It is a Wednesday evening in late November 2016 and in a large white room lined with posters of inspirational stories from around the world, desks usually reserved for freelancers have been pushed aside to make way for a crowd of 35 or so people. Cups that minutes earlier contained someone’s homemade lentil soup have been discarded, and soon the chatter quietens as everybody turns to face a screen.
Much as you’d imagine a village planning meeting, these guests are here to discuss the future of their local community – only this is not a village. This is the centre of busy Brixton, South West London and, during the day, the room is used as the shared workspace and idea sharing network, Impact Hub Brixton.
Well-timed at the tail-end of a turbulent political year, tonight’s event is called #DoesChangeNeedToChange. Everyone here is keen to contribute ideas on why and how change across sectors like food, education, wellbeing, and business, needs to happen.
There are two answers to that. First, because as a community of entrepreneurs and activists, The Hub has seen first-hand the risks of the individualistic or ‘hero’s journey‘ approach to social change, which can lead to burn out. And second, because Power to Change, the independent charitable trust set up in January 2015 to grow community business in England, recently granted Impact Hub Brixton £57,500 to spend on supporting local community change over the next 18 months. And it is with these funds that the Hub plans to build ideas and solutions around the subject of change – partly through growing its Open Projects Nights (read a story here about the weekly Monday evening event) as well as the peer-to-peer skills sharing network, Echo network. Overall, Impact Hub Brixton is keen to encourage people, MPs and councils to come together and discuss ideas for putting plans into action. So far, so exciting.
Things are kicked off by Bex Trevalyan, the Hub’s head of partnerships and tonight’s facilitator, who says:
“We have been discussing our grant at Hub Brixton. But we have no advisory board. So tonight we are asking you to think critically about it.
“I’m curious to know something. What was the moment you decided you wanted to make change? In my case I was a 12-year-old kid. I went to the rainforests and I learnt that they got cut down. I thought it was mad. I told my classmates. That was the start of Bex the campaigner. Now I’m at the Hub and I have so much more opportunity to make change.”
Bex encourages each of us to turn to our neighbour to share our own stories. I meet Alex, who as a 20-year-old volunteer in Nepal “saw a river with plastic running through it, and couldn’t believe it. I have thought about it ever since. Today, most of my work relates to food, but I’ve never forgotten it.” Meanwhile I tell him of the moment when, after seeing the the documentary, The True Cost of Fashion, in 2015, I immediately changed the way I shop for clothes.
Bex outlines the main reasons she believes change needs to change: “because this year more people died of suicide than war, murder or natural disasters… Because we’re using the world’s resources at 1.6 times what’s available.” She describes five core challenges facing us at the moment:
● Challenge 1: Hierarchical structures are preventing action. Decisions are made behind closed doors.
● Challenge 2: There’s a narrative of fear – examples in the media are not representative of the reality of the world.
● Challenge 3: Silver bullet thinking – the idea that one sector – tech, for example – can change all problems, is too narrow.
● Challenge 4: The echo chamber effect – we all exist in our own world/bubble.
● Challenge 5: The resource crunch – leads to burnout, as a lack of funds means we’re all competing for similar things.
At this point everybody splits into groups, a table for each challenge – and soon we are all scribbling idea of the problems in each sector onto pieces of paper. Next everyone must describe to their neighbour a successful project that they have worked on, saying why it was effective.
Floree, community manager at Impact Hub Westminster, tells me that workshops and coaching around a particular subject have always worked well, quoting the Plastic Fantastic project as successful in being able to get people thinking about plastic waste.
One man stands up to say that the Zero Emissions Network, an initiative designed to discuss air quality and set up between the London boroughs of Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, is a great example of how having “all the players in the room” can lead to effective strategy building: “small businesses and big businesses and the council all worked together,” he remembers.
An inspirational presentation from Duncan Law, founder of the community-led initiative Transition Town Brixton reveals that their idea was to “to re-imagine, plan and pioneer a local pathway to a new life filled with motivation,” where everything was built on the principles of “respect, positivity, decision-making by consensus, and valuing contributions”. After doing a lot of what he calls visioning (setting out a vision for the future) things like the Brixton Pound, the Re-Makery and Incredible Edible Lambeth were born.
Next an enthusiastic Fraser Serle from NHS Lambeth discusses Project Smith, a forum that was set up to improve health and wellbeing in the local area. It gives community connectors the chance to develop and share ideas together around how to connect people, since loneliness and isolation is “one of the biggest causes of ill health.” Finally, Sarah Henderson, director of Echo explains how the skills-sharing platform – which boasts 3.5 million members across East London and was recently launched at Hub Brixton – “is a tool to help you do more of what you’re doing – where time is the currency, not money.” Whether you are an accountant, a gardener or a bike fixer, you will have a skill to contribute.
“I’ve taught Mailchimp – and I’ve learnt yoga and making coffee,” she announces. “It genuinely builds equality into the system as everyone’s time is identically priced… anyone can be a part of it.”
Splitting into groups segregated by subjects such as food, education, community and workspace, local energy and finance, everyone sits down to brainstorm ideas around the kind of support that that sector needed in order to be effective. Afterwards it is clear across the board that each sector seems to be lacking in proper funding, ways to connect to people, and the ability to create traffic towards projects.
Take one idea…
Finally, Bex asks everyone to write down one idea of how they would like to contribute change.
After writing theirs on a yellow post-it note, some folks step forward to place their ideas on a central table:
– “I’m going to come to Open Projects Night,” says one.
– “I’m going to find a change buddy – I need to pick a date,” says someone else.
– “I think we should get young people involved as well,” a lady puts forward.
– “I think we should think about who’s missing from tonight’s session,” another lady suggests.
“I think we need more regular conversations with provocative questions,” is another idea.
At 9.30pm, it is time for Bex to wrap up and say goodbye. There is applause – and afterwards a murmur of agreement that tonight has been a great opportunity to think about the way we live and work.
Find out more about Open Projects Night or Echo.