Live Well

At the Live Well conference this week, expertly organised by Tabz and a co-creation group I had a question percolating that I wanted to ask Andy Burnham and didn’t get the chance, so I’m going to write about it here with the gift of reflection and space.

I’d like to start by saying thank you to Folashade for the way she hosted the conversation with Andy. A skilled demonstration. The playful spaciousness, light and gentle challenge was a delight to behold, and I’d love to see more of it. A demonstration on the shift from transactional to relational. Leaving space for space really can shift a conversation. Beyond the anxiety that can provoke lives another way of being together. 

So given I wasn’t able to ask the question, probably because it took some time to percolate, I thought I might write about what I’d have asked and might have said. What listening to the spoken word evoked in me. 

For context Andy talked much about the value of community and community led housing, which was a delight to my ears and to the GM System Changers inquiry around land justice. 

It was a space that was exploring ways to shift power and resource directly into the hands of grass root groups and talking about what happened when GM System Changers did just that. 

So this is what I might have said.

I want to start by congratulating Wigan Council for beginning to walk a trust based commissioning path with us. They’ve seen what we do, and they’ve seen what GM system changers cash has enabled and they are seeking to help that grow rather than harm the edges with unnecessary bureaucracy. I mean why would you put stabilisers back on a bike once you’ve learned to ride it? 

There’s been no call to do a leadership course or embed a QA system. Just relational conversations. Something to think about when we are investing in the grass roots. Their beauty is their smallness and their ability to bend and weave like a stream. They way GM System Changers have done and are doing and thinking about this leaves a light footprint for others to follow. 

I was listening very carefully as I always do, when people talk about community and paying particular attention to how it’s described. We all have seen the capture of ‘community led’ as a term, when 9 times out of 10 people are talking about coproduction. 

I heard Andy say this:  

‘For too long, others have extracted out of our communities, and people have lived their lives not having control of the basics. Live Well is about putting communities back in control so that they can create and keep wealth and recirculate it in communities. It’s about switching investment towards our own communities and away from organisations that are not always serving them’. 

And I thought brilliant. And then I listened some more. I listened to the examples of the voluntary, community, faith and social enterprise sector moving into job centres and I realised we’ve a long way to travel. Maybe GM System Changers can offer some stabilisers for the journey. 

In January of this year, thanks to GM System Changers investment, we were able to open the doors of Community Corner with an open invitation to the community to come in and use the space. It was time for us to have some roots, rather than nest in the homes of others, we were ready for a place of our own and so it’s been no surprise that we’ve experienced ‘if you build it, they will come’ since we’ve opened the doors. Behaviour that’s surprising for those who label citizens and communities as apathetic with no interest in doing things for themselves.

That open invitation has also welcomed those working in and serving the community and as a consequence I’ve a little research project growing called, ‘Signposts to nowhere.’

As helping professionals come in, I learn about their work, what they can and can’t do, how long they can do it for, and which particular problem they’ve been employed to solve. Some of the helping professionals see us as a threat to their job, some think we are the best thing since sliced bread and others want to ‘step down’ their ‘clients’ to us. Community Corner feels very power balancing and you can absolutely feel the system imbalance when it presents itself at the doors. We’re lucky that as a space, for this year anyway, we’ve been resourced. That’s not the same for most other places in the borough. And so we need to name that we have paid professionals with short term aims looking to under resourced grass root group for long term gains. 

At the same time, something messily beautiful is growing within CommUnity Corner. We aren’t ones to usually talk about what’s deemed to be missing in people and places, but if we were you’d find every one of the characteristics finding themselves at home here, and in conversation and community with others. Connected by a place in which they feel a sense of ownership. There’s a learning and an unlearning that’s happening daily, with some gentle hosting and containing wrapped around it. The natural peer support systems that evolve when people are invited into a space as creators rather than consumers. It’s messy, and it’s tough. Complex. 

Now this for me is community, the natural systems that exist in a place when the helping professionals are at home having their tea. The places that invite people of the different communities of interest within a place to come together and get to know each other. The places that pay attention and are interested in what might grow between us and from us. 

That’s grass root community. I’m yet to hear anyone talk about resourcing that. 

I do hear fear expressed about it. It’s not safe, there’s not enough boundaries. Which is why I’m so chuffed we have allies in Wigan Council who really want to support this to grow, and work this out together. 

Anyone who knows me, knows that I was involved and responsible for growing the Wigan Life work. The work around public system change that left me depleted beyond belief. And my deep belief, that this work – as in the path to what’s next for us all, cannot grow within the system. It needs to grow new life, rooted in community. Small yet connected, locally rooted, community accountability and governance. 

That’s why I pay particular attention to how I hear community described. All that we know, the infrastructure we lean on, depend on and know as a safe pairs of hands might just need to disappear from sight. To be hospiced and leave space for new life to grow. 

That’s really scary, we know. And yet we have practitioners who are courageously connected and walking this path.

What if we trusted the Greater Manchester System Changers with more cash? 

How might that enable us to feel safer about risk? 


Community Builder