Dreaming big about community leadership and community centres of the future

A new blog from our deputy CEO Mel Smith.

Mel joined the first panel of March’s Restitch 2024, the social fabric summit, to share how we know social infrastructure matters and how we might build the growth of local people’s power and agency “into the walls” of reimagined community centres of the future.

Mel’s blog

I recently sat on a panel at the Restitch Social Fabric Summit. The question we were offering our thoughts on was ‘what is the most essential feature for a successful modern community centre in 2024?’

I shared…

We must remember that it is people as well as buildings that can make a difference. We don’t just need buildings, we need power and community leadership so that residents can be advocates for the wants and needs of their whole community. One without the other will not have the impact that we want or indeed need.

A white woman in her fifties with long blonde hair and wearing an orange sun dress and gold earrings smiles for a selfie in her home.
Mel Smith, Grapevine Deputy CEO.

If we are to shape our spaces to be the very best they can be then we need to work on the agency and power of the people who live there. And it’s as important to think about what happens in these spaces to support that too.

We know that infrastructure really matters; we have tried to create it by establishing Collaboration Station — Coventry’s open ideas night. It’s where ideas are bounced around, supported by others and powered up for action. It also has the potential to become a place of congregation for mutual support and awareness with an equalising, playful yet urgent mood. Imagine the scene — three to four tables each headed up by a local person wanting to create change. There is a mix of nervousness and excitement in the room. Each table host has allocated time to share their ideas and for those gathered around to listen and make contributions. At the end there is time to share next steps and make connections and we finish with a group photo and a group chant.

“I’m finally in contact with people who want to work together to build a better community and make their surroundings better. It’s so easy to feel hopeless and depressed about the world, and Collaboration Station makes you see the power of people and the power of coming together to make change happen” — Sophie, local resident.

Collaboration Station speaks to how spaces could see themselves and the role they can play in supporting and developing community leadership. A community centre has the potential to be more than a place to meet, it has the potential to see its role in supporting the crucial work on deeper causes.

Just five minutes (by car) from the city centre is Ball Hall where we are working with local community members to work on deeper causes — they have established five action groups and a strategy team that sits across all of the work. They have no base but receive support from a local cafe and the church.

When we first landed in Ball Hill there were a few residents associations but they were tired, they had been active in the past but people are now older and momentum has been lost.

As local resident Rachel explains, “I live in the Ball Hill area and have done for most of my life. It is an area of amazing people — kind, funny, grounded, straight talking, friendly and hard-working. The area has its ups and downs, it always has — but I think the gap between the two has become more evident, post-pandemic. This has inevitably had an effect on the area — the shopping area reflects this, almost like a barometer — the exit of business names like Woolworths and Boots, as well as at least four high street banks has devastated the local area. There’s no doubt Ball Hill needed and still needs some help and TLC.”

Our community organiser Leonie has worked with local community members on leadership and building networks of relationships. They wanted to put Ball Hill back on the map, for it to be a destination again – hence their name Destination Ball Hill.

In practical terms what does this mean for the agency and power of the people who live there? What is happening now that wasn’t before?

  • Monthly litter picks, now an established touch point for Destination Ball Hill
  • Relationships with local Cllrs and their MP
  • Regular house meetings and two large community action meetings
  • Collection of air quality data
  • A Citizens Assembly
  • Developing a green transport plan for Ball Hill to push through recommendations to local Cllrs
  • Collecting 400 petitions to support the need for a banking hub in Ball Hill
  • Over 140 petition signatures for a community hub
  • Held their first Annual General Meeting.

And breathe.

Building leadership in this way isn’t just about equipping people with leadership skills for now but so that they can organise around issues in the future too. And there is appetite. In a survey of people taking part in Grapevine initiatives, 84.6 per cent of respondents describe themselves as confident in organising people to act on issues or campaigns.

This is slow deep work but it’s critical, it’s the missing piece in urban planning and regeneration. If we want to create better places we need to work on the agency, capacity, and leadership of the people who live there so they can form solutions, hold others to account and advocate for their needs and aspirations.

It is what Grapevine does well but it needs proper funding and resourcing and for the long term too because this work doesn’t just happen.

I ended with a question to the audience — how do we work to build community leadership into the walls and corridors of future community centres and for it to be a fundamental part of their structure, values and heart?

I’d love to hear from you if you’d like to chew the fat with me on this one.

In solidarity, Mel

More stories from our community organising team

Our organisers share regular ‘Week Notes’ on the global digital publishing platform Medium. Please feel free to explore these notes here. These are our latest:

A large group holds flags and placards beneath a rainbow roof and walls in Coventry city centre. They are all smiling at the camera.
Reconnection Tour Coventry, hosted by Connecting for Good in July 2022. Credit: Dom Fleming Photography

As Siân puts it so nicely at the end of her blog… “Do you have spaces that you can share your learning? What do they look like?

“What questions do you ask yourself and your team when reflecting?

“Are you connected to other organisers/campaigners/activists locally/nationally/internationally?

“Do you have any questions for the Grapevine organising team or simply want to get connected? Feel free to get in touch.”

More on Connecting for Good’s ecosystem of community-led initiatives working together for a better Coventry here.