Gearing up, winding down, and the comings and goings of springtime

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It’s been a while, but a very productive while, since I was last here – but in that while a lot of hard creative and developmental activity has taken place for what promises to be a productive season for community agriculture in Sandwell and across the Black Country.  Everyone has been heads down, putting into place the funding and infrastructure for a period of (for us) of significant growth, following a good year last year too.  Our new financial and operational year begins with the spring, and a hive of activity among the eleven or twelve people variously employed by our community agriculture initiative.  The all part time, all female ‘back office’ team, following a recent meeting in which we got a days work done in half, seemed to be like the little green men from Toy Story and Buzz Lightyear movies.  We discovered, or affirmed perhaps, that we are linked by a ‘UnaMind’ in how we see things working.  Quite uplifting for us, I think.  People at work have been commenting on how strong we are as a team, and how well we work together, lately.

The log jams and delays, the source of so much stress, along with uncertainties about whether we would have all the pieces of the funding jigsaw, gave way in a (managed) rush: leases being obtained triggered the release and signing off of funding agreements, specifications of service for our public health commissions were prepared and accepted, and more; then we had further successes bringing in funding.  It feels like being catapulted into a lively and (hopefully) creative workstream that, if it holds together, will mean our gardens and farms – and all of the activities and service there and in the wider community – will prosper and improve.

We will have a new community room/classroom at the urban market garden which will greatly support the activities with children and families, and the wider community. We now have the opportunity, working with partner Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust, to offer access to people from across the Black Country to our activities and our farms and gardens.  And, we will begin the very real process of bringing a third derelict parcel of land into a fit state for an urban market and community gardens slap bang among a sea of ugliness comprising big box retail parks, landfill, hideously congested motorway and other transport networks, and industrial areas.  It will be a green lung, a small but sparkling jewel of ecological health enhancing refreshment for anyone who cares to use it – eventually. It takes at least two years to work up a project to the starting line, and three to five years to begin to realise near full potential.

So much to write about, but today is the first day of some annual leave, the first opportunity to have some downtime, in a very long time.  I have worked to my utmost capacity, often while experiencing demanding and draining spells of ill health.  So it is good to remind myself of what this often intense, now fast moving, work is all for.  The answer is in the slideshow.  For me, looking at those photos of happy people enjoying the sunshine and side shows at Salop Drive Market Garden last summer, warms the cockles of my heart. And especially so as following a hot and sunny, Mediterranean stye start to the spring, and the declaration of a drought across much of England along with a hosepipe ban, the heavens opened and temperatures plummeted. It really hasn’t rained much for two years, and even the lashings of rain we have had will do little to alleviate the underlying drought.  The ground is saturated, low light levels and low temperatures are doing nothing for plant growth.

However, having (hopefully) put the right pieces of our year’s work programme into place, I am off to visit friends who handily have a huge gaff in the Tuscan countryside, with a view to die for, and a veggie garden.  They want to show me the sights, but I dream of a horizontal view from a sun lounger under an olive tree, with my thoughts so intoxicated by the vistas, and weeding the veg patch, that I can’t even be bothered to read a book.  I can feel the faint hiss of escaping stresssssssss…..

Oh, and if you are in the UK, can you please vote for us to win £10,000 for the new community agriculture initiative in a Community Action Award competition sponsored by a manufacturer of hair products for black women, called Creme of Nature.  Please.  The losers get £500 worth of products, so if we lose we will never have to buy shampoo again. It’s easy, just text Caa vote4 to 07786 200690.  If you are on a mobile contract it’s free, if not it is charged at your standard text rate. To find put more see http://www.communityactionaward.com/txtvote.php?finalist=4

Thanks.

Exploring new ways of working

This week I am grounded, both by vehicle problems (I acted as roadie – I have a nice van – at the weekend for a band in which my son and best friend were playing, and was incompetently reversed into something extremely hard by the drunken bass player, and now am seriously out of pocket for repairs); and by attacks of vomiting which I am convinced were brought on by a food product (Blue Dragon pour in chilli and coconut sauce – avoid it!), as even the dog was sick after I gave him the leftovers).

However, last week I mailed some key pieces of work to myself at home, including the text of a publication we (Veronica, Helen and myself) are working on to showcase our work and achievements through the Health and Well Being Service, and specifically our community agriculture programme Growing Opportunities; and all the necessary papers to work up an expression of interest (EoI) submission to the Big Lottery Communities Living Sustainably (CLS) stream.

We write bids like there was no tomorrow – if we didn’t there would be no tomorrow, as we could not sustain the multifunctional service.  Often we draw on existing text from previous bids, becoming rather like a production line using the same components in different configurations.  But every now and again, an opportunity to apply for funding comes along that requires you to step back, think, research and explore new ways of working.  This happened recently with a bid I submitted to the Pfizer UK Foundation, where I worked with the public heath team’s research manager to frame a bid for work with families, children and young people around the tackling obesity theme.  It was successful  (£17.5k), and quickly, which vindicated the research and preparation that went into it.  This EoI requires similar discipline, research, thought, and speaking to people who have different kinds of experience and capacities.

The CLS funding stream is focused on climate change, and bringing positive actions down to a community level, engaging and empowering people to take actions and helping to build sustainable and resilient communities.  The partners that have been drawn together, including Blakemores (Spar), Wednesbury Learning Community Trust, the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust, the Sandwell public health team, and ourselves, have all come together around the forthcoming new community agriculture scheme at the Barlow Road site in Wednesbury, close to Junction 9 of the M6.  One of the group, Paul Southon, part of the public health team, suggested a ‘asset based community development‘ (ABCD) approach, which sounded very interesting, but was new to the rest of us.

So I am reading up about ABCD, as well as food and climate change, and climate change as a public health issue, to help me frame the EoI, which allows 600 words to describe your proposed project to the funder, and 150 words to describe each partner and what they bring to the table. That is a real discipline and challenge.  I find myself captured by ABCD (an acronym that is as easy as abc – literally) as both a methodology and strategy, which has real potential to work in the new community agriculture setting, helping to take community agriculture to the next level, and continue to realise the vision as set out in the community agriculture strategy (I will upload the link to the publications page soon).

ABCD is a growing movement that originated in the USA, which has captured the attention of people working in community development, as an alternative to needs based community development.  Broadly, the appeal of ABCD lies in its premise that communities can drive the development process themselves by identifying and mobilising existing (but often unrecognised) ‘assets’, thereby responding and creating local economic (to which we would add environmental regenerations and ‘natural capital’) opportunity.  ABCD draws attention to social assets: the gifts and talents of individuals, and the social relationships that fuel local associations and informal networks.

To me, this seems to be an ideal way to build on the methods and approaches we used some years ago, which were based on a user led framework and the social model of disability.  There was indeed a vibrant process of community engagement and community led planning, and our Health and Well Being Committee remains a committed user led group, drawn from the diverse communities of Sandwell.  More lately though, our attention has been absorbed in developing and delivering a multifunctional programme, driven in part by the requirements of public sector service commissioners.  It is time we moved on, not from delivering award winning community agriculture sites, activities, and services, but towards new approaches that link community development work with hard edged academic research.  ABCD is both a methodology and a strategy, which offers great potential to build on our user led, inclusive, social model, which, on reflection, all of us in the team agree was pretty powerful in developing the community gardens and the framework of their operation, but lacked theoretical clout.

But this isn’t getting the EoI written. Each time I am involved in developing a major bid, I cram myself with information about different, other peoples thinking, hard data, interesting new approaches, etc., and it all swirls around in my head 24 hrs a day, with occasional flashes of insight, while the deadline looms ever closer and an undercurrent of procrastination and anxiety flows through me.  Maybe that’s why I have stomach ache.  But I still blame it on that Blue Dragon chilli and coconut sauce.  And to their credit, Sainsburys are taking the matter seriously and have sent the remains of the product to their lab for testing.  Ugh, even thinking about that sauce makes me feel ill.

And happy Chinese new year to you – year of the dragon (but not dragon sauce, in my case).

The constant challenge of evaluation

It being the last quarter of the financial year, our thoughts are turning towards reporting to our various funders, and the putting into place new contracts and funding agreements with those organisations that generously support us.  There are too many of them to name here, but Sandwell Primary Care Trust deserves a special mention.  The director of public health there, and numerous others, including members of the public health team, and the food team, have been essential to our development. We have for many years enjoyed being part of, and supported by, a configuration of extremely talented people with vision about the regeneration of public health and the urban environment going hand-in-hand – so demonstrating the principles of sustainable development. Sandwell is a very challenging, de-industrialising, poor quality urban environment, with some pretty poor indices of deprivation and ill health, so it needs all the talented people with vision it can get.

Reporting to funders and supporters is itself a challenge, as they are many and various, often requiring very different methods of reporting, from a simple report on a small project with a specific outcome, such as purchasing a new Kederhouse ( a kind of polytunnel), to reporting on a significant contract such as a service level agreement with many different types of activity and potential outcomes.  We can count and record data about many things – who uses our services and all the standard monitoring data such as age, ethnicity, gender, etc, and keep track of all our processes, such as dates, places and types of activity – using databases which can be interrogated in multiple ways.  That is relatively easy due to the skills of our database developer in Ideal for All, the charity of which we are a part.  And we work hard to record evidence of positive outcomes for the people we work with, who are members of Sandwell’s diverse communities through capturing qualitative feedback, and tracking the benefits expressed by individuals and groups. We use some validated tools such as the Short Warwick Edinburgh Mental Health Scale, and wish to extend the use of validated approaches, and methods we can use over time.

Evaluation, and especially meaningful evaluation, which reliably captures and demonstrates data, in ways suited to both an intervention itself, and to funders and commissioners of services, in a constantly shifting configuration of exepctations, is a constant challenge. And we are in the white waters of a major reconfiguration of local governance, what with huge cuts, the seismic changes to the NHS, Primary Care Trusts and the public health function, which will bring big changes to the way services are commissioned and evaluated.  Again, but this time with gigantic bells on.

But for now, it’s time to talk the commisioners of our main contract, in the PCT, to agree the best way to produce an annual report that draws together the monitoring and qualitative data in a way that demonstrates the outcomes of a year of intense activity, including significant success in securing additional funding to add value to the commissioned services. It’s a time of huge upheaval in the voluntary sector, but thanks to the brilliant work of a dedicated team, we have had one of our best years, if not the best, in 11 years of being Growing Opportunities.

One more thing to add to the growing ‘To Do’ list when I return to work tomorrow, that now includes a major new project in a new part of the borough with an already growing list of funders, and meetings with other public, private and third sector organisations to try to unlock more funding to develop it.  Oh, and I’m part time, as are the two development managers!