This week Jo, Al and I went on a road trip to Glasgow. We had been invited to share some of our stories of connecting with the The Church of Scotland Priority Areas Big Conversation. Their theme was seeking ‘The gifts of our communities’.
We want to say a massive thank you to everyone from the priority areas for making us so very welcome, hearing our story, and for offering us so much affirmation and love. We also want to say we all felt so blessed hearing your stories, and hearing about the amazing gifts in your neighbourhoods.
This blog is a slightly extended transcript of our keynote speech. It’s a combination of a conversation with Jo (in 2 parts), some reflections on Jo’s story, and the story of our street connecting. Jo is one of the street connectors here in Firs and Bromford, and has been involved since it all began. She is a key member of our street connector team, and is actively involved in a number of activities in our community.
When planning the speech it became evident that Jo’s experience of leading an Autism Group had been incredibly significant, and overwhelmingly had a negative on her confidence, self-esteem and her health. This story was hard for Jo to tell us, and also hard for both myself and Al to hear. For me it brought back memories of seeing Jo in the leadership role, and knowing how much this had affected her to this day. Most crucially this had affected her confidence, self-belief, and self-worth as a connector and community builder. Although painful for Jo to share, we all felt this was an important story to tell, and also helped us to even more value and love Jo for what she gives of herself to us, our neighbours and our community.
Conversation with Jo (Part 1)
How would you describe yourself?
I’m 47, lived in Bromford for 8 years. I’m a fun, kind, friendly, caring individual with a big heart to share love and encourage people. Enjoy dancing and various sporting activities. I lack confidence but aim to be encouraging, stay positive & motivated.
How did you first get involved with things locally?”
I struggle with social anxiety, and was diagnosed with Autism in my early 40’s, so my first step was getting out of my house. So I popped into The Hub to see what was happening in the area. I met Sarah Maxfield at Open Doors and attended the prayer meeting. She invited me to Community lunch and Women’s group.
What made you get involved with Street Connecting?
Initially it was to build my self esteem, confidence and eye contact to develop myself as a person, and could be seen as selfish. But I realised it was an opportunity for me to connect with neighbours. I could share my experiences, encouraging other people to make a difference in their lives and get involved in the community.
How did you join the Street Connectors team?
At Community Lunch I built a friendship with Paul Wright and he approached me to become a Street Connector. Initially we did some door knocking and organised some trial events including barbeque, coffee morning and outdoor picnic. We built up to arranging street events with hosts at different locations.
Where did you really start connecting with some of our wonderful neighbours?
My story began while volunteering as a Street Connector at a street picnic. I met a couple of families with children with Autism and they suggested I start an Autism support group. I did some research with Paul at Firs School and they thought it was a great idea.
I did a presentation at a Soup event and successfully received funding from Neighbours Together to start the group. I appreciated the support from families, community members and the Assistant Head teacher from Firs school. The group has made a difference by creating a safe relaxed environment. It united parents, providing support, advice, information and strategies.
Firs school also invited me to share my experiences of Autism with teaching staff to help raise awareness and improve support to Autistic children.
The group made a real difference to those who came to it – but was running the group was harder than you thought?”
Personally I struggled communicating and facilitating the group. It was challenging due to my sensory issues and over thinking which affected my health. It made me realise my gift wasn’t leading a group but connecting & encouraging people to work together as a team.
Leadership Leadership Leadership!
I witnessed being in leadership, although initially life giving, became a crushing experience for Jo, and her confidence as a community builder drained away! I believe there are a couple of ways of understanding this crucial part of Jo’s story, as she stepped into leadership and struggled. Jo’s experience of leadership made her lose confidence, self-worth, and stepping away from a leadership position made her feel, at times, worthless, and without purpose. This is still an experience that affects her to this day!
One way is to assess the strength of community life by the capacity of it’s individual leaders. This would see Jo’s struggles as a weakness! This approach to community building understands the leaders as the ones who generate change in our community. Leading from the front, setting the path, and encouraging others to join in. Therefore, the process of community building involves seeking to inspire more people to become leaders. This approach would see Jo as NOT someone to invest any significant time in and not see Jo as someone able to play a crucial role in the community.
Now, I believe there is a time to free up people to lead, and good participative leadership in community is important. But, in Firs & Bromford we don’t see leadership as the foundation, bedrock or roots of building a community.
In Firs & Bromford, we have learned to assess the strength of community life by the depth of connections and the capacity of local people and local groups to welcome the stranger. This is where Jo’s skills, passion and gifts lie, and this is what we understand as the crucial role of being a community connector.
It has been the supporting and freeing up of Jo, and those with similar gifts, that has been at the beating heart of our community building, and witnessed a community beginning to gain confidence, trust, and a place where we are witnessing people flourishing in so many different ways.
Our story of recognising the gifts, and the role of connectors began with a wonderful member of our church community, Phyllis. Phyllis has been a member of Hodge Hill Church for over 40 years. She moved into Bromford, in Hodge Hill, when her house was built in the mid-sixties. About 6 years ago our church organised an unsung heroes event, where local people could nominate neighbours they valued in our community. Phyllis received the second highest number of votes. People nominated her for being a good neighbour, looking out for others, being caring, kind, always there for people, and happy to help, being generous, thinking of others, always supporting activities and people, and would give people a chance.
What we learnt from the unsung heroes event was that at the heart of our community are people like Phyllis quietly getting on with what we might call neighbourliness or community building. Phyllis wouldn’t call it this, or particularly recognise it as a skill or a gift, but she would say it is just what comes naturally to her! The connectors in our community, like Phyllis, are concerned for their neighbourhood, for their neighbours, they are in community for the long-haul, want to bring people together, and want to see their neighbourhood flourish.
Major questions this raised for us
This raised some questions for those of us who have a vision, and are seeking a more flourishing community. So we found ourselves asking:
1) Who else in our community is like Phyllis, who are the connectors in our community?
2) What if we intentionally found ways to unearth more connectors?
3) What would we do to support, encourage, and free up connectors to do what they do naturally?
4) What difference would it make to ‘what we do’ (our day in day out activities) if we focused more on connecting people?
Before we tell how we answered those questions, let’s unpack a bit more who these wonderful connector are.
Who are the community connectors?
We believe connectors have a specific range of skills. They are:
1) Gift centred: they easily see and reveal to others, gifts that are not always obvious, even to the person who has them. Jo is always noticing things in people and isn’t afraid of saying it to them.
2) They are well connected: they will often know as many as 50 to 100 of their neighbours already. Phyllis knows everybody in her part of the street, and everybody knows Phyllis.
3) They are trusted: people know that connectors are genuinely interested in them and care about them – they are not trying to sign people up to hit some pre-set project outcomes, and turn people away if they don’t tick the boxes!
4) They believe they are welcome to make connections. They do not feel like they are interfering when they introduce neighbours to each other. And when they introduce people this is received well and not seen as being a busybody!
5) They are willing to speak up for people who are vulnerable, especially those who maybe aren’t having their gifts recognised, valued or received. In doing so they help people who feel they hadn’t a role to play, and help build bridges in a fragmented community.
Lastly they have motivations to connect:
They are concerned about not labelling or judging people solely on the basis of where they live, or their situation;
Many of the connectors have experienced tough times themselves and sometimes still do, they know how it feels to be struggling, to be on the outside, to be the stranger; Them sharing their own struggles can be life changing for others.
Through those experiences they learned the power of a community, of mutual help and solidarity; And they can share this experience with others.
They recognise that many of the neighbours are isolated and labelled and therefore often not tapping into community life.
(Adapted from Cormac Russell’s blog post Introducing connectors and building a team of connectors)
Answering the questions: so what do we do
We have learned that there are six elements to supporting, encouraging, valuing and nurturing connectors and responding to the ripple effects of the connecting. These are:
1) We have developed a network of people who are motivated and focused on listening to their neighbours. These are people in a wide range of activities wanting to hunt the edges of our neighbourhood, seek those out who are on the margins, and asking who’s not here, who’s not showing up. This network includes those who are up for being part of a more explicit team who knock doors on a weekly basis and host street events (our street connectors), and those who are actively involved in the community in various other roles and groups. Connecting happens in various shapes and forms, and shouldn’t become a set job description or volunteer role!
2) Then this network are encouraged to be with the community, being members of the theatre group putting on a panto, the fitness group, coming to community lunch, and the Real Junk Food kitchen. Part of this is about recognising the role they are already playing in groups, and also about helping connectors shape a culture of welcoming the stranger, listening, and helping people share their gifts, skills and talents with others.
3) The connectors are encouraged to focus on bringing people together, and creating spaces specifically to encourage new people to engage. The connectors host street parties which give people an opportunity to show up, creating encounters between people, creating shareable moments, being truly welcoming. Also being attentive to those hesitant, wary, cautious, nervous or fearful. In these spaces it is about making sure that always there is a building of trust, but also not being afraid to nudge someone or help them overcome their barriers to be involved.
4) Find ways to actively listen to people to find out their ideas, and the gifts they may be willing to share, ways people would want to contribute and get involved, and looking for opportunities to connect people together with a similar passion, vision or idea. In these encounters, by listening, what begins to emerge is passion, innovation, creativity, and leadership. Crucially this is coming from within the community as we unearth the gifts our neighbours.
5) Have the resources available to go with the passion, innovation, creativity and leadership. This includes time, some financial resource if possible, and a network of people who can assist. When someone comes forward with something they are passionate about, something they are willing to act upon or an idea for something new we support them to bring this to what we call a pie event. At pie events we invite the community to share a meal together, usually pie, where we mingle and chat. Then people are given 5 minutes to share their idea with their neighbours. We then take a vote to say whether the person should receive £200 (from our Big Local funding) to give something a go. I always say to people at the beginning of the event that we aren’t really here because of the money, although it helps. Pie events are about a community sharing their passions with each other, and making offers of sharing resources and time to help each other. Nobody has ever been turned down! Some things haven’t worked or maybe gone to plan, but they have been given a go.
6) Ensure there are spaces for the connectors to connect with each other. Sharing their stories, encouraging each other, sharing their struggles, and receiving mutual support. And most importantly celebrate together! This community building can be hard work, even though it comes naturally.
The ripple effects of connecting!
So let’s go back to Jo’s story at the point where we now absolutely understand and value her gift as a connector. And hear some of the ripple effects when she has been free to connect.
Conversation with Jo (Part 2)
The difference a knock at the door can make!
Tell us the story of when we knocked on Tracey’s dad’s door?
We met the parent of a young lady who was struggling in life & able to direct her to a youth worker in our community. She is now participating in Listen Threads a fashion and clothing social enterprise whose aims are to value young women and the stories they tell, and is receiving mentoring to assist with Maths. A great opportunity to discover her potential as a person and is now blossoming.
Tell us the story of when we met Nuala?
Nuala works for The Greggs Foundation and she shared about her passion that waste food donations go to local community causes. Our doorstep conversation helped to provide any unsold food to be donated to Community Lunch at the Hub for Open Door. Nuala covers a huge region, and she said that one of the stores she has always struggled to find places to donate is the nearest one to her in Hodge Hill. It was the knock at the door that created the connection.
On the edges of making a contribution, a conversation makes all the difference!
Tell us about when we knocked on Louise’s door?
We were invited in and spent quality time listening, comforting and encouraging her to utilise her skills. I think it was the going to Louise’s house that made all the difference. She is now a street connector, volunteers in a local stay & play, helps with church activities and hosted a street event this year.
Tell us about when you spoke to Racheal at a street event?
I noticed Racheal & her husband Keith standing alone so wanted to make them feel welcome, I approached them with a simple loving smile and had a short conversation. I introduced her to Paul and now both actively involved in several activities. She has started a cooking group Flavours of Hodge Hill, they volunteer at Real Junk Food Kitchen and became a street event hosts.
Racheal recently said to me “You have transformed our lives as we would still be inside our house.” So don’t underestimate how God can use your weaknesses. It’s truly amazing how one conversation can make a huge impact and difference, imagine if I hadn’t used my courage to approach and speak to them.
Valuing the connectors and the connections
So in summary, leadership is valuable, but it is connectors and connecting that are at the beating heart of our community. Jo, by being a connector, is someone willing to share something of herself, and although it might come naturally to her, it is an immensely rich, valuable, treasured, and precious gift within our community
This gift can be a hug, a conversation, a cuppa and a warm smile, a sharing of struggles, an invite, a word of encouragement, or sometimes just showing up. It might be small, but what we have learned is that it might also be life changing.