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A Conversation in Progress

IBEX’s work takes us across our region, and into encounters with newer ways of engaging with one’s context and the communities in which we are set. One such encounter was with developments initiated by Faithworks Wessex around the south and south east of Dorset, in the area of community conversations. Initially these had happened in Poole, over three sessions of ‘Conversations’, which modelled the approach. Since then similar conversations have happened in Christchurch, and a smaller community of Ferndown in south Dorset. IBEX thought it worth promoting this approach, by exploring introducing it to a town in the south of Hampshire, and offering a new ‘How To’.

For how it worked in Poole, it is worth following the link where one finds this description of what the Poole Conversation is.

The Poole Conversation might best be described as a community conversation with results. A gathering of community leaders and influencers from all areas of the town got together to share and celebrate what is great about our community and also consider the things that could be improved. It was clear that what was needed was not a centrally devised set of new programmes, but instead to spread the word about the good things that were already happening, to inspire local actions and to motivate creative and connected communities.

The goal is for Poole to be recognised as a place where people feel valued members of the community take responsibility for connecting with other people to build a vibrant and resilient sense of community.

This may sound to some, as another word for community consultations. In one sense it is. But if you have ever been involved in consultations led by a Local Authority or regeneration body, such as the writer of this how to has (in a city in the East Midlands) one can find them dispiriting affairs.

In them you might find yourself very quickly addressing apparently intractable problems, or ‘issues’, which only more money or the introduction of professional and ‘experts’, can solve; and/or your presence is used to support ideas/initiatives which are the pet project of an elected official, or such community expert, with any listening to your input feeling rather nominal.

As a result such consultations can feel frustrating or sterile affairs. Community and Church leaders can be very wary, even cynical, of being involved in such events.

So how might these ‘Conversations’ be different?

Poole Conversations firstly tried to ensure that the people convening and enabling the gatherings were neutral, and an effort was made to ensure that every participant felt they had an equal place around the table for the conversations.

As many of us find, a one way conversation where we are subject to one person’s views and ideas, and there is little two way interaction, can be very unsatisfactory.

So thought is needed as to who is invited and the amount of input those with power locally might have. In Christchurch, people were allocated into groups, making sure that the different types of participants were split up equally, so that for example not all Church people or, say, teachers, were in the same groups.

Each group had maps (actually using Cycle maps of the town) on which, as ideas and input were shared, they were written on post-it notes and put on the map – literally mapping the context.

Another approach observed is for people to be grouped around tables, which have paper table clothes on them, which people are invited to write on with input and ideas. As the topics and questions move on, these can be replaced, and the paper table clothes can be put up as ready made flip charts for display. People then might be invited to go around and view them, and add thoughts to them, making the process potentially quite inclusive and interactive.

(Some might employ the techniques here, of what is known as Appreciative Enquiry).

Secondly, they began with positive celebration of a community and what was actually happening. The aim was not necessarily to reinvent wheels but to bring people together, and learn from each other.

In many cases people attending found out that many themes were being tackled already, and groups often did not realise that others had pioneered approaches, and could be a partner in tackling issues.

In the case of Poole, and then since, community (group) surveys were commissioned, the results of which were presented to celebrate what was already happening in the town. Poole had a Faith Audit, from the Cinnamon network, commissioned – but there are a range of similar tools one could use.

The gathering is then led through a series of questions, in a focussed way.

You might start with the question: What is great about Anytown?

Then one is led to consider the issues that face the place? And importantly, especially in a first set of conversations: What are potential solutions, and how can we (the participants) transform our town/city/village?

It seems this is important, so that the conversations don’t get diverted into broad philosophical or political considerations, which may be of some interest, but are not rooted in the practical context. Someone will then collect the input, and it will be summarised for publication and circulation. As part of this, if one is organised enough, videos could be shown at interspersed intervals.

In Christchurch a short video was shown at the beginning by the Faithworks Wessex coordinator who (rather Oscar like) sadly could not attend that night, welcoming people, and briefly explaining the process.

Follow up will happen, such as one can see with the report of the Poole Conversation.

In the case of Poole issues were identified around the Youth of the town, and the Poole Conversation 3 was set up to address that specifically. Somewhere else it might be issues regarding housing and homelessness.

The Christchurch Conversation was aided by a recent thematic report by the Dorset Community Foundation, on ‘Hidden Dorset II’, which was a summary of available statistics about community needs, presented in an attractive way to enable consideration for groups considering priorities around what to seek funding for.

It seems to this writer though the value comes in not prescribing too tightly at the beginning, what the issues are, to avoid it becoming an occasion for those with their own agendas to impose on the gathered.

Of course, in the real world in which we live, people will have agendas and interests which they bring to any conversation. But placing them in the context of celebrating what is good about a place, and what is already happening, can help the process of all those gathered own them and commit to tackling them in a coordinated way.

This last point brings the observation that having a coordinating group for the conversation is important.

The more representative this is of the different stakeholders in a town the better. This group will then endeavour to collate the input and reports back, and suggest follow up action. It can of course be a time limited group, so that people are not feeling they are signing their life away if they agree to help out.

In many ways much of this is not rocket science, as we might say. It is about having a good conversation, with a purpose, which enables better interaction in the community. It can aid and assist community well being and – to use organisational philosophical terms (Robert Putnam on Social Capital) improve Community organisational capital. Where the process is intentionally inclusive, it can enable a better spirit of partnership among the interested parties and groups in a place.

As the initiatives employed in Dorset have shown, it can be applied to a town, and larger Urban areas, but also a smaller village as well.

So as a model it is adaptable, as at heart it is – as the name suggests – about enabling good conversation for the benefit of all in a given community.

IBEX hopes we can roll out versions of this beyond Dorset, and currently are conversing about a town in the south of Hampshire.

So watch this space.

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