As September drew to a close, Speak Up Preston’s “Autumn of Action” campaign kicked off. It’s the culmination of the first six months’ of activity within the Neighbourhood Challenge project and, so far, we’ve been impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of local people to lead change in their areas, if not by the numbers that we’ve had engaging.
The process is quite complex to explain – which is maybe why we’ve found it difficult to attract the punters – but it’s shown itself to be adaptable and productive as well as accessible, even to people with no experience at all of this sort of community-based working. The hub of the Autumn of Action is a series of three events – one in each of the neighbourhoods that we’re working in – making use of Open Space Technology to engage people in conversations about actions they want to see, and lead, in their localities.
Assisted by our excellent facilitator Roma Iskander, the day is a blank canvass for local residents and agency representatives to develop ideas for local action, based on their own perception of local issues as well as the reports generated by our teams of community journalists over the past six months. We kick off each event with a short video summary of the issues that journalists have identified locally, and then the floor is open for ideas – with the focus on actions and solutions, rather than issues and problems.
We’ve been impressed with the energy and enthusiasm with which people attending the first two events have engaged – ideas are forming around parks & green spaces; youth provision; litter; traffic; public transport; spaces for community use; and more. Some are well-formed, whilst others have a way to go – but that’s fine for the moment.
What’s been more difficult has been encouraging people to come along. We’ve used targeted Facebook adverts, leaflet dropped to over 9000 households, used our links with local voluntary groups to breaking point, accosted people outside the local football derby match – we’ve even sent caricaturists and balloon modellers out onto the streets to distract the kids while we talk to the parents… But, despite all of that, numbers have still been somewhat disappointing, and we’re worried that we’re missing some of the great ideas that might be out there. Who knows why – perhaps it’s that the concept of what we’re attempting is too alien and scary; perhaps it’s battling the warmest autumn weather in 25 years; or perhaps there’s some other factor that we’ve not yet identified. Either way, we’re working hard to shore up numbers for the final event in Ribbleton this Saturday.
The next month will see us working closely with the groups that have emerged from these Open Space events – helping them to focus their ideas into plans with timetables, costs and clear objectives; as well as assisting them in preparing their pitch for the project’s Challenge Prize. Supplementing some of our in-house expertise with help from Practical Participation, we’re looking towards Act By Right as a practical, accessible method for action planning during the rather intense month ahead. It’s a method that’s geared towards young people but, we think, will be equally relevant in other settings, particularly amongst groups that haven’t undertaken much community activity before.
At the same time as the Autumn of Action activities are in full swing, we’ve kicked off the second round of our community journalism training courses – starting in St Matthew’s earlier this week. First impressions are that we have a great group of new journalists – time will tell as we get to know them what their particular specialisms will become.
The course is slightly redesigned this time around – with a bit more “doing” early on, allowing journalists to get to grips with producing content for the web and for broadcast almost immediately. We hope that the changes we’ve made will make the course even more engaging than last time, as well as meaning that you’ll start seeing stories from our new journalists on the project website in the next couple of weeks. (That site, by the way, is now pushing 70 stories – pretty good, we reckon).
Elsewhere, in what is swiftly becoming the autumn of no sleep, two national projects arrive closely linked to what we’re doing; that we hope to engage with beyond the end of the Neighbourhood Challenge. First up is the Media Trust’s new community journalism academy, who we hope will be using our experiences here as they launch a UK-wide project to help support citizen journalism. There’s also the Olympic-linked #media2012 project – a “citizen media network” for the London 2012 games. We hope to be able to support the North West’s efforts in that project, which are being led by Let’s Go Global and Abandon Normal Devices and culminate here in Preston following the closing ceremonies next September.
Finally, congratulations to our friends at Bespoke, who recently launched a major new report of their citizen journalism work at the London Design Festival hosted by the V&A museum. Whilst not part of the Neighbourhood Challenge programme, it’s certainly worth a read if you’re interested in the field and, even if you’re not, it’s perhaps an interesting way to pass those long autumn evenings.