The third conference was a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on the Power of Community Networks whilst strengthening our own community as the 2018/19 Charityworks cohort. Beginning with Jordan leading us in a web building exercise which emphasised our similarities and ending with two members of our cohort, Tam and Jeana, facilitating a spoken word session encouraging collaboration, the day was filled with memorable moments. We were also lucky enough to be joined by Augusto D’Mello and Jane Garnham, Founders of CoProduced; Neil McInroy, Chief Executive of CLES; Matt Hyde, Chief Executive of Scouts Association; Babu Bhattacherjee, Director of Communities and Neighbourhoods at Poplar HARCA and Julian Corner, Chief Executive of Lankelly Chase.
Throughout the day, we reflected on how the themes of the day could be brought back into our workplace: GreenSquare Group, a housing association covering Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. Housing associations, following the lead of trailblazers like Poplar HARCA, can and should work to strengthen the networks within the communities they support.
Jane and Augusto spoke extensively about the potential and advantages of using the concept of coproduction as a tool to tackle inequality. Coproduction has four key values: recognising people as assets, valuing work differently, promoting reciprocity and building social networks. Within the context of social housing, the concept of ‘valuing work’ takes on a great deal of relevance, as a lot of our residents have responsibilities which do not fall within the traditional definition of valued ‘work’, such as caring responsibilities, working together within communities and volunteering their time to contribute to our boards, committees and insight groups. As a housing association, we have a duty to recognise the diverse range of ways residents can contribute to their communities as equal in value to the work we are doing in communities. In this way, residents and housing providers should work together as equal partners, celebrating one another’s expertise to create solutions for the wider community.
Neil’s talk focused on local economies and the importance of getting wealth “back to people, back to communities, back to local roots”. CLES have a four step approach to bringing wealth back to communities; employment, procurement, infrastructure and ownership. These steps can all be applied to a housing association. Employing local people, especially people who have experience of social housing, has amazing potential to improve services and ensure tenants are at the heart of everything we do. Procuring from local SMEs helps boost the local economy, which in turn helps to build thriving communities within it and ensure wealth remains in the local area. Shared spaces like GreenSquare’s community gardens and community centres can be used to facilitate community events and are a great example of using shared space to encourage collaboration. Finally, giving tenants more ownership of their own community and economy through more customer engagement forums allows coproduction in important decisions.
During a panel discussion, Matt Hyde stressed the importance of customer engagement; “you must strive to understand where people are coming from and adapt how you act”. Housing associations cannot just engage with tenants, they must be receptive and open to change their approach. When approaching community engagement, we should meet residents where they are and do the work for them, instead of expecting them to play by our rules. Considering change within housing associations, Babu Bhattacherjee encouraged an innovative approach. Poplar HARCA “stopped thinking that we were the solution we promised to be and started to grow stuff” through collaboration with other local groups and organisations. Babu discussed the potential for housing associations to support, signpost and build groups which help residents and communities rather than attempting to be everything to everyone. Not only does this approach ensure that community support services are delivered by members of the community with the right skills and the passion for service delivery, it holds great potential for building the local economy and community.
The importance of collaboration through creating a space for listening and understanding leading to adapting and supporting is neatly encapsulated in Julian Corner’s observation that “we need spaces, more than ever, where people can come together across divides”. Through listening to the speakers and connecting with our peers working in a vast range of organisations, it became clear that thriving communities are achieved through engaging with the individuals within that community and providing them with the necessary tools to work with you. Only through centring the knowledge, experiences and skills of the service users can housing associations and similar organisations work to truly improve their services and strengthen the communities they serve. Now, more than ever, it is vital that we create and celebrate the spaces where coproduction is possible and encourage organisations and communities alike to come together and create radical change for stronger communities.
Words by Katrina Eastgate, Service Improvement Officer, and Sophie Payne, Transformation Officer at Green Square Group.