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Fighting for Inclusion or Building Community?

Author: Tim Keilty

New Prospects Association took the decision in 2011 to become more of a community organisation, not just a support provider. I’m not sure exactly what we meant by that in 2011, but in 2014 we invested in a community building in Whitley Bay. A place for us, offices, training rooms, space for people we support to meet and hang out, a changing places facility and rooms for the community to use free of charge or at very low cost. We could have found somewhere cheaper with better parking on an industrial estate but not much happens there.

So we’ve been wrestling with a question: “How do we become more of a community organisation?” and hoping to find the answer to another one “if we are more connected will the people we support be?” New Prospects is a pretty brave organisation I reckon. At the same time our leadership team and the Board were deciding on the wisdom of investing in an old hotel and nightclub on a run-down street in Whitley Bay, in a hugely uncertain property market – parallel conversations were going on, similar to conversations other organisations were having, “Are we financially viable? Can we absorb the reduction in rates from local authorities?” New Prospects are also brave in keeping a development role in existence, often the first to go in times of cuts. 

So as the person in the development role, a lot of the practicalities of exploring how we become a community organisation landed on my desk. Over the past couple of years we’ve tried a few things out and had some success.

Very soon after we moved in we organised an open day, not aimed at people with disabilities, social care professionals or services – just aimed at Whitley Bay. I love the photograph above, in the centre is Freddie Nichols, 25 years ago we helped him move out of Northgate Hospital and still have the pleasure of supporting him now, to Freddie’s right is June Tolson Chair of the Whitley Bay Chamber of Trade and to the left is Councillor Sandra Graham the Labour councillor for our patch (out of shot is Norma Redfearn the Mayor) that photo pretty much sums up our journey over the last few years. At the open day we had the local First School choir performing, drumming workshops, entertainment, guest speakers – it felt like a great day. 

Looking back at the flyer for the event we were pretty clear about our intentions – “We want to play our part in continuing to make Whitley Bay a great place to be” there’s a subtle difference in our approach to the one I’ve always been part of. 

We didn’t say:

  • We want Whitley Bay to be a better place for people with learning disabilities
  • We want to ‘connect’ people to Whitley Bay

We didn’t ask:

  • What opportunities can you offer ‘our’ people?
  • Can we link someone up to you to create some ‘informal supports’ as a way to reduce the social care budget?

As someone who has spent a fair bit of time training people to be good ‘community connectors’ it did feel like a departure. A couple of things spurred the change in thinking. I was lucky enough to be at the Scottish Inclusion Institute in late 2014 and sat in on a workshop by Erwin Wieringa. It was a wild and funny session and I was inspired by his approach to community work; rather than killing ideas by applying for funding, making a project plan and figuring out how you involve hard to reach members of the community, Erwin’s approach was: 

“I just knock on every door in an area and ask the first question that comes into my head.” 

that stuck, then a great John McKnight quote:

“Every single person has gifts, capacities and skills.” 

I’d been using that quote for years, but probably in quite a shouty advocacy way, thus:

“How dare you exclude these people with disabilities, don’t you know they have gifts, capacities and skills?!”
“We’ve got those as well...”
“I’m not interested in yours, I’m interested in theirs, don’t you know I’m on a crusade!”

So with Erwin Wieringa and John McKnight in mind we started to seriously think about a different question:

“What can we offer Whitley Bay?” 

Ellen Vick, Chief Executive of New Prospects really gets it, she is well respected and well connected, present at a lot of forums which are just about civic life not about social care - therefore as an organisation we already had great everyday connections.

We certainly don’t get it right all of the time, for some people we support ‘community’ still remains somewhere they visit rather than a belonging they experience - but we are trying.

Being Nosey and Helpful

We were really lucky to move to Whitley Bay just as Whitley Bay Big Local took off, it’s hard to separate our work with theirs, but we’ve definitely influenced it and seized the opportunities it offered. I volunteered to join the board of Whitley Bay Big Local, which admittedly was like entering an episode of the Vicar of Dibley. Whitley Bay Big local did offer us the chance to pursue our aims in some kind of structure.

Also a lot of our connections we’ve made just by being physically present in the area, being nosey and being helpful.

Inclusion by Stealth – The Learning Labs

I think the ‘Learning Lab’ was a name and idea I borrowed from the Starfire Council in Cincinnati, creating a space where people can share skills, ideas and their company.

We cast our net for people with gifts and contributions to make and developed a series of workshops led by local people - we had someone making cigar box guitars, someone else making cosmetics from everyday household ingredients, glass painting, Iris Paper folding, ukulele lessons - totally random things.

Two of the people leading workshops were people we support, people with a shared history of being excluded and seen as not contributing, the words service, social care, learning disability didn’t appear anywhere on our material.

People came, hung out, met new people, learned something, took something home, and started new conversations. 

The day after the Iris Paper folding workshop (led by Suzi, supported by New Prospects) a note was slipped under the door of the shop, “I’m really sorry I missed the Iris Paper folding workshop, I’ve never met anyone who does it, I thought it was just me – can you please pass my details on to the workshop leader...” An outcome, a connection we hoped might come from this and one which would have been hard to plan for.
The learning lab style events continue weekly in Whitley Bay, led by Sarah Sutton, community builder extraordinaire, a peek in the shop on a Saturday morning is the best illustration of inclusion I’ve seen.

Small Sparks

Again using the Big Local vehicle, we shared the vision and wisdom of Carl Poll and now administer Small Sparks in Whitley Bay, £250 for an idea which brings people together and builds community. Small Sparks has been a huge success for the community as a whole, which obviously includes the people we support! 

A great example is the Whitley Warblers – Sheila Wilson got a Small Spark to set up a choir for people who don’t really want to be in a choir but like the idea of getting together to have a ‘warble’. A few months ago I got an answer phone message from Sheila, asking if Russell was OK as she hadn’t seen him at the Warblers for a couple of weeks. I didn’t even know Russell went, but I’m delighted to know that he does and when he’s not there he’s missed. With the aid of another Small Spark, Ronnie Davison is setting up the Whitley Bay Walking Football League, building on his two, until now unconnected, passions of walking and football.

As part of our work we also work in partnership with UnLtd supporting social entrepreneurs in Whitley Bay, again this has no direct link to our ‘core’ work but has led us into another world and a whole new area of connections and possibilities.

Community Presence and Community Participation

We’ve been mulling over John O’Brien’s, 5 Service Accomplishments and the 5 Basic Tasks for Support Providers recently and it suddenly clicked – that’s what was meant by Community Presence and Community Participation – we’ve all got to do it, as an organisation, as individuals, as citizens.

The benefits of this approach are so far small but clear for us, be present, participate and contribute as an organisation, build trust and respect with the wide community of people your organisation comes into contact with and the people we support will and do benefit.

Just yesterday a man we support came to see me, he used to ‘work’ at a local community farm, last year they decided to charge him for coming to work (I think they call that personalisation...) He was looking for other opportunities to contribute his knowledge and enthusiasm for gardening. I could immediately introduce him to 3 people running 3 different community gardens within a 1 mile radius of our building, not ‘signpost’ him, introduce him to Duika (The Station Master’s Garden, Jean (Whitley Bay Community Allotments) or Val (Redhouse Farm Allotment Association). 

Here’s a quote from our recent CQC report, not from someone we support, family member, social worker or commissioner, but from Jess, Chair of Whitley Bay Big Local partnership

"They are very, very people focussed and I can really tell that the people are in the heart of everything they do. They really work so hard for the benefit of the local community and the people they support. I could speak positively about New Prospects all day they are just so amazing. They are a real asset to Whitley Bay, they don't just do their little bit - they care for Whitley Bay and the people as a whole.”

It feels like we’ve taken a lead and a leap. Obviously we want to be respected for the work we do supporting people, but it is also quite nice to be seen as an organisation who cares about the whole community. We are learning that by building community rather than connecting people to ‘it’, we don’t have to fight so hard. 

So, what could your organisation do?

  • Look out for ‘everyday’ opportunities, be nosey and helpful.
  • Get connected – to anything and everything, you don’t know where it might go (often nowhere) Get involved in things far beyond social care.
  • Look for a ‘vehicle’ Whitley Bay Big Local was a huge positive for us, but we’ve found other great links. Offer something to your vehicle! It could be the local Parish Council, Women’s Institute
  • Join random facebook groups relating to your area, even the ones where people just moan!
  • Relentlessly focus on gifts and capacities, not just in people with disabilities.
  • Dedicate a bit of someone’s time to make these connections, but it is a whole organisational approach.

All really does mean all.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Fighting for Inclusion or Building Community? © Tim Keilty 2017.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.