Programmes Manager, Co-operatives UK
Pre-pandemic in March 2020, the Empowering Places peer network gathered in Leicester for the programme’s fifth annual ‘Learning Camp’. A residential conference bringing all six participating places together with national partners to learn, share, connect and build relationships. Community anchor organisation and programme participant, B-Inspired had hosted an insightful day at the Grove, a previously abandoned community centre acquired through an asset transfer, addressing a gap in physical spaces for young people to meet by providing a centre of sport and activity for local residents.
After our first day together with anxiety escalating about Covid-19, a collective decision was made to cut short the event. We quickly dashed back to different corners of the country, and a week later all in-person events were moved online as the UK was placed under its first national lockdown. It’s a story we are all now very familiar with, as we became constrained to virtual meet ups.
The programme persisted throughout this period of online meetups to eventually meeting again in person in November 2021. This period of virtual convening and collaboration has since provided perspective on the power of in-person events.
About Empowering Places
The Power to Change funded Empowering Places programme works with locally rooted ‘catalyst’ organisations in Hartlepool, Plymouth, Leicester, Grimsby, Bradford and Wigan. It tests the idea that local areas can be improved through kick-starting and supporting networks of community businesses.
As Programme Manager at Cooperatives UK, the lead delivery partner of Empowering Places, it’s clear that this programme is about more than just business. It’s centred in the foundational belief that local people are best placed to understand and tackle entrenched inequalities. The programme’s support focuses on enabling this power in through funding, capacity support and a collective peer network.
The impact of Covid
As community rooted organisations, the programme catalysts are long experienced and trusted at supporting residents who are facing crisis. Their day-to-day is as first responders, working alongside individuals on the poverty line, or those furthest away from employment. Covid-19 was a further dimension of this but enabled quick transition into delivering food, supporting people to get online and tackling isolation
Prior to March 2020, our in-person meet ups were a valued element of the programme. However during the pandemic we spent 20 months navigating the virtual world of Zoom, Jamboards, and Whatsapp groups. In the process, we found a new collective skill of connecting remotely and allowing the peer network to grow stronger and closer.
When we met online, we were able to support each other to navigate and make some sense of the madness, to build solidarity and to provide a safe space to release the confusion and frustration. We reduced administrative burdens on access to funding and reporting. And we strategically articulated a collective response rooted in our experience to the government’s ‘Build Back Better’ narrative.
Zoom doesn’t replace the magic of being together – there needs to be a bit of both.
Returning to in-person
In the first week of November 2021, we were finally able to come back together for the Bradford Learning Camp, co-hosted by Made in Manningham. Even before the looming threat of new Covid variants, the run up to the event was filled with doubt about whether in-person gatherings were necessary, particularly in light of our newfound abilities to connect via the virtual world.
However, after two days together in Bradford I was reminded of the virtues of in-person events. The Learning Camp provided opportunities to visit a range of social businesses, including Sunnah Sports Academy, International Mixed Ability Sports, Bread and Roses Co-operative and Wibsey Community Garden. Participants witnessed first-hand the challenges of these businesses, and how they are making it work.
Providing the same level of inspiration is something is so difficult to replicate online. Virtual meetings miss the ability to spark light bulb moments or the space for participants to ask probing questions that enable an understanding of the how, the why, and the learning that can be taken away to be applied within another context. Face-to-face events can pull people away from the day-to-day, creating space to think further and wider than immediate tasks, opening up the potential of learning something new.
Visits to other community businesses are so useful – I get new ideas that can transform how I think and what I do.
In-person gatherings also enable us to connect in personable ways, away from solely being a representative of our specific organisations. This connection is vital for when times get tough. The leaders in the Empowering Places network are trusted in their communities, often the person continually turned to with problems to solve, and to remain strong. Over time this is both exhausting and isolating. Having a network built on trust creates friendly and informed voices who can empathise and support each other to keep going.
When together in Bradford, participants not only learnt from the projects we visited, but they also offered insights and challenges to the community businesses they visited. Within peer networks, participants are equal, regardless of their experience with their value stemming from their ability to bring in different perspectives. I see this in the Empowering Places peer network. It’s not about centering an ‘expert’ at the front of the room, the learning comes from bringing people who are passionate about social change together to share ideas.
It was all just wonderful, really engaging, lots of learning and much needed connection and a real sense of energy and revitalisation.
Building time for rest, relaxation, and fun
Meeting in person also allowed for relaxation and celebration, something I often think can be viewed as an unnecessary luxury away from the private sector. Any new business start-up is tough, particularly within the current context. When you include business leaders with socially motivated principles and customer bases where disposable income is low, it gets even harder. Allowing space for people to feel valued and celebrated is invaluable.
There is an evident luxury in pulling people away from their daily responsibilities, including caring for family on top of demanding jobs. Power to Change have always recognised the need to cover expenses to tackle barriers to participation. This is vital for the inclusivity of our peer network, and is a core consideration for anyone seeking to facilitate a genuine diversity of experiences.
The energy, creativity, passion and messiness was so grounding and inspiring.
Winding down Empowering Places
2022 marks the final year of Empowering Places funding. Over the last five years I’ve witnessed this peer network grow, fuelled with brilliant individuals who have both shared and learnt with both generosity and curiosity. This is coupled with working with a funder who had the insight into the value this network would bring and the patience for its growth.
Whilst online interactions have reduced the barriers of travel to these six unique places, and provided new opportunities for us to engage, the roots and relationships of Empowering Places have been built through physical meetups, and the opportunity to visit each other’s places to understand their context and challenges. I’m hopeful that these bonds will outstrip the original project timescales and continue to be a supportive group of inspiration and resilience for future challenges.