Just do it‟ they bypass some of the possibly boring logistics of more official ways of working. Chatting to your neighbours and having an honest, informal exchange of views can be a great antidote to the strain having to pick your words carefully in a public meeting. This is where you often find out what is really going on in your community.

Of course, if everything were decided and organised in this very informal way then the process would not be inclusive to people outside of the loop. Sometimes there is a “tyranny of structurelessness‟ where strong personalities come to dominate projects that are loosely organised. Well-facilitated meetings can help address power imbalances that may exist. It‟s also important to acknowledge that when you are working in a range of different community forums, it can be problematic to come to decisions that are accepted in all forums.

Community events & community meals
While the aim of the event may not be specifically to promote a particular type of project, community event and meals can be great forums for sharing ideas, promoting existing projects, getting feedback about activities. A lot of this kind of activity happens between people that attend with no need for planning of facilitation.

If you do have a specific aim, which you are trying to achieve at a community meal or event, the informal, accessible atmosphere may difficult to achieve it. While it might seem like a good idea to widen participation, when the event is underway, it may seem inappropriate to try to interrupt the social interaction to make an announcement or try to get people to fill in a survey. These events can be quite hard work to promote and to do all the catering and preparation. If attendance is poor it can be quite deflating.

Gardening or Community Work and Play days. We used one particular gardening workday on the Leaf St Community Garden to get a community feedback on suggested changes to the garden.

We arranged workshops, tea and cakes and had lots of tools and easy to do jobs for people to get involved with. There was also a little sound system with music to draw people out. This kind of event can engage people on a lot of different levels and create a forum where people can discuss ideas and propose more changes. They can also work together with other people on the estate. This joint working can build better communication and trust between neighbours.

It can be a lot of work to co-ordinate a workday. There is a lot of preparation involved to make sure that there are suitable jobs for people to do, the right tools to do them, and people to respond to requests for guidance and help. It can be more work that actually doing the work yourself. Insurance can also be an issue. There is some advice about insurance on our toolkit website.

One of the younger volunteers gets stuck in at a  Leaf Street work session
Photo by David Oates

Film nights with films about local issues
Film nights can be an accessible and focused forum for the discussion of community issues.

The barriers to setting up a screening in a community venue have reduced now that projectors and laptops are easier to obtain. A home hi-fi is loud enough for a screening of up to fifty or so people. Showing a local film about issues important to the community can be a great way of generating a group discussion and getting a sense for how people feel about it, and suggestions for ways forward.

If your event is educational then „fair use‟ copyright law means that you are permitted to show copyrighted material. For one event we showed a film about a pirate radio project as a way of inspiring people to take part in a new local Internet radio project. You can run quizzes and feature comedy or poetry as ways of making the event more entertaining and widen the appeal.

There are some disadvantages: There may only be a limited number of local films or even none at all. So to make new films may take   quite a lot of input of time. Also promoting these events  can take a lot of time and energy. Also it may be difficult to
find a suitable and low cost venue. For more details on  overcoming obstacles and ideas for putting on accessible and interactive community film nights have a look at our online toolkit.

Community planning events
A community planning event may use different techniques to help bring ideas into a form which can be progressed further. There are many different techniques to doing this and may other resources which cover this issue.

Have a look at the section on Redbricks Planning Events to see examples of participatory planning techniques we used during the Green Zone project. There were other events that also did a great job of forming a co-ordinated and community response to issues. These have included a large discussion about parking issues, and a series of meetings about a proposal closing off one of our streets (Hulme Street) from cars and greening the area.