Anna Nicholl, Director of Strategy and Sector Development, shares her thoughts on a new report on community-led transformation and the role of the voluntary sector in empowering communities.
A DIFFERENT CONVERSATION
Moving from one back-to-back online meeting to another on a dreary mid-December afternoon, I clicked on my next Zoom link. Suddenly, I was in something different. There was a fresher energy, a space for different conversations with people leading change in different ways. This was a space for listening, and the people I was listening to had truly inspiring stories to tell.
This listening event was part of a community-led transformation programme that had been running over the previous 8 months. The programme centered around learning from three very different community-led initiatives – Credu in Powys who work with carers to co-design innovative care; Llanrhian in Pembrokeshire who aim to connect diverse communities; and Cwmbwrla in Swansea who meet local needs by organising events and activities.
DEVELOPING THE PROGRAMME
The idea for the programme was hatched by a group of voluntary sector leaders – and wider partners (an informal Better Futures Wales advisory group who also oversaw a Community Foresight project).
During the pandemic we worked together to create a vision for the society we wanted to help build through the recovery. It is a vision of a greener, fairer and healthier future with more empowered communities and a vibrant voluntary sector at its heart.
We discussed how we could use the sudden disruption created by the pandemic to shift systems for the better over the longer term. What could we learn from how society – including our sector – is responding to the crisis?
Local and community action has been at the heart of our response to the pandemic. The group wanted to explore how we can sustain this to support recovery.
Looking closer, the extent to which people were able to come together locally and to make a bigger difference for their communities depended on longer term relationships and structures (see Volunteering and wellbeing during the pandemic and WCPP research on community responses to loneliness alongside a range of wider evidence on this).
There were also important questions about who gets involved and who benefits. We wanted to dig deeper – what relationships, resources and systems do we need to enable community-led action to drive positive, transformational change in the future?
In our early discussions, we were all too conscious of the echo chambers that we increasingly live in. We didn’t want this just to be about national leaders talking to each other, or the focus to be on great policies when we know the real challenge is often about practice.
We didn’t even want to just focus on what needs to happen at community level. The blocks communities experience to creating change are often in the wider system.
Instead, the group wanted to develop a programme to connect across community, local, regional and national activity; across sectors; and, across practitioners and policy makers. We wanted to help create policy responses by drawing on practice.
Fortunately, Welsh Government agreed. Delivering the programme is a commitment in the Third Sector Partnership Council Covid Recovery report, agreed by Jane Hutt as then Deputy Minister.
Welsh Government agreed to fund the work and Nesta’s People Powered Results team were commissioned to deliver, supported by a national leadership group made up of voluntary sector leaders as well as Welsh Government, WLGA, One Voice Wales and the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales.
Most importantly, following an open invitation, the three community-led groups worked through Nesta’s coaching and mentoring to reflect on 4 questions and share what they thought would help community action to thrive.
LISTENING FOR THE QUIET REVOLUTION
The listening event that I’d been so inspired by was designed to capture the reflections of those community groups.
Listening to the storytellers from each group was extremely moving. They are creating change at a community level that is not only transformational for individuals, but contributing solutions to wider challenges such as loneliness, climate change and affordable housing.
They were also stories of complexity. Creating this change demands courage. It demands time and commitment. It was often won in the face of adversity, or not won at all.
Sometimes that was because of institutional failings – by councils, Government or funders. Sometimes it was not being truly listened to or valued by others in the wider system. Trusting relationships were often the key to success, and equally formed a barrier where they didn’t exist.
Some barriers also lie within community organisations. That includes a lack of time to reflect or agree a future vision, especially where members have competing aims and ambitions.
The change these people are making is, as one person described it, ‘a quiet revolution’. These stories need to be heard louder and travel further.
A JOB FOR US ALL
Really empowering communities to create that positive change is a job for us all. We need to see it as a wider system with changes that each of us – from community volunteers to government ministers – can lead to help make it a reality. To find out where you might fit, have a look at the report.
If you want to work with WCVA and partners to put the learning into practice, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org
You can find out more about WCVA’s practical action programme in these blogs:
Connecting Communities: Listening is Key by Babs Lewis.
Creating connected communities: more than logistics by Councillor Neil Prior