Bringing community power to life at Stronger Things
Tom Chigbo, Community Engagement & Participation Manager at TPXimpact, shares his experience of and insights from Stronger Things 2023.
By bringing together the boldest thinkers and most creative practitioners each year, New Local’s Stronger Things has become a highlight in the calendar of anyone interested in building community power. 2023’s gathering was full of energy and optimism as people from across the country met at the City of London’s Guildhall to explore how communities can transform places and public services.
The true value of events like Stronger Things is in how far they generate new action to make community power a reality.
What united the dozens of speakers on stage and hundreds of participants in-person and online was a focus on “making it happen” – the practical steps needed to make community power a reality. I had the pleasure of hosting an interactive workshop on Community Power and Engagement, alongside my TPXimpact colleague Charlotte Obijiaku. The packed room in the stunning Guildhall crypt showed just how enthusiastic people were to explore how innovative methods and approaches to community engagement can help put people’s voices at the heart of decision making.
What is community power?
Our workshop began by discussing what community power means and how we would recognise it when we see it.
In our experience, rather than as one specific activity, community power is best understood as a range of policies, practices and approaches that:
- accept that the challenges of the 21st century demand a fundamental shift in how we treat people and run public services;
- treat people as active citizens, rather than passive service users or individual customers;
- give people the power to shape the places where they live and the services they use;
- recognise the skills and talents within communities and their ability to identify and respond to challenges they face.
At the same time, we have found that community power is built and strengthened where:
- devolution, deliberative and participatory approaches to decision-making are adopted;
- co-production, community commissioning and collaborative approaches to design and delivery of public services are practised;
- funding, assets, resources and capacity building support are provided.
By explaining community power in this way, everyone seemed to be in agreement and found it valuable to have a clear definition and understanding of what it looks like put in front of them and explained.
Communities in the driving seat
We then went on to share stories of innovative community engagement work where councils and voluntary sector organisations are laying the foundations for community power to flourish. Some of the highlights included:
- Bristol, where the City Council worked with TPXimpact to design and deliver the £4m community resilience fund. Instead of running a typical grant making process, the Council co-designed the fund with local communities and used deliberative democracy to give local people a genuine say over how the funding was allocated.
- Central Bedfordshire, where the Council brought together residents, officers and elected councillors to form a Fairness Taskforce and develop new approaches to tackling poverty.
- South London, where the NHS integrated care system has teamed up with community organising charity Citizens UK to run a groundbreaking partnership called South London Listens. The partnership has seen local communities take charge of listening to residents and developing new interventions to address mental health.
- The Brilliant Club, a charity which mobilises communities to support disadvantaged students to access competitive universities and succeed when there. Their Parent Power scheme supports parents to build relationships with universities and run campaigns for changes that will improve educational opportunities for their children.
Simply talking about the power and benefits of community engagement can make them difficult to fully grasp. But through these examples, we were able to bring to life the positive impact of taking a community centred approach to designing services and making decisions, which hopefully those in attendance can take away and apply to their communities.
People powered transformation needs to be at the heart of everything we do
Making it happen
Inspired by these stories, the workshop participants had conversations about the practical steps they could take to build community power in their places. For some the focus was on opening up decision making processes. For others it was finding more meaningful ways to involve local people in designing public services. Another important theme was the importance of investing in training and capacity building for the voluntary sector. We also looked at how to better include specific groups and communities who despite being marginalised historically have the potential to bring new perspectives and energy to public life. Later I was invited to explore some of these themes in an exclusive interview for online Stronger Things attendees.
It was fantastic to see so many people and organisations committed to embracing community led change, as well as a wide range of creative and innovative ways to improve public services emerging from these discussions.
The true value of events like Stronger Things is in how far they generate new action to make community power a reality. People powered transformation needs to be at the heart of everything we do and at TPXimpact, we have the privilege of supporting organisations who are serious about taking such action with expert advice on community engagement, service design, digital transformation and deliberative democracy. I, like many others, have come away from the event full of energy, new ideas and a renewed drive to build community power.
In September, we’re holding an online follow-up gathering for any organisations who are interested in making community power real.
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