Whenever I write a ‘biog’ about myself for a conference etc it always says “Jess’ work bridges policy and practice”. It sounds a bit trite but it’s been the story of my life. Many years ago back in the early 1990s I was trying to write a book about Deptford’s history. Having to pay the rent made it difficult. I gave up my full-time job and got a part-time one but I still never got round to doing any research. One day I bumped into a friend’s dad who happened to be Professor Maurice Bloch, the famous anthropologist, and he convinced me standing there in Lewisham High Street to apply to do a masters degree in Social Anthropology at the LSE. That way I got a grant (about £3,000) and could just about get by while I wrote the book. The following summer I spent alternating between the high-academic style for my dissertation about history and anthropology (with community history as the mediator between them) and a popular style for a book that I wanted to see read in the pubs of Deptford. It was a great experience and began a long commitment only to write or speak about a subject if I knew it from the other side.
In 2003 the programme I was leading won a BURA award for best practice in community regeneration. The following year when I went to work for BURA I felt I knew what it was like for the award-winners and I focused on helping them promote their work and identify the ‘brick walls to best practice’ that stopped even the best projects from fulfilling their full potential.
Older now, more bruised and savvy, but I’ve been doing it ever since. Promoting the Community Allowance to 12 ministers and endless civil servants, I knew what I was talking about because I knew and had talked to so many friends, fellow-travellers and chance-acquaintances about the System. Facilitating action learning sets to support people going through the Communitybuilders process, I know what it feels like to be an applicant. When I joined the Development Trusts Association in 2007 I was already becoming involved in trying to save Hastings Pier and I have been the Treasurer of the Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust ever since. Although it involves a ridiculous amount of work (we have just one paid staff member, our Shop Manager, so trustees end up not just steering but rowing) I keep at it because it grounds me on the user/citizen side of the fence.
Today the Heritage Lottery Fund came to Hastings – and what a visit! As they arrived, they heard the announcement “Southeastern Trains welcomes the Heritage Lottery Fund to Hastings”. The route they took to the pier was plastered with posters and flags, touted round to the shops and houses by enthusiastic volunteers. The presentation by trustee Angela Davis and myself was slick but passionate. We supplied welly boots and high-viz jackets with “I support the pier” etched on and went over to the beach before heading up to the Pier Shop to meet volunteers and see the results of the community-led consultation being led by our architects dRMM. Back at the hotel I was presented with a £50 ‘Adopt a Plank’ cheque from one of last night’s guests. The packs they took away were bursting with well-bound reports from our feasibility and project development work but also a stick of rock and a plastic bag with a couple of bits of genuine burnt pier! The pier gates were covered in bunting and plastered with beautiful bright 6-foot banners knocked up quick and cheap by the manager of the local shopping centre. Kick-back debriefing with a pint, tweeting updates and thanking everyone for passing on the message about the Just Say Yes to #thepeoplespier campaign. Overall a successfully co-ordinated ACTION.
I come home and re-immerse myself in Community Organisers programme planning – trying to work out cohorts and budgets and learning contracts and the nuances of collaboration across and beyond our partnership. But I can’t get that announcement out of my head – because that’s what it really means to be organised as a community. You work out what you want, focus on it, mobilise the networks, leverage all the favours, make it happen, enjoy the action, keep the pressure on. In the middle of estimating how many host organisations there might be over a four-year programme, the phone rings. It’s the Trust’s bank contact from HSBC. We have a good chat about what it would mean for the Trust to be granted £8.7m and I ask her to ask her bosses if they will write a letter of support. That’s the other thing… local involvement never stops and can’t be put in a bottle to sniff at when you’ve got a minute.
People looking for updates on Community Organisers – trust me we’re making progress, but I do have a pier to save as well!