Sprawling roles and identities of community change makers

Lessons and reflections from 8 years of working on the Peckham Coal Line

Community work doesn’t neatly fit into boxes of well defined job descriptions that you might have as part of formal roles. Its influence spans the very intimate personal and professional and everything in between.

I’ve been charting some of the many identities roles I’ve been doing in the work I do for around 10 years. But to date, that hasn’t included the full spectrum of roles or included all those that have been required as part of the community project I’ve been involved with — the Peckham Coal Line (PCL). A project in South East London, in the neighbourhood I live in, with the dream to create a new public park.

With so much chatter about “community led change” and “shifting power to communities” it felt like time to uncover some of the key roles — both visible and less visible ones — that really make this type of work possible. And to share some of the lesser told realities that have made it simultaneously enriching, a delight, a challenge and a despairing experience.

Disclaimer: Acknowledging that I’ve avoided writing this piece for a long time, as it feels tough and exhausting to recognise the time and effort that has been put in over the last 8 years, on top of a full time job, becoming a parent and living in the midst of a global pandemic. Such is the reality of so many choosing to work at the community scale. Through all of this, what has fuelled and supported me (and all those involved) to date has been a strong collective vision, commitment to the locally rooted relationships and doses of personal strength and resilience.

The many roles I’ve played and key lessons we’ve learnt from this experience are as follows:

Stange(r) collaborations
It was a flurry of interest from local people really kick started the work back in 2014 after a small feature in the Peckham Peculiar newspaper. Shortly after this, together we raised +£75,000 in the period of 3 months. It was magic.

It was such a joy to organise with passionate local people — not just neighbours, not yet friends, not colleagues — but something else I’ve struggled to put words to. Friends with a shared purpose, co-conspirators, collaborators. Many have become true friends — we’ve become intertwined in others lives — the ups, downs, celebrations, weddings, birth of children, support though life transitions. Granted it was a labour intensive way to make friends, but I’m so grateful for this shared experience we’ve had.

When you start ‘working’ with your partner
The genesis for this work really came from the vision of my partner Nick, I’d been hearing him talk about the potential for this site but it wasn’t until people started to get in touch I could see a role for me supporting the bringing to life of this vision.

We didn’t plan to do this, we went with the energy (so often the way for instigating something) — so we started working together accidentally. And there has been real power in it. It deepened our relationship, we witnessed the skills we each bought and had another layer of appreciation and respect. Long before covid — we blurring the lines between work and home life by and catalysing change locally and living the change together.

Our shared connection and knowing fuelled the project, probably more than either of us care to admit. But it was a source of tension too, it has felt like both a blessing and curse. It informed where we’ve moved to. The love / hate we both felt for the project ebbed and flowed and wasn’t always in sync with each other. At points it became the thing we spoke about last thing at night. It became the thing we’d argue about on long car journeys. We had to create boundaries — going out of our house for ‘meetings’ about the project became the only way to constructively work on this together. A burden of responsibility for us both which has created guilt spirals. But undeniably — we created and birthed something together — before our own son.

Practice ground to compliment my day job
At its heart the PCL is an experiment in a community led change. When the PCL started I was part of a European Funded project called EU InnovatE — which was exploring the role of citizen led innovation in enabling a sustainable future, then later Civil Society Futures Inquiry. The Peckham Coal Line became the testing ground for me — to learn about the topic I was exploring at a national and international scale. The action part of the research. It gave me more grounding, confidence and authenticity/credibility to really understand the topic and speak from the direct experience of trying to make change at a neighbourhood scale.

It wasn’t just me who brought work skills to the local level, the collective application of professional skills to this work got us far and came as a surprise for local authorities groups and organisations who weren’t used to interacting with community groups in this way. There’s so much more potential for local communities finding ways to better apply professional skills in local contexts.

A volunteer
It is worth saying I have done these in an unpaid capacity. That, initially, was out of choice — and a choice that comes with inherent privilege. I didn’t need to do this work out of safety or survival, as I was in full time employment, but I was doing this as an active choice to make a contribution to my local area.

But the term volunteer often doesn’t feel like it represents what we’ve been doing — it’s highly strategic, buckets of initiative are required, learning as you go and a long term commitment that’s required. That is very different to the one of gardening days conjured up when thinking about ‘volunteers’, turning up and being told what to do.

I think there is a wider challenge and conversation to be had about how to fairly value, recognise and support people playing vital community roles. Money often isn’t the motivator — but is a symbol of value in society today. As more and more people are espousing a shift to community power — then isn’t it high time we found better ways to value those roles and better understand what it takes and will support people to do this. We’re at risk of burning people out when we don’t do this.

A formal governance role as a Trustee
So many groups are forced to formalise and set up. The Coal Line was no different — in order to access public funds from the crowdfunding campaign — a Community Interest Organisation was established. A set of trustees appointed. I’ve taken one of those roles for the last 6 years. My first taste of legal responsibility and duties. Structurally this then locked me in to working on this in an unpaid way and became locked in as we set up the organisation as a charity, bound by charity law. These structures inherently reinforce current privilege by excluding those who don’t have the resources of time or money. And is in active contrast to the following roles. It feels like there is a void of model — today you’re either a volunteer group or a formal institution — there has to be a middle ground.

An active citizen
The Peckham Coal Line has always been about a platform for local people to steer the change in their neighbourhood — not have it done to them. For me personally it’s increased my confidence, agency to act locally and enriched my life. We’ve been designing ways for people to participate and take Co-Action (or perhaps co-design in the zeitgeist language of today) in big (crowdfunding for change in your neighbourhood) and small ways (signing a petition, sharing news of local events with your neighbour) which provides opportunity to play a more active part of local life. It feels like part of a contribution to a reframing of how we see ourselves, not as consumers but active citizens, normalising a culture of participation and in the process, enhancing the capacity of a neighbourhood to make more active contributions and be part of the changes at a local scale. I believe this is going to be critical to a world full of continued uncertainty and change.

Fixer and chair shuffler
A large part of this work has been about lugging boxes around the neighbourhood, so much chair shuffling, finding tables, sourcing sellotape, an extension lead for power in a park, sticking up posters around the neighbourhood, scrubbing the streets of chalk paint before you get an £1000 fine from the council. I’ve learnt from more seasoned community activists that you just have to ask for things — local organisations, venues, supermarkets are always willing and able to support community endeavours.

Boundary spanner
This work has meant that myself and others have had to be as comfortable talking about the work and local neighbourhood over a cup of tea on the estate, at a local fayre, with 60 local schoolchildren, as in the boardroom with institutional decision makers and on public platforms and stages. Building trusting relationships and human connection across a whole variety of stakeholders. Toggling the language and story to match each group. It requires you to be a chameleon and span so many boundaries at points it can be disorientating.

Imagination and narrative producer
So many community projects are focused on opposing something, rather than creating alterives. The PCL has always been propositional not oppositional. It started as a provocation, ‘a what if there was a green connection between Peckham Rye and Queens Road station’. We never planned for it to be something — but it now exists as a story, as a possibility in people’s imaginations, woven into the narrative of the neighbourhood. I was standing on the station platform recently and heard someone on the phone asking. “Have you heard about that new park next to the railway”, they were so excited.

In a world where there is so much doom and gloom and a need to change- we need to cultivate the power of collective imagination. And today it’s not just a story and a possibility — thousands of people have come to events to learn more and co-develop the ideas, experienced coming together with neighbours — as well there being some small physical interventions on route too.

Influencer of policy and possibility
There have been countless dissertations and university projects created about the PCL and the approach we’ve taken, people attracted to it as it represented a different way of doing development, led by communities. In the early days there was a mutual learning relationship between us, the Spacehive crowdfunding platform and the GLA — we were all learning what it takes to enable community participation. There was scope to share honest feedback about what worked and what didn’t which we saw designed into future iterations of Crowdfund London. At one point we were asked to speak at industry events and platforms on a monthly basis to share more about the story and approach. I’ve improved my public speaking as a consequence, but over time it became a distraction from the work on the ground and at worst an extractive exercise, not enabling or investing the ongoing deepening required. Cultivating equitable and mutually supportive relationships where feedback in all directions is valued, is key.

Deeper relationship to my neighbourhood
I’ve deepened my connection to the neighbourhood and the people within it. I say hello to so many more people than I once did. On having a baby I had an automatic support network of local parents who’d be through the course and offered support I didn’t even know was needed. And I have gained a depth of understanding for the streets, the layers of stories, the rich history — knowing the backstreets, their quirks and qualities that I wouldn’t do otherwise. Although admittedly, when your neighbourhood becomes your workplace- sometimes it makes me want to run away and crave anonymity.

Designing across difference
The lightly shrouded racial and religious tensions that exist in so many neighbours became exposed to me in new ways through doing this work in a way that my white skin and privilege meant I could choose to ignore before. In the formal governance structures that exist around the PCL, it means we’ve not, created an organisation that is fully representative of the community we serve.

The formal governance structures and legalities further entrench the privilege of those who have time and income to support engaging this way — at worst formal structures creating further structural division. Instead where we’ve put attention to is how to design with difference in mind — to creating platforms, moments and experiences where people can feel welcome and comfortable to participate in local development activities a way they may not otherwise have. Running session in the local library, cinema, churches, tenant and resident associations. Finding ways to talk and build relationships and really speak to everyone in the community, creating encounters for people to meet their neighbours they’ve never had the opportunity to meet before has been a highlight for so many people. But there is still much more work to do both personally and at a collective level.

Emergent strategist / process doula
It took me a long time to be ok with going with the ebb and flow of community work. It often orientated around the seasons and significant local events, instead of keeping going at it all of the time, with equal and consistent energy that you might bring with a more conventional ‘job’. Much of what i’ve been doing with the core group of us who has sustained momentum, is knowing when it was the moment is to take care of the behind the scenes work and when to be more active and public. Knowing when the moment is to pivot or to keep going. A huge amount of initiative and creativity was needed to challenge the status quo of developer practices, adapt to new situations we’d never encountered before and trust that that was enough.

Reluctant community leader
Being a ‘leader’ is a term I have largely avoided in association with this project, with traditional assumptions about what a ‘leader’ is being at odds to the open and participatory culture the Coal LIne was seeking. None of us have taken on formal role titles either — knowing role titles have inherent power that community work is trying to level. But I recognise the different qualities and types of leadership approaches that I have contributed to the collective leadership of this work — it has required weaving, inspiring, enabling, mobilising, threading, innovation, bridging, relationship brokering, collaboration.

Where does this leave me?

Truth be told, if in 2014 when we set out, we’d been told we’d still be going in 2022 — i’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have embarked on this journey that has been full of twists and turns and full of surprises.

I know I’ve gained a huge amount of learning, confidence and it has opened up lots of unlikely things for me personally. I’ve also never worked on something that’s made me feel so tired, frustrated, angry and burnt out. The charge and potency of working at this scale, when you see its impact in your local community, is huge. It is full of contrasting feelings, which means that right now I have a love hate relationship with the project. It feels too close and raw to feel proud right now, but I am trusting that over time I’ll be able to see and recognise what we’ve done.

Right now, we’re at a point where the future of this project feels unclear. As those who have bought energy and momentum to this journey — we’ve decided it’s time to step back and close the charity. The potential of the PCL to exist will remain beyond the organisational form — it remains in the local plan and can be picked by and integrated by developers of the remaining sites, even a new community team should they choose. But we know collectively, we don’t have the energy and reserves it needs to take it to the next level. As a lasting legacy we have spent the last few months consolidating our experience and learning so other community groups can seed this into their contexts.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Louise Armstrong

#livingchange / freelancing / navigating / designing / coaching / doula of change