Community development: fostering dialogue and connections

The Community Leadership Programme for Newham Residents is run by the Access and Engagement Department and the Community Development and Public Policy BSc in the Department of Geography.

Funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, the project aims to bring learning to community spaces and is part of the Access and Engagement department’s aim to bring education and learning opportunities to groups underrepresented in higher education.

In this blog, David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography, talks more about the course and the Newham citizens it’s worked with over the last 13 months.

Community is strength on a billboard

Community is strength on a billboard

One extraordinary aspect of this extraordinary year was what has been called the ‘largest peacetime mobilisation in UK history’, the 1 million-plus individuals who volunteered as part of the community response to COVID-19. These included NHS responders, volunteers for local charities, the 4000 mutual aid groups that sprung up in neighbourhoods across the country and those who spent lockdown making PPE equipment for key workers. Not only this, a demonstrable upsurge in community spirit was observed during the first wave of the pandemic, with large increases in the numbers of people agreeing that their neighbourhood was a place where residents looked out for each other and over half of those polled indicating that they had checked in on their neighbours in the past week.

The Birkbeck Community Development programme has now worked with over 100 active citizens in Newham over the last 13 months. We call the course Community Leadership, not because the participants necessarily have any formal leadership role, but because they all, in various ways and through various roles, are making a contribution to their local area, demonstrating how local people can instigate change because they have a passion or will to do so.

David Tross adding ideas to a board

We have worked with a resident who works for a local community organisation providing foodbanks and delivering youth projects. He’s so good at using digital platforms and social media to market and fundraise that he’s now helping us deliver the learning and resources on this aspect of Community Development. Then we have the resident who starts conservations and spreads awareness about mental health by taking a sofa to public places and chatting to local people about their experiences, signposting to agencies who can help. One of our last cohort was working with Muslim groups to alleviate a particular local consequence of the crisis — international students whose part-time jobs, often in the hospitality industries, disappeared overnight and were then unable to access public funds, leaving them destitute and without enough food to eat

The four-week course is structured around particular themes: leadership approaches, project management, community engagement and wellbeing. We bring in ideas and resources from the degree course we run at Birkbeck, while also calling upon the local resources and contacts developed through Senior Access Officer Hester Gartrell’s work in east London with the Access and Engagement Department.

Unlike other London boroughs, Newham has no Council for Voluntary Service, local infrastructure organisations dedicated to help local community groups access funding, resources and training, and there is a need for community projects to access this support. However, the key success of the course is what participants share and learn from each other. In this sense, our job is to facilitate dialogue and connections which will sustain and strengthen the projects people are doing, often in relative isolation, and to get great ideas off the ground.

A key activity of every course is the ‘Resource Exchange’, where we simply let participants meet and share resources and information, ask each other for help and provide advice and support. These mutual connections are a part of developing the social capital- networks of mutual support and trust- that are key to Community Development activity in a locality.

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Making a difference in the local community: learning from the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

With over thirty years’ experience working in his local authority, Eubert Malcolm brought a wealth of knowledge to the classroom. Having just been promoted to Assistant Director for Stronger and Safer Communities, he reflects on how the MBA has supported him to make a positive difference.

Picture of Eubert Malcolm

As local authority leaders go, Eubert Malcolm must be among the most personally invested in his community.

“Somebody said to me the other day that I’ve been in Haringey from boy to man,” he laughs, but with over thirty years’ experience in various roles in the local authority, this isn’t far from the truth. Eubert joined Haringey Council as an environmental health officer apprentice in 1988. From there, his role expanded into different fields as his skillset developed, encompassing housing, food safety and pollution.

“I made my way up the local authority and picked up Diplomas in Environmental Health and Management Studies along the way,” explains Eubert, “but I always felt that not having a first degree would hinder me at some point.”

The value of life experience

It was during the hunt for an undergraduate degree that Eubert stumbled across the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. The idea of studying part-time at the weekends was a particular draw, but was it really possible to do a Masters level programme without an undergraduate degree?

“I went along to the open evening without much hope,” says Eubert, “but I really liked the course leaders and they encouraged me to apply. I think I was the least qualified but most experienced of that first cohort, and the idea of a co-production and developing new types of leaders seemed perfect for my role. It felt like I was in the right place at the right time.”

Seeing things differently

The collaboration between Central Saint Martins and Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics offers an innovative perspective on businesses and the problems they face. This, combined with the diverse international cohort on the MBA, gives students an opportunity to look at situations from a fresh angle. For Eubert, this proved invaluable when looking for ways to connect with the local community:

“When I first started the MBA, there was lots of gang activity and a spate of deaths in the community. I wanted to learn more about how violence was affecting young people in Haringey, so I commissioned a community group to speak to them and to people in prisons to figure out the drivers of criminality. Until you actually sit down with young people and hear from them, their teachers and their parents, you don’t really understand the challenges that they are facing. We need to engage with them and ensure that they are part of the solution.”

Eubert’s MBA dissertation was Haringey’s public health approach to tackling serious youth violence, a combination of academic research and an in-depth evidence base that came from his experience in the local authority, which informed the young people at risk strategy.

“At Haringey, we want to co-produce strategies with the community,” he explains. “Now, we’re incorporating business principles into our local authority point of view and using action learning techniques to think issues through from beginning to end, predicting the challenges we might need to address along the way. It’s an approach the managers I work with are now also starting to adopt.”

Leading in the pandemic

The rapid unfolding of events in the COVID-19 pandemic has made an agile approach essential:

“If you look at how much COVID-19 has cost local authorities,” says Eubert, “I don’t think we’re going to be fully recompensed for that. It has made us look at what opportunities could come out of it instead.

“For example, we couldn’t deliver a lot of our face to face services during the pandemic and many of them went online. We found that the young people we work with instantly took to that approach, which we hadn’t really considered before.”

Now Eubert, his team and the wider council are working on campaigns to bring the local community together to reduce the spread of COVID-19: “The approach we’re taking, trying to get right to the hearts and minds of people in the borough, is something I don’t think we would have attempted before. It just goes to show that with the right support and network in the workplace, you can be successful even through challenging times. I know that anything I set my mind to I will be able to achieve.”

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The British jihadis in Syria might be driven by more than just religion

joanna_bourke_portrait

This article was written by Professor Joanna Bourke from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’.

Reyaad Khan and Nasser Muthana sound like typical British young men. They are educated, mad about sport, and were raised in a loving family in Cardiff. When, a few days ago, they were seen in an Isis film urging British Muslims to join insurgents in Syria and Iraq, the shock was palpable. How could this have happened? Are their actions symptomatic of religious fundamentalism? Or are they simply an extreme form of youthful angst? After all, one had told his mother before disappearing that he was going to a friend’s house to revise for a maths examination.

For some commentators, these young men represent a crisis unique to British Muslims and are a justification for a further extension of surveillance of Muslim communities. Religious radicalism in the UK and throughout the world is a serious problem, but blaming religion alone takes us only so far. The problem is much wider. It includes the glamorising of violence: a fascination with armed conflict permeates male sub-cultures, crossing religious, ethnic, and class boundaries, while remaining very rooted in masculinity.

At the most general level, there is a quaint assumption in Britain that we are a peaceable people, engaging in armed conflicts half-heartedly and only when threatened by aggressors. Our role as perpetrators of violence is often overlooked. There is still considerable reluctance to acknowledge the atrocities committed during the age of empire. There is a similar reluctance to admit the role British policies have played in creating the political and economic environment that has helped foster terrorism in the Middle East.

But the problem is more complex. The glamorising of violence and military culture has effects beyond any particular group. It is not unique to young Muslim men – or, indeed, young men in Cardiff – to be excited by the prospect of combat. War is often seen as a rite of passage for young men – finally able to prove themselves as adults, not only to their parents but also to their peers. In all armed conflicts, men are heard boasting about the exhilaration of fighting, often neglecting to acknowledge their fears of dying.

This attitude is bolstered by war films, one of the most popular genres. Indeed, for many, war isn’t hell; it’s entertainment. Some of the most popular computer games are based on conflicts in the Middle East. They depict the thrills of battle taking place in “exotic” environments replete with scimitars, camels, caliphs, djinns, deserts, belly dancers, minarets, bazaars, and harems. Games such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor typically cast “insurgents” as faceless, scruffy fighters, in contrast to the clean-shaven, uniformed “good guys” who are fond of cracking jokes and have a strong sense of loyalty to their comrades. Depictions of both “us” and “them” generate a sense of shared excitement and mission. War-play is seen as such an important recruiter for armed groups that Hezbollah has developed its own games, Special Force and Special Force 2, to provide an alternative fighting perspective.

The language used in public to discuss war has become extraordinarily distorted – and not only among radicalised communities. Combat is routinely described in the media as though it were a form of sport: combatants are “silent hunters” or “duellists”; they “score a try”. Making a kill is a “good shot placement”. Enemy combatants are described as having “received” a bullet. Last year, when the British army introduced a new combat sidearm, the Glock 17, which replaced the long-standing Browning Hi-Power pistol, the weapon was described without any sense of irony, as a “lifesaver”. The people that Glock 17s would maim and kill did not truly possess “lives”.

All this is not to discount the importance of cultural alienation and religion in the decisions of Khan and Muthana to join Isis. Clearly, faith and ideology are important. It is to point out, however, that they have been influenced by wider cultural forces that valorise militarism. These effects should be discussed alongside other contributing factors.

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