It’s not hard to argue that the concept of a network is intrinsically compatible with food growing. The runners of a strawberry plant crawl across the surface of a garden bed, setting root and making new plants year after year. Jerusalem artichoke tubers multiply beneath the ground until you’ve got jerusalem artichokes popping up everywhere, and the wind blows the seeds from crops across the garden, letting them take root in delightfully unexpected places: rooftops, between pavement slabs, the compost heap. We know instinctively that ideas and energy move horizontally, organically and unstoppably, so it only made sense for food growers in London to get together in 2010 to share our ideas about community food growing in London. Rooted in the “do it yourself” culture of the food growing and cooperative worlds, this naturally grew into a process of building a network based on the common challenges we faced as food growers in a rapidly changing city.
The Community Food Growers Network came out a sense that we needed a space in which to affirm the political nature of food growing, out of a desire for mutual aid and solidarity between projects, and to give a collective voice to food growers. Skyrocketing land prices meant that several community gardens were closed as the land was bought up for “development”, and increasing rents meant that it became harder for food growers to generate enough income to pay the bills. We expected to be able to learn from each other, to make statements and take action on issues that affected us, and to support projects under threat of closure. What was less expected was the journey from an informal network of food growers into an established network with over 20 members, a collective income of over £5 million on over 24 acres of growing space.
As the Community Food Growers Network grows up, we’re asking ourselves a lot of questions...
How does a network grow up?
Because we grew from the bottom up (rather than being established by an external organisation) we’ve had the challenge (and the joy) of feeling our way into maturity, expanding and contracting as energy levels and capacity dictated (often - but not always - linked to funding).
Do we need systems?
In the early days, a lot of energy, three or four meetings and some external facilitation went into developing our Manifesto and our How We Work process. As with a lot of networks, it was unclear how much energy we needed to put into setting up systems and processes.
We are still unincorporated and channel all of our funding and staffing through a member project. We are discussing whether it makes sense to incorporate, but we also value having systems and processes, without becoming an institution. It is easier to keep the power more firmly in the hands of the members this way, by not creating a whole new organisation that requires infrastructure and maintenance. It also gives more flexibility in what we do and how we operate - and makes it clear that we will only exist for as long as our members deem us useful.
How do we distribute leadership?
As we have taken on an increasing number of staff (we currently have approx 7 funded staff days per week), we’ve developed systems to support and manage staff in line with network-based principles. This process certainly had its growing pains but we feel that we are moving in the right direction. We have a Staff Support Committee made up of representatives from three member projects, each paid one day per month to take on staff support work such as inducting new staff, regular check in meetings with staff members, and offering input on prioritising and focus of staff work.
As we grow, how do we stay member led?
Some of the highest energy levels were at the beginning of the process, when packed rooms discussed issues that were drastically affecting a lot of food growers, community groups and coops. Since we have attracted more funding, we have been able to employ staff and therefore increase the scope and volume of our activities. However, this sometimes comes at the cost of member involvement and engagement. Overworked food growers are relieved to be able to step back and let paid workers do the bulk of the organising, and more specialised activities like lobbying can be difficult for members to engage in with limited capacity. But even as staff hold more “executive power”, we’re doing our best to stay driven by the members. Our strategy days are held at one of our quarterly member gatherings, and the agendas are kept open and flexible so member projects can direct the issues that we focus our energy on.
No matter the size or scope, networks are fertile ground for ideas and action. The Community Food Growers Network is continuing to grow and change in new ways, with a working group dedicated to intervening in the London Local Plan and member projects collaborating to share price lists and crop yield statistics. The next eight years will surely be as eventful and unpredictable as the past eight, as we see what ideas take root and grow in our gardens and our city.
Natalie Szarek is a founder of Audacious Veg, part of the team at CFGN and a member of our community of practice for the Peer Network Programme.
Each year we welcome hundreds of new community activists, leaders and volunteers to the Eden Project Communities network. Some through our Community Camps at the Eden Project itself, others through regional events across the UK, and others still through our mass participation events such as The Big Lunch and The Big Walk.
People join with projects of all shapes and sizes; from nothing more than a good idea right up to a fully-formed Community Business. What bonds them together is a shared passion for communities, for making their streets, villages, towns and cities better places to be for everyone.
Working with such a diverse network means that often practical ideas or support are relevant to some but not others. But every now and then an idea comes along which seems to be so achievably simple and so excitingly different that it appeals to everyone. An idea like SOUP.
Those of us involved in organising the first SOUP in Oxford had taken the idea from the now-famous Detroit SOUP. As with many great ideas, the premise was a simple one; cook up some soup, charge a small entry fee, invite local community projects to pitch for the proceeds, and hold a vote to select the winner.
It’s remarkably self-contained, especially if the soup can be made from surplus ingredients. All you really need is a space and a community. The first recorded SOUP events were run by an arts-based project in Chicago, but it was in Detroit where the idea really took off.
Since launching in 2010, Detroit SOUP has hosted over 150 events, with over $130,000 raised by the community for the community. Their diners have helped fund 57 projects, 48 non-profits, and 27 for-profit enterprises. At least 33 of these projects would not have moved forward with their initiatives if it wasn’t for SOUP.
As well as a truly meaningful social space, and a radically democratic funding source, Detroit SOUP is also a vitally needed alternative to the glass ceilings facing individuals in a city hit hard by poverty. As Amy Kaherl, Executive Director of Detroit SOUP, notes: “We now realise we are the first step into what is often a complex entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
It’s a great story, and who doesn’t love a great story?
Here in the UK we certainly do. Over 70 SOUP projects are currently running across the country, and hundreds more exist across the world. The idea has travelled the globe like wildfire, striking a chord in communities from Huddersfield to Oslo to Las Vegas to Kathmandu.
Somehow, without a single central organisation to co-ordinate it, a movement has started. The events are simultaneously completely independent and yet tapping into a shared identity. Communities across the world are looking at and learning from other communities, without any prior connection.
In network theory terms, this stage of innovation is referred to as scaling out. The idea has moved from local application, in Chicago and Detroit, to wider implementation. This stage occurs after inspiration, ideas, experiments and improvements, and is the final stage before full-scale systemic change becomes possible. For an idea to get to this stage so quickly, and so independently, is remarkable.
Perhaps it is the way SOUP straddles the radically different, microfunding for local projects you might never have heard about otherwise, and the comfortingly familiar, a warm bowl of soup and a community centre. Perhaps it is the model of asset-based community development (ABCD), in which existing strengths and potential are utilised to create new opportunities. The food is already there in the community, as is the money in people’s pockets and the pitching projects themselves. SOUP brings them all together to enable a truly positive transformation.
Whatever the magic ingredient is, the SOUP movement is on a roll (pun apologetically intended). Amy Kaherl from Detroit SOUP is looking to set up a more formalised network, with a vision of a SOUP in every city in the world. That this idea is even possible is built on an informal network which no-one could have predicted.
But maybe we can learn from it. At the very least, we can draw hope from it. What the SOUP movement proves is that there is a network across the planet of people with the desire to make positive change happen, and to support those around them. It might not have a name, or its own website, or Facebook page, but if there is an idea out there which is making a difference in one community, then it has the opportunity to travel the world. And if it can travel the world, it can change the world.
Find out more about the Eden Project Communities network by visiting our website, or emailing Peter.
Peter manages the Eden Project Communities network across the UK. The network’s activities range from mass-participation events such as The Big Lunch, which saw 9.3 million people take part in 2017, to a peer-network of community activists, leaders and volunteers, including many at the start of their Community Business journey.
Ever wondered why some things always get a good turnout and others don’t, even if they’re both excellent and worthwhile? Our peer network programme coordinator Megan, suggests that peer network theory might be able to give us one answer.
I follow the candles as they snake their way through the darkness to a clearing, the smell of woodsmoke fills the air and the warm glow of the fire lights friendly faces. Someone hands me a steaming bowl of pumpkin soup and we clamber to the top of the hay bales. The hubbub is hushed and everyone huddles in as a West African folk duo begin.
Thoughts from my working day linger and I find myself wondering if anyone else recognises elements of network building going on here. My friend curating these events certainly seems to act as a network weaver would. After the first set, I ask him what he thinks, “I’ve not really thought of it as a network or community before, it’s about deep listening. Most gigs are talked over, you can’t hear and half the people aren’t paying any attention. People come here so they can listen”. Intrigued by his answer, I ask the woman who owns the woodland for her view “I don’t know if I’d call it a network… maybe I’d say community but the important thing is sharing what we’ve got here – for others to enjoy the magic of the woodland.” I feel a great sense of belonging here so I’m surprised they don’t see their efforts could be creating a network. Perhaps there’s something missing.
Identity, purpose & values
When a network is forming, the shared purpose, identity and values which bring people together may only be loosely identifiable and quite varied. Peer network theory teaches us that these are the building blocks of any network. In order to get a better grasp on this, it can be useful to consider who the network is for, what problem it’s working on and what type of collaborative activities it’ll be involved in. Established networks tend to work best when network members and partners have a clear purpose and they decide on this together rather than anyone imposing it, for example a funder or a central figure who happens to connect a lot of people.
Everyone who is part of a network or community is involved for a reason, there’s something that motivates them to contribute and engage with others. As part of the peer network programme, we’ve learnt that this ‘something’ is called the ‘value proposition’ of the network’s business model. As we’ve seen with the woodland music scene, this can be different for different people and a robust network will have more than one.
With any network, some struggle to gain the momentum you’d expect, where others are reliably oversubscribed and well attended. Interestingly, the one in this example is very popular and it’s also off the social media radar. Maybe it’s because people are coming for more than the music, maybe the difference is feeling like you’re part of something. I guess it’s not surprising that there’s a personal and emotional element to peer network theory. It’s got me thinking, have I ever felt motivated to contribute to something that I didn’t genuinely want to belong to? Have you?
Unlocking Networks coordinator Megan shines a light on peer network theory’s relevance to our culture, our politics and offers her view on who’s responsible for making our communities strong.
“There is a lot of effort, resources and work going into making us divided and weak. It’s my job, as an artist, to bring people together.” – Alabaster DePlume
I’m walking through a park in Hackney with a man who calls himself Alabaster. We’re drinking over-sweet banana bread beer and chatting about his work, still buzzing from the show. “I see something like what we’re seeing in the news recently, in politics, I think – who has failed here? We have failed – artists. Who’s job is it to do the opposite, to bring people together and make them strong? It’s our job.” Someone passes us singing a tune and the wind drops briefly, I ask him what he means “…I love to connect with different groups around London, around the country too, and bring them together. Link them up. Sometimes you feel like “they’re getting more out of this than I am” – but really we all do each other good in this way. I find it can take honest courage to put effort into connecting two parties who will then benefit from their connection without you –” What he’s describing brings me back to something else I’ve been working on in the very different setting of my role in Shared Assets.
He’s telling me about Stella, “she’s been helping me with my work – she’s able to remember people and facts (I forget loads) and connect with people while I’m working (also sell merch and so on)… But she is also a different character to me, and able to connect with people from a different background. She also is able to seek others to do similar work, and – crucially – she believes in the socio-political aspect of this work, she feels it fully.”
In peer network theory we refer to people like this as network weavers; they bring disparate groups together and provide the spark for collaboration, creating a web of connections until a network is formed.
Maps that look like constellations pick out the connections forming and show how strong the network is. The maps change shape as the network develops, moving from single dots and occasional clusters, to sprawling, densely connected networks with a periphery of orbiting newcomers. These developments are defined by the actions of key members of any community. Our understanding of the best choices for these key members, is the focus of peer network theory.
The high notions of my artist companion might seem incongruous in the stale confines of what we imagine peer network theory to be but this is precisely what such work is about. In my role at Shared Assets, I’m convening a programme to support peer networking for community businesses and it’s becoming clear to me that the responsibility of bridging divides and making strong communities, can be taken on by any of us. To get started, all we need to do is bring people together and give them something they can collaborate on.
We hear from Peter Lefort from Eden Project Communities on listening to voices of experience.
Peter manages the programmes of Eden Project Communities across England. These programmes range from mass-participation events such as The Big Lunch, which saw 9.3 million people take part in 2017, to supporting a peer-network of community activists, leaders and volunteers, including many at the start of their Community Business journey.
The term ‘expert’ has become a dirty word. Look at Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, or the collective confusion around Brexit, or the proliferation of fake news all over social media. We no longer feel the need to defer to those who have studied in their field for years in order to form our own opinions about anything and everything.
For those of us who are part of, or support, networks, this poses an interesting question. Should we work to re-establish a deference to experts, in order to learn from what has gone before, or should we abandon the term and embrace the opportunity to write our own answers?
Working with communities, where people are generally operating at capacity at all times, and new opportunities and ideas can seem daunting, the ability to signpost to experts can be hugely valuable. People who have been there and done that, people who have (sometimes literally) written the book, can make the difference to the widest possible audience having the confidence to start their own projects.
On the other hand, looking up to and learning from experts can create a hierarchy which makes it hard for people to suggest new ideas. This can have the effect of maintaining the status quo, which is not always a bad thing, but when the traditional experts generally inhabit a particular age, ethnicity or gender, it can be a real barrier to addressing inequality and finding new, inclusive routes to action.
So, to answer the question, I would (conveniently!) argue that we can do both. Expertise has real value to those who need it, but it is a term which can challenge new ways of thinking. So let’s broaden the term, and look at it in a new way. The label ‘expert’ does not need to be a static term, but a relative one. It’s not about knowing a specific thing; it’s about knowing the right thing at the right time to the right person. In this way, we are all experts of our own experience, we just need to be aware of the moments when our own insight and ideas have relevance to others.
This is the principle behind the Eden Project Communities network. Its only rule is that its members are all trying to make positive change happen in their communities. Knowledge and experience is useful, but it is the shared values which create relationships, and also an understanding that everyone’s experience has real worth when shared with others in need of connection.
Another excellent example is the Poverty Truth Commission. This is a model in which people with lived experience of poverty are brought together, crucially on an equal footing, with policy makers to discuss responses to poverty. It ensures that those affected by decisions are central to the decision-making.
For both of these examples, it is the connection of people with different experiences, and the acceptance on all sides of how valuable the others’ experiences are, which makes positive social change a possibility. These networks are built on the value of expertise, but simultaneously also on a radical reframing of what we have come to understand expertise to mean.
It’s never easy to change accepted responses to terms such as ‘expert,’ and it is especially hard to convince those making things happen in communities of the value of their own expertise when their sector is traditionally undervalued next to the traditional expertise of big business and academia. But if we can, then maybe we can reclaim the ‘expert’ as a role we can all play when the opportunity arises, and we are more likely to actually listen when someone is telling us something we really need to hear.
Jodie Giles, Senior Project Manager at Regen shares how community energy groups cleaned up at the Green Energy Awards in Bath on Nov 28.
Three of the six awards went to community owned energy initiatives:
Winner of South West Community Energy Imitative 2017
Tamar Energy Community (TEC) – Tavistock and the Tamar Valley.
At Regen, we are delighted Kate Royston from Tamar Energy Community (TEC) has been recognised for her dedication to TEC, but also because she has worked diligently over the years to ensure we have a very strong community energy network in South Devon where groups support each other. We’ve also been lucky to work closely with Kate as part of ‘Peer Power’, funded by Power to Change, to widen and make the Devon community energy network more sustainable.
Tamar Energy Community (TEC) is a community benefit society owned and managed by its members, and operating for the benefit of the communities of Tavistock and Callington. They aim to develop renewable energy projects owned by local people that reduce carbon emissions and electricity bills.
Some of their achievements include:
“We are absolutely delighted that as small group we have done something that has been recognised. We believe supporting work to enable people to benefit from the local energy economy and do something about climate change is extremely important, and community energy groups have a vital role to play in achieving these things.”
Kate Royston, Tamar Energy Community
Winner of Best Sustainable Energy Scheme
Owen Square Community Energy (OSCE) – Bristol
I first visited Easton Energy Group in 2015 and was blown away by their ambition, approach to working in partnership with local businesses, and their exemplary community engagement in a very diverse neighbourhood. There is lots to learn from this team and we have really enjoyed working with them on their TWOS project.
Owen Square Community Energy (OSCE) is a non-profit energy supply company in Easton, Bristol, and is a collaboration between Easton Community Centre, Easton Energy Group and community microgrid developer Clean Energy Prospector (CEPRO).
Their project is about retrofitting smart, integrated community solar, heat pumps and storage to reduce net energy imports and carbon emissions for a busy community centre, homes and businesses connected to a single substation in Owen Square park in Bristol.
What have they achieved?
David Tudgey, Easton Energy
Winner of South West Sustainable Energy Champion
Alistair MacPherson, CEO of Plymouth Energy Community (PEC) – Plymouth
What Plymouth Energy Community (PEC) has achieved is frankly incredible. In a city where many people are in poverty, their work makes lives better. They even managed to install a 4.1MW solar farm on contaminated land within the MOD inner blast zone. The PEC team are an inspiration to us all and Alistair MacPherson is a joy to work with, extremely knowledgeable and has been a key figure in driving the energy revolution in a direction that supports communities.
Meet Alistair MacPherson
Alistair has lead the development of a fast-growing and multi-award-winning community energy organisation Plymouth Energy Community (PEC). As the Chief Executive he has worked tirelessly to build momentum behind the scenes, and raise investment and support a growing team to ensure the Plymouth community can benefit from energy technology – through generation, energy efficiency and empowerment. He has also:
“I accept this award with a huge sense of pride. Here in Plymouth, we continue to prove that local authorities and community energy organisations can partners as unstoppable force for good in the battle for a fairer and cleaner energy system”
Alistair MacPherson, CEO
In the last five years, over 120,000 people have invested over £100,000,000 in community shares to support around 400 community businesses throughout the UK, including the Anglers Rest community pub in Bamford. Petra Morris, Project Officer at Co-operatives UK who run the Community Shares Practitioner Network, caught up with Sally Soady, Company Secretary of Bamford Community Society to find out what it’s like to be part of the network and how you can join.
Petra: Hi Sally. How much did you raise through your community share offer to save your community pub?
Sally: We raised £263,500 through a community share offer to purchase the Anglers Rest in 2013 and this year we’re running an open share offer. This 150-year trading inn lies in the centre of Bamford, a village at the heart of the most visited area of the Peak District National Park.
Petra: What made you join the Community Shares Practitioner Network?
Sally: After having successfully gone through the community share offer, I gradually found myself advising other community owned pubs with their community share offer and hosting study visits. I realised there were things that I would do differently next time, and wanted to learn more in order to better inform others. So I joined the Community Shares Practitioner Network, a community of over 100 practitioners providing advice and guidance to communities undertaking share offers.
Petra: Who is part of the network?
Sally: Practitioners have a wide variety of backgrounds, but all are experienced in community share offers. They might be board members, technical advisers, business plan developers or share offer document writers. Some are experts in a particular trade sector, knowledgeable about society law, or experienced in community engagement. Whatever their background, experience and expertise, they are all committed to developing share offers that meet national standards of good practice. It’s great being part of a community of like-minded practitioners and being able to network and share best practice.
Petra: In 2015, the Community Shares Unit (CSU) introduced a license for community shares practitioners which allows them to award the Community Shares Standard Mark. You’re on your journey to becoming fully licensed I believe?
Sally: Yes, I participated in the community shares licensing training programme from November 2016 to March 2017 and gained a better understanding of the philosophy behind community shares. The knowledge has been invaluable in helping me guide our Community Benefit Society through discussions around share withdrawals and paying interest and we’ve successfully applied for support through the Community Shares Booster programme to develop an open community share offer. I’m now much more confident about supporting other community businesses with their community shares offers by using the Standard Mark and taking part in peer reviews and training to become fully licensed.
The next training programme for community shares licensed practitioners is due to start in November 2017 so if you have undertaken a community share offer, are looking to build on your current experience and promote good practice, find out more here.
Petra Morris is a Projects Officer at Co-operatives UK. Petra is responsible for helping to deliver support programmes which have benefited hundreds of co-ops and community businesses including the Community Shares Practitioner Network (CSPN). Petra is also part of the People’s Community of Practice (CoP) funded by Power to Change, the independent trust supporting community businesses in England. It is supporting 13 community business peer networks over 18 months.
We are also happy to announce that we are able to offer a limited number of training bursaries via the Peer Network Programme which is being funded by Power to Change, the independent trust supporting community businesses. The bursary is for freelancers and individuals from organisations with limited training resources who are actively involved with community businesses.
By Nick Gardham, Chief Exec at The Company of Community Organisers
Chief Exec Nick Gardham responds to the much asked question “So what actually is community organising?”
I regularly get asked by friends, family members and those that I speak to, “So what actually is community organising?”. I tend to have a stock reply; “It’s about listening, bringing people together and supporting them to take action on the things they care about most”. This tends to get one of two responses which are;
Response 1 – That sounds interesting – how do you do that?
Response 2 – Oh, we do that too!
The problem I then find myself in is that I either
(a) spend my time telling stories of amazing community organising activity from the network but not actually saying ‘How’, or,
(b) trying to explain to people why what we do is different! After all, it is different…
But what makes it different, what makes this unique and most of all how do we make that clear to people?
Recently, I sat down with some of the staff team at COLtd to look at a framework that was created by community organisers and programme staff as part of the Community Organising Programme. This was the first attempt at the end of the Programme at creating something that was for The Company of Community Organisers.
It was good, but we felt it didn’t tell the whole story. Or indeed reflect what is happening now or what we have learned about community organising over the past six years.
We needed something that told the whole story from reaching out on to the street for those very first encounters all the way through to effecting change at the systemic level. As well as telling the story though, we wanted something that would help guide and assist those new to community organising and those who are experienced with their community organising journey. But also, we needed something for our organisation so that we too can embody the community organising approach in what we do as an organisation. Something that will enable all of us to understand where we are and where we are going whether as individuals or organisations. Something that challenges us to ask whether we are genuinely going through all the steps (although not necessarily in a specific order) that are required to create genuine social change.
What we are now launching isn’t a self-assessment toolkit or a checklist. It is simply what we see as the community organising process, summarised on one page. A framework to underpin all our training. A map to stop us losing our way.
So when I am next asked, “what is community organising?” I won’t be saying, “Let me tell you”, I’ll certainly be saying, “Let me show you”. And then when I hear “Oh we do that”, I can assert, “Great, where are you on the journey and what change are you wanting to see?”
Follow this link to see the full version of the Community Organising Framework
by Georgina Wilson
Georgina WiIson recently attended our Networks & Coffee event. She explains how practicing collaborative leadership can help people build supportive peer networks.
Leadership = Power?
As leaders, we are so often taught that leadership looks like power. We’re taught that we have to claw and fight our way to the top of the heap and then command everybody once we get there.
But, from my experience working with leaders and community groups to lead positive change, I’ve learned that it’s just so much more special and so much more effective to collaborate with our peers. As individuals, we can’t possibly know everything. But as leaders, it’s tempting to pretend that we do.
A different kind of leadership...
Here’s the thing: the moment we start admitting that there may be people on our teams and in our networks that have a skill we don’t is the moment we start being more effective agents of change. Groups tend to be far more successful when they admit that there may be someone on the team who does something better, just like there are things I do better. It’s all about recognizing the unique skills in our team members and acting on them.
Recently, I attended Power to Change’s Networks & Coffee event facilitated by Shared Assets and The Social Change Agency. We looked at some of the reasons why networks making social change are struggling. One of the key elements of this conversation was that to be successful change agents, we should tap into the power that exists in simply coming together and growing together.
How do we get there?
This is something I am personally trying to emphasise in the project I’m leading called “Lead Positive Change.” We have had several events called “how change-makers can lead positive change,” and what was key there is that we created the space to learn and grow from one another.
I also wondered why we thought it was okay to try and create alone, to really try and strive without collaboration. So with my business, BUD (Businesses Under Development), I’m taking a unique approach by supporting leaders of positive change through teaching a participation based approach.
We want to create so much collaboration and partnership that people truly feel valued, and to encourage the idea that each individual can truly contribute something incredibly important. On a personal level, I want to work with other people and I want to share my skills with them and learn the skills that they have. We want groups not only to learn how to collaborate, but to gravitate towards collaboration. We want people to start seeing it as both appealing and natural.
What I have learned, and what I want others to learn, is the importance of understanding and respecting one another. I want individuals to gain experience outside of themselves. And I want people to see how when you put two people next to each other, you can create something that has never before existed. Collaboration is a fusion of ideas and skills and networks that turn into something new and beautiful. To me, it is one of the coolest concepts in the world and I want others to see it as well.