Relationships – Bread and Butter for Place Based Change

On the 4th of April, Arts at the Old Fire Station, Camerados and Mayday Trust, supported by Lankelly Chase, organised the Bread and Butter workshop at Marmalade, which combined provocations, activities and bread-making. Burcu Borysik, Head of Influencing and Systems Change at Mayday Trust reflects on the day…

Regardless of our position as a commissioner, practitioner, or someone accessing services, we agree on one fact – it is tough out there, and it is likely to get tougher. Inequalities in health, housing, education and economic participation are becoming sharper between cities, towns and even within neighbourhoods.  Statutory and voluntary sectors are struggling to meet the demand. People at the frontline of services are stressed and worried. Individuals and families who are accessing these services are even more so.

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Oxford City, where Arts at the Old Fire Station, Camerados and Mayday Trust operate is no
exception. These three organisations that have had the support of Lankelly Chase for a number of years, had a burning desire to come together to address the root causes of tough times. Marmalade 2017 has, perhaps, been our excuse.

As organisations, ‘doing’ and advocating for innovation to tackle social challenges, our experience of systems change is deeply rooted in identifying the social change we need, and prototyping various aspects of the future systems we wish to build. Our methodology of systems change, i.e. how we change the behaviours of individuals and organisations within the system, is achieved through being and doing the change we want to see, bumping into (and often rubbing against) other organisations, and influencing their thinking and actions. When we come across a problem, such as tough times in Oxford, our first instinct is to propose changes we are well rehearsed in – creating and reclaiming public places to break down systemic barriers in participation in public life, including arts for AOFS; challenging the boundaries between ‘helper’ and ‘helped’ for Camerados; and adopting a strength-based approach and offering real life opportunities for people going through tough times for Mayday Trust.

At about the third organisation committee meeting, we came to the realisation – or have had the courage to deliberate – that however innovative we may be, none of us (as individuals or organisations) has the knowledge, experience or capacity to achieve the scale of change required on our own. This reflection has also brought me another critical point: individuals and organisations are not just held as separate atoms in a vessel called ‘system’, instead they are held together by a web of relationships, some tied with tighter, shorter and denser strings than others. Systems change only happens when we, practitioners, pay as much attention to the relationships as we pay to the distinct components of individuals and organisations we want to influence.

Admitting that we do not have a majority on the truth, letting go of our own agendas, reflecting on how we relate to others, and how we can improve our relationships is not for the faint-hearted. But we found five key behaviours helped us:

  • Letting go of the judgements about how other individuals and organisations behave, however much we would ordinarily go into heated debates about their way of working
  • Focusing on ‘what we have in common’ and ‘what matters to us’
  • Making ourselves vulnerable, and accepting that we may not know all the answers
  • Letting go of our own personal/organisational agenda and embracing the uncertainty
  • Starting afresh on a blank piece of paper, with no agenda, no expectations other than just a hope for stronger relationships.

These were the five ingredients that we thought were essential for place-based change – not an exact recipe, mind you. It is much like making bread – flour, yeast, sugar, salt, and water – and the rest is really up to you. How much of each ingredient do you add? Until it feels right. How long do you knead? Until it feels like a whole. How much do you wait for it to rise (to the challenge)? Until it is the right time. You see the ‘bread’ metaphor working there.

We all know relationships matter, but building those takes time, trust and patience. Three environmental factors public services often run short of. As a result, when people going through tough times come to services, they are offered a “fix” – coming off drugs, getting a house, getting a job. In contrast, when our friends confide in us when they are going through tough times, we relate to them, listen to them without an agenda, and ask them if, when and how they want us to help. As AJ, a volunteer at AOFS, put it as he passionately told his story of how the friends he made at the arts centre and beyond helped him to move forward:

Services lump people together as homeless, addicts, personality disorder, but need for human connection is often overlooked.”

So, our challenge for the day was to create a neutral and open space for people with the experience of commissioning, delivering or accessing services to reflect on their relationships, and come up with practical ways in which they can enhance them. There were several practical solutions:

  • Talking Tables – a designated table in a community space, such as an office, café, library, allocated for people to sit and talk, with no expectations other than pleasant company.
  • Come, lunch with me – an app where individuals can check in at lunch joints and parks to find a friend to share their lunchtime with.
  • The Better Banter Bus – a funky bus which is a mobile Camerados style living to take over a number of commuter bus routes across Oxford. Banter, singing and dancing encouraged.
  • Unity Festival – a free community festival to bring together town and gown, supported and enabled by the colleges.
  • Randomised Coffee Trials (RCT) – regular coffee mornings organised by a random draw across all individuals commissioning, delivering or accessing a part of the Oxford homelessness pathway.
  • Youth talks – Commissioners setting up tents in schools, parks, shopping centres to listen to young people’s views of ‘good life’ and building care and support systems to enable it.
  • Magic Dragons – A marketplace where funders, commissioners, social entrepreneurs and organisations can make themselves available to people with community-focused ideas, and share resources to make those ideas happen.

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What strikes me the most is that none of these ideas is about providing a ‘service’ – who would have thought 47 people with varying types of service experience would spend a day tackling one of the most difficult social issues, and come up with non-service solutions (and bake bread)? We will follow up on these suggestions and seek their implementations in the next few months. In the meantime, I will be content in knowing that we have found we have a lot more in common than just our experience of services, recognised our desire for connection and meaningful relationships, and agreed relationships will be what will help us bounce back from tough times in Oxford. I hope our experience will spark a debate, and inspire other places, too.