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Nurturing strong communities, the ABCD way

Steph - Forvever ManchesterAn evaluation without numbers? Well that’s pretty much what I’ve just completed for the Manchester-based charity, Forever Manchester. There are plenty of stats and spreadsheets in their ‘official’ assessment of their part in the 10-year Fair Share Trust programme, but to their credit, they wanted to tell people more than the dry evaluation ever could. I was commissioned to write a book of pictures and stories that told the story of how they administered their bit of the Fair Share Trust programme.

Which is why, some months ago, I found myself sitting in Steph Wilde’s living room on an ex-council estate on the outskirts of Oldham. Steph told me about a Fair Share project which, it seems, involves only a handful of residents from an estate of 400 homes. ‘So why do you think people don’t get involved?’ I had asked.

‘Disillusionment,’ said Steph without hesitation. ‘The rest of them think nothing ever happens and nothing ever will. There’s an expectation that outsiders have to come in and make things better, rather than thinking we can make it better by ourselves. The government can’t wave a magic wand and suddenly make a community here, it’s just not going to happen. We’ve got to do the work and it’s us, as a community, who have to do the grafting.’

Steph speaks with the passion and conviction of a politician at a hustings. ‘You can send a shiver down the spine with talk like that,’ I told her.

The chat with Steph and her neighbours was just one mug of tea in a tour of Fair Share Trust funded projects around Greater Manchester.

I have stood on the sidelines at Sale Moor Community Football Club and heard how local anti-social behaviour has drastically reduced since the club was set up; I have interviewed and photographed at a Wigan garage where young people take time out from school to learn skills and experience the workplace… and get jobs.

In Bolton I reported on a gardening project that benefits the volunteers as much as the older residents whose flower beds they tend; and over in Eccles I witnessed a disused community hall come back to life as a choral group raised the roof.

Sounds all positive and fluffy, right? Well, after a decade spending £6m you’d expect there to be plenty of success stories out there. But as Nick Massey, Forever Manchester’s chief executive, explains in his introduction to the 112-page book, there have also been plenty of ‘quarrels, squabbles, tiffs and spats, walk-outs, tears, accusations of scheming and trickery, family feuds, heartache and intrigue’.

In the book you hear the voices of those who are doing the grafting, those whose lives have moved on because they maybe volunteered for this or that, those getting satisfaction from giving to their neighbourhoods.

What’s refreshing is I get to tell it as I see it and the text doesn’t travel up and down three levels of management before it’s signed off.

But, although stories like these are always a great leap forward from the sterile report, there are shortcomings too. I’m only introduced to those who have engaged in the process. What about those who have fallen by the wayside during ‘the tiffs and the breakups’?

And whose story is it, anyway? In taking stories from ‘the community’ there’s inherently an imbalance. Professionals and people like me who are hired by them, are always going to take a different slant on the issues than the proponents themselves.

In my extended blog project, Her First Year, about a Moss Side teenage mum, I wrote about and photographed Frances and her wonderful baby, Mia. Frances wrote too. At first she’d send me long texts from her mobile phone which I uploaded, and later she was given a secondhand laptop on which she wrote emotive updates, littered with spelling mistakes and bereft of punctuation. Readers said these insights were the best bits of the story. (Interestingly, when the blog was featured in the Guardian Weekend Magazine, the editor corrected all Frances’ contributions).

Back in Oldham Steph asks: ‘There’s a philosophy call asset-based community development. Have you heard of it?’

As its names suggests, ABCD is an approach that emphasises what a community has, rather than what it doesn’t; it exploits the positives that residents can jointly offer rather than dwell on what is lacking. As Nick Massey described on these pages last year, it’s a fundamentally new way of working and pretty much tips everything else on its head.

In the last 18 months of the 10-year Fair Share Trust programme, Forever Manchester embraced this new approach and residents like Steph started to ask, ‘Why didn’t we have this from the beginning?’ Community builders replaced development workers and the shift of ‘power’ (and that’s not too strong a word) moved from professionals to residents.

Now it’s to do with making connections between different people in the neighbourhood and the community builders get that process going. In ABCD terms, a strong community is a well connected community and that, in itself, raises challenges for evaluation.

You can count how many sat on the new chairs that such-and-such a grant purchased but how do you measure something as ephemeral as ‘connectedness’? A new approach to neighbourhood renewal will need a new approach to evaluation and it’ll come down to stories again, listening to people’s experiences and passing that on. Is that any less relevant than the conventional box-ticking exercise and the filing in the bottom drawer? Not for me, it’s not.

  • ‘I Grew That.’ Nurturing Strong Communities by Len Grant is produced by Forever Manchester. An online version will be available shortly.
  • Len Grant’s latest blog project, Life Without Papers, is about undocumented migrant families and is commissioned by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy. It follows those from possibly the most vulnerable group in the UK.

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Stephanie Wilde
Stephanie Wilde
11 years ago

ABCD is definitely the way forward to improve or even create communities.Together as a community we can achieve so much more than an outside agency.

Alan George
Alan George
11 years ago

Len, my eye (and ear) was caught by your title ‘An evaluation without numbers’. I was delighted to read on and discover that it was through stories and photos that you chose to work. Even more interesting that the stories were gathered through personal encounters and that people’s unedited stories featured too, (despite the tidying up when one was later featured in the Guardian!) I’m really interested in this process of representing others – a great responsibility, but if done cooperatively it can be a liberating experience for both the story teller and the writer, in a shared community of new understandings. Doesn’t sound too grand does it? If so, perhaps it’ll spark off another response, another story.

Tracey Annette
Tracey Annette
11 years ago

Looking forward to reading the full version and perhaps getting my hands on a printed copy.
I’m quite a fan of Len’s work.
As a Community Development Worker, now working with older people living in Manchester … I’d champion every opportunity I could that allowed for people to influence and shape services. Better still is the role I get to play in supporting people to shape and deliver services independently (or as independently as possible).
I also applaud the fact that there exists a range of community engagement initiatives and approaches, ABCD being one of them and I’m interested to hear more about how this approach has worked for those with the capacity to take advantage of it.
Congrats to all involved, especially those who invested freely their own time to support their communities.

Gary Loftus
Gary Loftus
10 years ago
Reply to  Tracey Annette

Tracey, great comments, this has been pioneering work in four neighbourhoods of greater Manchester, and the people who are involved are passionate, committed and above all determined to see change in their neighbourhoods. ABCD and other strength based approaches, allow skilful community builders to tap into the skills, talents and assets within the neighbourhood, drawing on the strengths as opposed to focusing on the weaknesses that exist.

Like you I love Len Grant’s work, and I was over the moon when my CEO agreed to commission this piece of work. I knew Len was the right man for the job.

If you fancy a trip out to one of the neighbourhoods where we’ve been working drop me a line and I will arrange for that to happen.

On 8th October I am facilitating an ABCD Workshop for residents of east Manchester, at the new church on Albert Street. I’ll send you the publicity when I’ve finished it today.

Back to the book, have you had chance to read the copy I dropped off for you?

Cheers Gary

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