I recently had the privilege of meeting with four brilliant charity and community organisations in Leicestershire. Five key themes ran through our conversations, but first I would like to introduce each one:
In Loughborough, I visited the Marios Tinenti Centre at the Bell Foundry Estate which supports residents from a welcoming community base. Locals connect to public and charitable services through the assistance of Lorna, the face and frontline of the Centre, who is a true pillar of the Estate community. In addition, the centre offers a wealth of community projects and events, as well as an annual holiday to Skegness for local children.
After a short drive, I met with Ian Wilson and Deana Wildgoose; Chief Officer and Operations Manager of Coalville CAN, a community co-operative. “CAN” stands for Communities and Neighbours. Their aim is to encourage broad-based, local regeneration and place-making though Asset-Based Community Development. Coalville CAN was set up to resource, strengthen, and de-risk a wide range of local initiatives and assets to support the well-being of the local community. “CAN” is also an acronym for their model: Capacity (of people and communities), Assets (ownership and control) and Networks (connections and partnerships). Their current operations include redeveloping a local building as a community resource centre and headquarters, and running a fantastic Kickstart programme, placing young people with local businesses. On the horizon are aims to play a key role in the re-opening of Coalville Station, and raise community investments to enable local organisations to access capital.
The following day, I met with The Zinthiya Trust in Leicester which provides information, advice and practical support to alleviate poverty and abuse, with a specialist background in supporting women at risk of abuse and violence. They provide wraparound support for issues including debt, employment, welfare, and household finance. It was a pleasure to meet with the charity’s CEO Zinthiya Ganeshpanchan. Through her understanding of the importance of community assets, her team has created a social supermarket providing affordable food and essential items, as well as a community café, bicycle repair shop, and meeting rooms.
Finally, I met Leicestershire Cares who convened a discussion around how they support the local community through brokering partnerships and creating opportunities across the counties of Leicestershire and Rutland. Using their model of ‘Power to Change’, they encourage ‘Power With’ (building relationships, networking, and connections), ‘Power Within’ (identifying and addressing immediate issues), and ‘Power To’ (enabling people to tackle issues such as wellbeing, housing, finance, jobs, education, training, and having a voice). We heard about the importance of bringing together the public, private, and community sectors. This has enabled them to run initiatives such as the ‘UP Project’ which enables prison leavers to gain wraparound support in building wholesome and sustainable lives — including gaining employment, building relationships, finding housing, and establishing confidence and self-esteem.
Five key themes shone through my two days with these inspirational organisations.
- Unlocking potential. Developing local community is not about ‘doing’ something ‘to’ a person, group or area. It is not about ‘dumping’ resources from outside in an indiscriminate manner and expecting meaningful change. Rather, it is about unlocking potential. This matters on an individual and group level: at Leicestershire Cares, Kieran and his great team are enabling people and organisations to bring out the best in themselves through finding and harnessing their talents as an asset to the community – be they a prison leaver seeking to establish themselves or a local business wishing to support their community more effectively. Coalville CAN’s Kickstart initiative has enabled young people to find hitherto undiscovered talents through placements in local businesses. Perhaps the most poignant articulation of this came from Lorna at the Marios Tinenti Centre, who said, “There may not be much money on this estate, but they are rich in community spirit. We are not giving them anything, it is already there. We just help to unwrap it.”
- Cross-sectoral collaboration. The importance of the charity and community sector having relationships with local business and local government matters immensely. At Leicestershire Cares, I saw this in action with Councillor Ruma Ali who is establishing a local Bangladeshi women’s group. At Coalville CAN, I met their brilliant new Board which includes local businesspeople and community leaders keen to support the town’s future. By working with local businesses, they’ve been able to find fantastic placement opportunities as part of the Kickstart programme. The Marios Tinenti Centre operates from a council-provided, converted flat, and it also benefits from a Charnwood Borough Council staff member on-site, who provides line management and a link with local government services.
- Co-locating services. At Zinthya and the Marios Tinenti Centre I heard about the value of providing joined-up, wraparound service provision. Often, those seeking help present several connected issues. Providing multiple services, as well as links to other community resources and organisations, add up to a much more than the individual parts.
- Understanding place. Each of the locations I visited is very different. Every neighbourhood, community, and street require special understanding and insight. What you might call “local knowledge.”
- Housing matters. All four organisations reflected on the lack of affordable housing, including issues such as population change, for example through influxes of students in Loughborough and Leicester; and lack of council housing as right-to-buy properties have not been adequately replenished. Concerns were raised about the fairness of social housing allocation, overcrowding, a lack of regulation and enforcement, rogue landlord behaviour, and good design. For example, how supposedly visionary social housing architecture at the end of the last century had become a catalyst for anti-social behaviour and drug dealing due to areas lacking in natural surveillance.
A closing thought. I cannot resist the temptation to finish by discussing trains – Loughborough is famous for producing them. At the heart of the town is the remarkable ‘Bridge to the Future’ project, aiming to reconnect two train lines. These lines are currently run by community sector heritage railway organisations. Once complete, the bridge will enable historic trains to run from Leicester, through Loughborough, up towards Nottingham—all enabled by platoons of volunteers. The bridge will cross over a mammoth set of obstacles, including a mainline railway, canal, and factory carpark. It will stand as an incredible testimony – written into the built environment – to the power of the charitable and community sector.
Like the Bridge to the Future, the organisations I met are bridges to realising the vast potential in the communities they serve. When complete, people may overlook it, drive past it, or even ride over it without much thought. However just like the effort that will have gone into that bridge, we should celebrate and champion the often-underappreciated work of our amazing charitable and community sector organisations. Their impact is utterly invaluable and worthwhile.