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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BBK Chat: our experience of student mentoring

BBK Chat is a mentoring scheme which pairs students who are in their first term at Birkbeck with students further on in their studies. Mentors and mentees meet at a coffee shop near campus to chat about all things Birkbeck. The scheme runs through the autumn term and has now come to an end for the academic year. We asked Christine, a mentee, and Les, a mentor, about their experience on the scheme this year.

Christine was a BBK Chat mentee in 2018

“When I first decided to study law at Birkbeck, I was so excited. Once I received my letter of confirmation and a start date I knew I would require support to build my confidence.

Within two weeks of starting university, I received a call from the mentoring team reminding me of my request and I gladly accepted their offer of support and was told that in due course a member from the team would contact me to arrange a suitable date/time.

When I received a call from Les, he introduced himself and we agreed to meet and because it would be our first meeting we provided each other with a brief description of ourselves and what we would wear on the day to make it easy to recognise each other.

On meeting Les he gave me a guided tour of the building which I found really helpful and to date I make full use of each domain, including the calm atmosphere of the student bar; this advice I have shared and meet regularly with my fellow students.

In the following meetings with Les, he has shared so much about study skills with me that I have gained so much more confidence in myself and have put into practice much of his advice. This has made me understand my course so much better and I am even considering studying other areas in the future.

Having a mentor has made a real difference in how I see the introduction to studying as a mature student and would definitely recommend BBK Chat to other students.”

Les was Christine’s BBK Chat mentor in 2018

“My experience mentoring over the past two years has been very rewarding and enjoyable.  As a mentor, I am there to support a new student through the first stage, after the initial worries students discover how enjoyable studying at Birkbeck is. At later meetings, the discussion is about the interesting things we are studying, and the location moved to the bar (they sell tea there as well). Occasionally results after the first term are a big concern, and it is easy to feel disheartened afterwards. As a mentor I have been able to help put it into context, it’s not a disaster, learn from the feedback and apply it next time – and speak to your tutor as they are always very supportive.

For those considering mentoring, do it! It only takes up a couple of hours and changes the experience of a new student for the better. Your experience can help calm the worries we all have when arriving for our first term. Being there to offer advice if a student does struggle is vital, just being there to reply to a text message after a difficult first essay meant a student went and spoke to their tutor, got the advice they needed and didn’t drop out. On top of that, you will make new student friends from other departments. I still keep in contact with those who want to, and meet up to keep up with what’s going on.”

If you are either a current student interested in supporting a new student or a prospective student interested in having a mentor when you start at Birkbeck this autumn, please get in touch with the Widening Access team at getstarted@bbk.ac.uk.

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