Little ol’ Oblong vs. global neoliberal capitalism?

In this post I want to talk about neoliberalism and Oblong’s work.  I’ll write about what I understand by that concept and link this to Oblong’s work.  And I’ll say why I think local work like Oblong’s is significant, even in the face of a global economy.

The term ‘neoliberalism’ is bandied around a lot but sounds a bit baffling. Right in the middle of the word is ‘liberal’.  Liberal politics might refer to political views and policies supporting tolerance, human rights and social cohesion, but this is different to liberal economics.  As defined by the Financial Times, liberal economics means classic free-market capitalism, with no interference from the state except to provide support structures (like roads or train lines to move things around on, courts to settle disputes, or education so people have basic skills).  Liberal economics relies on the ‘invisible hand’ producing the best outcome for everyone through a market economy where everyone acts out of self-interest.  So, if ‘neo’ means ‘new’, then what’s new about neoliberalism?  As a political philosophy it means to make trade and markets even more free, so that even things like infrastructure and basic goods (i.e. public transport, or even water) can be privately owned and traded for profit.  The idea is that wealth will ‘trickle down’ from those who make a lot of profit to those who don’t.  The government’s role in all this is to maintain favourable circumstances for the companies doing the trading and profit-making.

Neoliberalism acts as an overarching political approach, not just an economic one. It goes back to the ‘80s – Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher favoured a neoliberal ideology.  Neoliberalists favour keeping workers’ wages as low as possible to help increase profit margins.  But since wages provide the money people can spend on the products companies are selling, loans and credit then had to become much easier to get, to keep the demand for products up.  People in more industrialised, developed countries have much more credit card and mortgage debt than in the past – and that debt is loaned out by companies who invest their money in markets all over the world.  In the past 30-40 years we’ve seen the prices of goods and services everywhere increasingly affected by things like international credit and stock markets.  The price of oil, for example, affects the price of everything because we get most of our energy from oil and we need energy to make, transport and provide almost anything you can think of.  This comes to roost in our lives locally not just by affecting prices but also through decisions on social policy, public services and military action.  When governments see their role as creating conditions favourable for profit (and therefore, supposedly, helping everyone), they end up taking a back seat in other roles citizens might think important, like providing public services, regulating the price of essentials, ensuring a social safety net, and keeping us safe by maintaining international peace.  Austerity measures exemplify the effects of a neoliberal approach: the state retracts responsibility for ensuring people can live decent lives, in the hopes of stimulating commercial activity.  This leaves communities – including groups like Oblong – to fill in the gaps, without providing the resources necessary to do it.

This is the danger of the neoliberal philosophy: what if the trickle-down effect doesn’t work?  We can see clearly that it doesn’t – the gap between rich and poor keeps growing larger and larger. The environmental damages our economy causes hurt poorer people much more than they hurt richer people (though eventually they will hurt us all).  But even in ‘democratic’ societies, we’ve forfeited much of our power to redress this.  In order to afford campaigns as vast and flashy as each other’s, politicians take funding from large businesses.  Even if they don’t, they find themselves constricted by the power of large corporations that control a lot of wealth.  This leaves voters with paltry choices, largely similar to each other and mostly talk – if we bother to vote at all.  We can blame political parties and we can blame corporations, but those organisations are made up of individuals, just doing their jobs.  For example, it’s a CEO’s responsibility to make a profit or face losing her job. She’s built her life on values from the culture all around her, which rewards individualism, money-making and hard work with a prestigious job and a high standard of living.  It’s understandable (if not commendable) how she might make decisions which in fact trickle down harm, not help.  As societies, we have ignored voices of warning and embraced the logic of profit.  It seemed like a good idea – some said, “A rising tide will lift all boats.”  But we know some important things now: firstly, placing profit about other priorities does not improve everyone’s lives – in fact it causes many people to suffer.  Secondly, the constant growth needed to produce this profit is fundamentally unsustainable.  Neoliberal capitalism isn’t working, and our institutions aren’t dealing with the problem.  So what do we do?  We can bang our heads against the wall of reforms that need to be made…or we can try and find a way over, or through.

This is where local, values-based groups like Oblong come in.  Obviously, Oblong alone isn’t going to solve the global economic crisis.  But getting involved with something where there are opportunities to have a voice, be heard and put ideas into practice – in cooperation with other people – makes a crucial, sometimes life-sustaining change from trying to get by in a boring or competitive job, or dealing with increasingly restrictive and undermining ‘benefits’ from the government.  For example, planning and teaching an English class with other volunteers can make a welcome change from factory work.  A group like Oblong, which states clearly that it values people and their development, provides a place where a desire for empowerment, equality and working together doesn’t feel like madness in a world revolving around money and individual gain.  I feel better about the world, and my life, when I interview volunteers about the work they’re doing at Oblong than I do when I listen to the news, that’s for sure.  People build up and reinforce values, for themselves and others, by defining them and putting them into practice.  (This is how neoliberal rhetoric and policies work, too.)  These skills – understanding what our values are, why we have them, how to talk about them and how to practise them – are skills we all need increasingly as our democratic institutions fail to redress the effects of inequalities and exploitation.  It’s not easy to counteract global problems on a local level, but if it’s the best option we can see, let’s get as good at it as we can.

It’s not simple, not least because practising non-profit, people-centred values like Oblong’s means constantly rubbing up against the necessity to get and spend money.  It’s not like we can say a heart-felt good-bye to profit-based capitalism and go our separate ways.  It’s more like, say, a messy break-up, with kids and shared possessions…and the ‘ex’ is the richest, most influential person in the world.  An individual’s strength in a situation like this comes from conviction in beliefs, networks of support, and willingness to be understand and be flexible, to learn and adapt.  These same things sustain organisations.  By collectively developing a commitment to self-defined values and continually working out ways to practise these, even within the context of economic austerity, organisations like Oblong – and the people involved – can build strength and resilience.

I’m fascinated with the ways Oblong manages to practise and sustain its values, because these practices offer me hope in the face of the darkness and disaster I see in neoliberal globalisation.  If all of these global forces can affect our little, local action, then it must also be true that our little, local action can affect these global forces.  For that reason, what we’re doing at Oblong is important and significant, and so is whatever you’re doing wherever you are.  We can grow in awareness, imagination and power by sharing these things.

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Designing research together: it’s complicated

In my last post, I went into some detail about Oblong’s funding, the geographical community where we work, and how our work is affected by government policies.  This week I’m going to focus on the process of designing my research project with Oblong.  I’ll write briefly about the practicalities, as well as a term I discovered in academic articles:  positionality.

Positionality, in my understanding, means:

  • a researcher’s relationship to the people they will encounter in the process of doing research; and
  • the standpoint the researcher uses to interpret and write about what she finds out.

Talking about positionality when you do research indicates that you think these relationships and standpoints make a difference – to how the research is designed, and the conclusions you will eventually come to.  I do think these relationships and standpoints make a difference – in my research with Oblong, and in any research.  If you told me you were doing research from a neutral, non-biased point of view, I might think that you hadn’t reflected enough about what kinds of assumptions you were making. Everyone has a point of view.  I don’t claim to know what ‘enough’ reflection is, but I have done some.  (I learned a lot about reflexivity – not just thinking about what might bias our research, but questioning our own assumptions – in a workshop run by Anne Cunliffe, who studies organisations.)  As a result I think it’s important to be transparent about my relationship to the organisation and people I’m doing research with, and about why I’ve chosen to ask the questions I’ve asked.  Stating these things up front allows you, as a reader, to make more informed judgements about the conclusions I’ll present at the end of my research.

As I wrote in my first blog post, I used to work as an employee at Oblong.  My role was to co-ordinate the project of taking over running Woodhouse Community Centre.  I applied for the job at Oblong because the organisation’s values were really attractive to me and resonated with my own beliefs.  (Also I needed a job, reasonably paid, part-time and close to my house!)  During the course of the asset transfer of Woodhouse Community Centre, I started to worry about all the financial responsibility Oblong had taken on.  Not only needing to win grants but now also committing to the costs of running the centre, Oblong risked losing sight of its values in favour of ‘chasing the money’, I thought.  As someone involved in running the organisation, I felt this would be understandable, but it would also be a real shame.  As an employee I felt overwhelmed by financial problem-solving – “How are we going to find the £6,000 to repair the boiler?” “What about the roof which is leaking?” – but this worry about holding on to non-financial values would eventually shape my research questions.

I started out by blaming government policy for the pressure Oblong faces, but I also realised the issues are bigger than that.  Certainly I think many of the policies which affect voluntary and community groups are flawed (not to mention policies which affect public services!).  Many people who work in and study the sector think so too.  However, I started to feel that changing policies might be a lot of effort for not a lot of change.  I think that wider problems – like our society’s assumption that monetary profit is the primary motivating factor for people doing stuff – mean the potential for effective change through government policies is limited.  I believe most policies, however different they seem, will still support this profit-driven logic, wrong as it is (in my view).  So now you have a glimpse of my view of reality in the context of my research, or, the ontology I’m coming from personally.

The worldview I’ve briefly presented here may seem a bit grim, and I became wary of writing research which would be demoralising for me and everyone else.  ‘Should I ask questions which can prove that current government policies may destroy the ethos and lifeblood of community organisations like Oblong?’ I asked myself.  It seemed doable but, on reflection, not the best use of my opportunity to do a PhD.  I thought about all the time and energy I would be asking people at Oblong to give to answering my research questions with me.  I didn’t want it to be a waste of anyone’s time.  I could probably argue, if I wanted to, that Oblong’s values have been compromised – at least from a critical, theoretical point of view.  On the other hand, Oblong carries on promoting its values and trying to practice them after nearly 20 years, so hands-on observation suggests that money pressures and changes in policy aren’t enough to bring them down.  ‘What would be the benefit of using academic critique to “expose” the effects of economic pressure on Oblong’s ideals?’ I wondered.  Who would be the real losers – the policy-makers I accused, or those of us trying to do our best despite the circumstances?  Oblong values promoting social action and empowerment, and so do I.  I decided the best way to support these values was to try and do research which would be helpful, productive and affirming.  I believe that asking is action.  My research questions have an agenda designed to give the organisation space and time to focus on exploring ways to preserve and practise its values.

I drew heavily on principles from Participatory Action Research to design my project with Oblong.  Lots of people doing research and community development debate what ‘participation’ actually means and how it can, in fact, be manipulated.  I was lucky to explore some of these issues in two workshops with Participatory Action Research scholar Rachel Pain.  After discussing these things, I realised there was no such thing as ‘pure’ participation, so I could relax about being a bad person if I didn’t achieve participatory perfection – but I do have a duty to make this clear.  As for the ‘action’ part of this research, I needed to ask Oblong how I could most usefully contribute and what concrete issues we could address through my project.  This is what I did: I came up with some options for how I could conduct research, and I asked Oblong’s staff team what they thought would be most worthwhile. “Should I concentrate on helping manage the building and make observations about you all in my notebook while I’m here working?” (This option wouldn’t have been very participatory, although I myself would have been a participant in the group.)  “Or should I try running workshops where I ask people about Oblong’s values?”  We chose the second option; discussed it with the trustees; and outlined a ‘job description’ for my year-long placement with the staff team.  My job as Resident Researcher included running participatory events and exploring the work of our collectives, making connections between our work and our stated values.

Next are the things I did not do:  I did not consult with volunteers about what they thought my PhD should be about or how I should do it.  (I didn’t imagine they wanted to spend time on this.)  I did not ask Oblong’s staff to write my research questions with me.  (I think we all felt that was my task; it will be me who gets the PhD, after all.)  I did not ask anyone to read academic literature with me or identify relevant theories, although staff have analysed interview data and feedback from workshops to make practical decisions about how to do things.  The staff team have peer-managed my work as it has progressed, therefore they’ve had more influence than anyone over what I’ve done.  On the other hand, it seems like the ‘point’ of my PhD remains a bit mysterious to people I don’t work closely with.  For example, I put up a poster in Oblong about my research and asked for feedback…but most people gave me feedback about the poster design, not the ideas on it.  I’m also aware that doing academic work can create separation or power differentials between me and other people at Oblong.  And, these change depending on the people and each given interaction.  Being reflective and honest about these shifting issues forms a key aspect of Participatory Action Research: messiness is inherent to doing research which draws on participant’s views and experience to create valuable knowledge through addressing real-life issues.

Relationships affect – and potentially enrich – every aspect of participatory research.  (I think this is true for any social research.)  My relationship to Oblong is complex and multi-faceted.  As a previous employee, I have friendships and professional ties to the people I’ve worked with as colleagues.  My time there as a work placement and resident researcher has built upon these links and forged new ones.  These relationships have shaped the questions I want to ask as well as my ability to ask them.  I work often with volunteers in different roles as a collaborator, facilitator, interviewer, peer or advisor.  Their willingness to work with me comes, in part, from our relationships.  The answers each volunteer or staff member gives to my questions are undoubtedly influenced by the dynamics between us, even on that particular day.  (Did I chat with the person over a cup of tea?  Or did I rush past them on my way to the printer for an ‘important’ document?  Did they criticise the poster I put up?  Or did they put me at ease by smiling when I arrived?  I don’t try to engineer these interactions, but I know they have an effect, even if it’s small.)  Some of us involved at Oblong live in the same neighbourhood and may see each other socially, either intentionally or by chance.  We may know each other’s families or take an interest in other community groups that each other is involved with.  I value the contribution Oblong makes to the community I live in; as such I consider myself a legitimate stakeholder in the organisation.  I feel I have as much a right as any other participant to influence what goes on there, but not more.  That’s one reason that maintaining honest, communicative relationships is important.  I am deeply invested and interlinked at Oblong, with both the organisation and the individuals involved.  So long as that’s visible – so you can make up your mind about my statements and their relevance for your own situations – I believe that my research is all the richer for this productive entanglement.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections about what I’ve written in this post.  Next time I’ll tell you more about my hopes for this project and give you a bit of a road map.

Making ends meet…is it worth it?

Last week I wrote about Oblong’s flat management structure and its six core values.  This time I’ll go into some detail about Oblong’s geography, how we fund our work, and how we’re affected by the government’s decisions.  It’s a longer read and some of it sounds a bit technical, but if you’re interested in how a small charity makes it work in a recession – or why it’s not free to use the community centre – this will give you some facts, and my perspective.

Oblong is based in Woodhouse, a traditionally working-class neighbourhood in the inner city of Leeds, very near Leeds University.  The neighbourhood faces deprivation at the same time as having a large, transient student population.  When census information is collected during university term-time, the student population masks the real levels of difficulties that long-term residents experience.  Housing quality and educational attainment are lower here than in Leeds and the UK on average; unemployment and mental illness are higher.  The city council considers ‘community cohesion’ an issue here; the area has a diverse ethnic population in addition to the differential between long-term residents and less-rooted students.  Council-run forums are poorly attended and often dominated by middle-class white people.  Only a small proportion of residents report feeling they have an influence over what goes on in the area.  Statistics like this paint a grim picture…and they leave out people’s real experiences, ideas and cares.  Like every place made grey by statistics, Woodhouse is full of colourful people with incredible knowledge, unique life experience and plenty of their own ideas.

Oblong has been in Woodhouse since 2008, when it began renting a building after moving from nearby.  Last year, after taking over Woodhouse Community Centre, Oblong started conducting its own local surveys to find out what difference the centre makes – and what difference people want it to make.  Knocking on doors this summer, a colleague and I met a wide variety of folks.  Some spoke with a broad Leeds accent whilst others did not speak English.  A few seemed suspicious of us, but others greeted us as faces they knew from coming to the centre – for yoga class, say, or volunteering with the Gardening Collective.  Some people did not know Woodhouse Community Centre was there, while others remembered going there in their childhood.  People offered various ideas for projects and activities they think we should run, like “more stuff for the kids”.  Most were glad to receive our ‘What’s On’ flyer.  We’ve realised, through talking with people, that it will take time to build up the community centre as a hub which truly offers something for everyone…but that is our goal.  We knew it would be a challenge, but we took the centre on to give Oblong stability and longevity; to make sure the building facilities would stay available for local people; and to create a place where people can get involved and enrich their own lives and each other’s.

For about 10 years, almost all Oblong’s funding – for things like rent, bills, staff salaries, and volunteers’ lunch and travel expenses – came from grants.  Oblong continues to fund most of its activity through applying for grants, even though we now manage Woodhouse Community Centre and generate income from letting out rooms.  (More on where that money goes in a moment!)  We also run a course we developed called Head Space.  Head Space helps people learn skills to look after their mental well-being, and it’s now taught around Leeds 15 times a year. This brings in a small amount of surplus income, through commissions, which we can spend on things which aren’t funded by grants – like running costs of the building.  Most grant funding is ‘ring-fenced’ to be spent on specific projects. Our largest grant funds a volunteering programme which supports about 65 people each year to get involved.  Without volunteers, Oblong couldn’t run the community centre or the numerous activities they help provide, like English classes, the food co-op, the cinema, and many others.  We also run Woodhoust Boost, a grant-supported programme to help local small groups – like the ukulele group, or the vegan cookery group – to access space at the centre for free.

Staff are paid to take responsibility for several things.  First and foremost is supporting volunteers.  Staff run induction training, welcoming new volunteers and explaining how we run.  They meet volunteers to talk about how their work is going.  They participate in volunteer collectives, for instance helping set up the Food Co-op’s new website or giving advice to Media and Marketing Collective members about a video they are making.  Staff provide day-to-day support with things like lunch money and computer use, as well as training in particular roles such as coaching reception volunteers on using the phone and the booking system.  Staff also do these things:

  • collect information about volunteers’ progress – so we can report to funders that their money has helped the numbers of people we said it would, in the ways we said it would;
  • apply for grants;
  • plan Oblong’s work and its long-term strategy;
  • manage the budgets for projects and the building;
  • report on Oblong’s finances;
  • publicise the centre and co-ordinate volunteer efforts to do this;
  • make sure the centre complies with health and safety requirements;
  • make sure reception and bookings are covered, or cover when volunteers aren’t available;
  • make sure we have policies in place to deal with any problems;
  • keep up connections and links with other organisations; and
  • manage each other.

This list probably isn’t exhaustive, but it gives a good idea of what staff do for their wages.  Six people work for Oblong as part-time employees. (This does not include my time as an unpaid ‘placement’ on the staff team for the past year, though I was an employee from 2010-2012.) Lots of volunteers’ time, including trustees’, who help ensure Oblong follows the law, goes into running the centre.  Staff often discuss how to prioritise their time in weekly staff meetings – “I’m going to push back the website work so I can finish the finance report this week” – because their limited hours don’t leave any leeway.

Most grant-making organisations fund specific project work – like running a volunteering programme – rather than providing contributions to overall running costs.  This means to meet those costs the community centre must function more like a business, even though it’s not run for profit.  We use income from Woodhouse Community Centre to fund the centre co-ordinator’s part-time role, plus a few hours a week for other non-project duties like communicating with our board of volunteer trustees.  Each revenue grant includes 25% for overheads – e.g. desk space, utilities – and management, through standard charity funding principles called Full Cost Recovery.  Grants can also cover the cost of hiring space for activities.  If we can use space at Woodhouse Community Centre, these costs are ‘recharged’ to the centre – this means the cost of room hire is paid from a project-specific budget into the centre’s income.  In this way our volunteering activities contribute to the income of the centre, which we can then spend to keep the building running.

When Oblong completed Community Asset Transfer and took over running the centre from Leeds City Council, we were granted a 50-year rent-free lease in exchange for refurbishing the building and taking responsibility for maintenance, utilities, and insurance.  (You’d be right to question the word ‘Asset’ – we don’t own the building, we just bear all the costs of it.)  Money is very tight, so we take advantage of charity ‘club’ rates for services wherever we can, and ask for volunteers’ help with things like DIY days.  We tried to make the building as energy-efficient as we could when designing the refurbishment works – to save money as well as energy – though we couldn’t afford solar panels.  To fund refurbishment, we got part-grant, part-loan funding from the Social Investment Business (SIB), who manage the Communitybuilders fund.  (The last Labour government set up this fund, which was later endowed by the Conservatives to the Adventure Capital Fund, who manage the Social Investment Business, who manage the money they loan out to groups like us on behalf of the government…I think. It’s complicated!)

The loan repayments to the Social Investment Business now cost Oblong about £3,300 per month.  At that rate we will be paying the loan for about 10 years.  If we ever stopped paying our loan, SIB would have the right to take over running the building, or get another organisation to run it, but it must remain a community centre.  (They would also have the right to demand the outstanding loan payments immediately as a lump sum, which isn’t nice to think about.)  This year, loan repayments have accounted for nearly half Oblong’s total spending.  If you only count unrestricted spending – that is, money coming in from room lettings or our training courses, not from grants which can only be spent on specific projects – the loan payments equal more than three quarters of it.

The centre has 10 rooms to hire out.  Prices range from about £125 per month – for a 1-person office, for a non-profit community organisation – up to £25 per hour – for the large hall, for a private organisation.  Half the rooms in the building are let as offices, while the other 5 charge by the hour.  There is a discount rate for voluntary and community groups. Private individuals, businesses, government organisations, and political or religious groups pay the full rate.  A few charities have offices in the building.  People use the other rooms for everything from family parties to yoga classes, cookery classes, counselling, Zumba dance, a monthly community clothing exchange, conferences, training days, older people’s activities, a pop-up café, arts & crafts…and loads of other things.  When groups can’t afford to pay for a room for an activity they want to do, we try to help them find funding, either through our own grant-funded Woodhouse Boost programme, or through other local funds.

It’s hugely important to Oblong that the centre be available and accessible to local people.  That’s why we took the building on in the first place!  Before we did, it was hard to book, often empty, and not very attractive – we know because we rented the basement from the city council for a year before beginning Asset Transfer.  We realised, in principle, what we were signing up for when we took responsibility for the place, and we did it because Oblong’s aim is to help create flourishing communities where people can make the most of their lives and talents.  Oblong can’t do that for people, or to people, and we don’t want to – but we do want create a space where we can do it together.

With this goal in mind, to take on the centre we had to create a business plan which looked very different from any funder’s grant budget we’d ever done.  It had to include a 5-year forecast, projections of rental income increases, a marketing plan, and a raft of other predictions.  We used market research, as well as our conscience, to set our prices.  During the process of seeking investment for the building’s refurbishment, there were some communications problems.  We told investors that not only would we be unable to use project-specific grant funding to make loan payments, but we couldn’t even be sure that we would get it!  Still, they insisted on 5-year income projections, so we provided them based on our previous success rates.

While Oblong was in the early stages of securing this investment, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took power in the UK.  Community Asset Transfer was lauded by the incoming government as a great policy, which the Conservatives would keep as part of their Big Society – an agenda to give communities more responsibility, and control, over local facilities.  At the same time, the coalition’s financial austerity meant across-the-board cuts to public services and government-funded charities.  Professionals in the charity and voluntary sector spoke loud and clear:  the actions don’t match the rhetoric.  How can community groups be ‘empowered’ by running things for themselves, without access to the resources they would need to run things?  But the spending cuts began in 2010 and deepened over time.  Though Oblong did not directly lose funding, we did find that competition for funding from grant bodies increased steeply.  Funding from the city council, itself making drastic cutbacks, was even harder to get.  Just like in the ‘80s under Margaret Thatcher, funding criteria got stricter and stricter – to help grant-makers somehow choose from overwhelming numbers of applicants – and more and more closely aligned to government priorities – to protect funding bodies’ own access to funds.  In this way, even non-government activities must follow state policies more closely.  Oblong had to re-apply repeatedly for grants we counted on, tweak the emphasis of our proposed projects, and ask for less money to increase our chances of success.

Our 5-year projections went out the window, and before we’d even completed our refurbishment project we became a case for ‘special monitoring’ by our SIB investors.  This meant increased scrutiny into the capabilities of our trustees and the efficacy of our management, as well as visits from business support advisors and mandatory monthly in-depth finance reporting.  Though these measures were designed to help us, they demanded a huge amount of our already-stretched time and resources.  And if we allowed it, this support would threaten to de-rail our unique, values-based way of doing things – the very thing which makes us a great organisation to run a community centre.  One of Oblong’s trustees said to me, on the train London for a gruelling examination by SIB’s board, as we heard ourselves ringing the office to send a copy of the most up-to-date spreadsheet, “Oh, shit…we’re a business now!”

The following 3 years have proved a struggle, but a productive one:  we’ve had to significantly increase our focus on income-generating activities, but at the same time we’ve developed new ways to keep our values central to our work.  We’ve strengthened our processes in many ways, and the potential threats to our values have perhaps made us more conscious of them and determined to practice them.  My research with Oblong has been a process of constantly questioning our work, feeling both wary and inspired as we discuss ways forward.  I think this process of responding to challenge, re-evaluating and re-affirming our work will carry on – I certainly hope so!

In my next post I’ll tell you – as briefly as I can! – about my own relationship to Oblong: I’ll start to explore the complexities of doing ethically and scientifically sound research with colleagues, friends, and neighbours.

A closer look at Oblong

In my first post, I wrote about why I decided to do a PhD on Oblong.  This time I hope I can introduce Oblong in more depth and give you a picture of the organisation’s ethos and day-to-day work.

One of Oblong’s most intriguing traits is its flat management structure.  No boss or CEO heads up the organisation, and all of the paid staff get paid an equal rate.  This doesn’t mean no one is a manager; it means everyone is a manager.  Paid staff ‘peer manage’ each other using a system of regular check-ins, consensus decision-making, differentiated job roles, joint planning, and clear target-setting.  Every Wednesday morning we each talk about how we’re doing and give an update on our progress against targets we’ve set for ourselves that quarter – “I haven’t got the newsletter done yet, but I’ve done the report for the funders,” someone might say, or, “The volunteer-run kids group on Saturdays is going great, but I still need to record the number of people who turned up on the database.” The agenda contains thorny issues that couldn’t be dealt with individually – for example: “What should the new membership scheme look like, and who is going to take it forward?” Some staff have described a concept of joint responsibility (for making decisions) with individual accountability (for carrying out those decisions).  Sometimes decisions take a long time to get made; often the combination of several people’s ideas creates fast, flexible and innovative solutions.  The staff team tweaks and improves the system for managing each other perhaps once a year: this year we made the way we appraise each other’s performance more comprehensive and focused, but less frequent.  Perhaps like any teamwork, attentive and focused listening makes a crucial difference to how well the peer management and joint decision-making processes function – as a team we’ve made noticeable progress with these skills in the past year after completing some training together.

Volunteers work in collectives too, making decisions together about running projects such as English classes or a food co-op.  Staff participate in each collective on an equal footing with volunteers.  For example, a staff member may take responsibility for facilitating a collective meeting, or a volunteer might do it.  All members of a collective are expected to contribute their opinions: one person might say, “I’ve designed this logo for the new website.  Let’s hear what everyone thinks.”  It would be dishonest to say no power differentials exist – of course people with more knowledge on, say, IT networks would have more influence over a decision about the internet service.  Someone who is particularly articulate might overshadow someone shy.  Some people feel that, for this reason, a lack of explicit hierarchy leads to power being used less transparently than if it was stated outright who was in charge.  But the idea is that everyone has valuable knowledge as well as the right and the potential to have an influence on whatever they choose to be involved in, whether it’s running reception in Woodhouse Community Centre or something outside of Oblong, like a decision about a building development in their neighbourhood.

A colleague at Oblong has always told me: “Non-hierarchy is an aspiration, not an achievement.”  It’s a work in progress. Volunteers sometimes feel confused by the way decision-making takes place at Oblong, and outside partners and powerful funders have expressed scepticism.  The Social Investment Business, when loaning us money to refurbish the community centre, sent an employee to investigate our staff management system and insisted on a full report on its functionality.  (They didn’t examine whether it felt empowering for volunteers, I guess they trusted us about that.)  Oblong sticks with this way of doing things, not just on principle but also because it makes us stronger and more resilient.  When we were running on fumes in the middle of that refurbishment project, we took the pay hit together, working equal reduced hours and standing strong behind decisions we made as a team; an organisation with one manager would have crumbled under redundancies and blame.  Flat management doesn’t always run smoothly, but it’s worth doing.  In fact it’s an essential way of expressing and practising Oblong’s core values.

Oblong developed six core values during a weekend away with volunteers and staff several years ago.  Some work was done more recently to hone the way these are defined.  I imagine they will be re-visited again in future.  Here are Oblong’s values and what we mean by them, with some examples I think illustrate our attempts to practice them:

Empowerment: people feeling able to change their community for the better.  This is the idea behind the Communities Creating Change courses we run, where people learn skills for developing their own community projects.  It’s also the idea behind running projects collectively – everyone has a chance to exercise some leadership and grow in confidence.

Collectivism: making decisions together as equals.  I’ve said enough about staff peer management and volunteer collectives above.

Sustainability: caring for the future of the community and the environment.  In staff meetings, we often talk about sustainability in financial terms.  We want to be financially sustainable so we can keep Woodhouse Community Centre open and available for the community long-term. However, in recent interviews with volunteers, we’ve noticed a ‘disconnect’ between how staff tend to think of sustainability and volunteers’ ideas of what it means.  They think, understandably, that it’s more about the community gardens we create, and that maybe we could do more.

Being community-led (directed by people): focusing on people’s ideas and needs.  We try to enact this in a number of ways.  We do yearly surveys asking local residents what they want to see happening at the community centre.  We also hold regular ‘Bob-alongs’ within Oblong – these are forums for volunteers to raise ideas or issues they want to discuss which affect the whole of Oblong.  Within the project collectives, people’s ideas and needs are central to decision-making and progress.  Like all the values, this one is intertwined with others and a work in progress – more empowerment, for example, would lead to more community leadership.  Staff members reflect often on the difference between ‘consultation’ and ‘co-production’.

Equality: ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents.  One colleague suggested that “equality has to be something you experience – a phenomenon” – it’s not enough just believing that it should be so.  Oblong has a deep-seated historical attachment to the idea of equality.  It’s a persistent driver for doing things differently, in the hopes that by creating at least one space in society where equality is genuinely valued, people’s experience of this will bolster their strength to insist upon more equality in the wider world.

Respect and care: how we relate to each other and the people we work with.  In Oblong’s volunteer induction, we tell volunteers that we expect everyone to be sensitive to others’ different perspectives and their (perhaps invisible) needs or feelings on any given day.  This is intangible but important.  Our recent training as a staff team has brought respectful listening and communications to the forefront of how we interact.  ‘Respect and care’ can seem like a very subjective value, but I think that would be a bad reason to leave it unsaid.

Reflecting on this list now, I think that values mirror theories in this way: it’s exciting and significant to believe in them as concepts, but it’s when you try to practice them that they become real – and infinitely more complex.

I decided that exploring Oblong’s practice of its values could make up an entire PhD’s worth of research precisely because it’s so complex.  Believing in these values isn’t difficult – even if defining them can be.  But attempting to make them concrete in the context of an economy dominated by market values creates a rich and fascinating story that I think we can all learn from.  When I told a friend I was researching how Oblong tried to keep its own values central to its work despite financial pressure, she said, “That’s what we all do, right – as people, in our lives and in our work?”

In my next post I intend to write more about the specific context Oblong works in at the moment – the pressures and constraints it faces (which we could also see as opportunities).  I think current economic and political circumstances make it a particularly interesting time to explore the ways a community organisation can navigate financial realities whilst holding firm to non-financial values.

Why write a PhD…about Oblong?

I decided to do a PhD about Oblong Community Resource Centre, in Leeds, for reasons both practical and personal.  I was an employee at Oblong, Project Co-ordinator for the process of taking over running Woodhouse Community Centre.  I’d started working there the year before, whilst doing my Master’s in Activism and Social Change.  It was a wonderful real-life context to help me understand and make up my own mind about the things I was learning – concepts like empowerment, community action, non-hierarchy, and challenging ‘the powers that be’.  I felt (and still feel) a strong connection and commitment to the organisation – the people, the place, and its values.  (Check out the information to the right for more about Oblong.)

Working at Oblong felt more meaningful than any job I’d had before.  I wanted to keep working there.  I also knew, as one of six co-managers, that we couldn’t afford to pay me for work I was good at.  Oblong needed someone to do marketing and publicity. That wasn’t my skill set, and perhaps part of me knew I needed to take a step back. The take-over of the community centre had been stressful for all of us because of uncertain funding and unforeseen problems.

One evening, I ran into my Master’s degree supervisor at the swimming pool and asked about PhD funding.  Then I hatched a plan that would allow me to keep working with Oblong and get paid by someone else.  My colleagues at Oblong were up for the idea.  The ESRC and the University of Leeds accepted my proposal for PhD funding.  Oblong made my job role redundant, and I took the summer off.

I planned to do research about how Big Society policies affected grassroots community organisations. When I wrote my proposal, David Cameron and the Conservatives had been in power for just over a year.  The ‘Big Society’ was a big buzzword in the UK – a policy concept so vague, yet so evocative, that it was easy to develop a strong opinion without really understanding what it actually meant!  The news we read about the Big Society focussed on ‘empowerment’ for ‘communities’.  At Oblong we joked, ‘Didn’t we think of that before the Conservatives did?!’  Meanwhile cuts to public services and schemes to get people running their local post offices and village halls in their ‘spare time’ seemed to miss the point.  We wondered whether anyone in government had ever lived in inner-city Leeds or had any idea what life was like for people here.

I personally felt deep-down angry about the so-called Big Society.  My experience of that type of policy was the Community Asset Transfer project I’d co-ordinated with Oblong.  As a small, grassroots charity, it was a big step for Oblong to take over running Woodhouse Community Centre.  The centre is owned by Leeds City Council, which ran it at a loss up until the asset transfer.  The deal was this: Oblong had to refurbish the building, using part-grant, part-loan funding available for this purpose, and then we could run it for 50 years rent-free, so long as we took responsibility for all the maintenance, insurance, utilities and loan repayments.  (Great deal, eh?)  Oblong’s vision was to turn the drab, little-used centre into a thriving community hub. This was the sort of thing the new Conservative government supported – a community group empowered enough to run its own community centre.  But our experience was difficult, if not nightmarish.

I described it in the Guardian as “a complicated process” – and that was before the Social Investment Business temporarily halted funding in the middle of building refurbishment, due to Oblong’s actual grant income not meeting forecasts in our financial plan.  We could only afford to pay each employee for twelve hours a week at that point.  Alongside this winter crisis, during which our locally-owned building team sustained nearly £100,000 of outstanding fees because Oblong could not access funds, legal matters proved complicated too.  It took months – and thousands of pounds – more than anticipated for the city government and Oblong’s lenders to agree legal terms which would protect the building for public use but also guarantee the security of the loan.  Oblong was stuck in the middle and, initially, footing the bill!  Meanwhile our precious few centre users were finding other buildings to use.  When we finally moved in and re-opened the centre, our hoped-for rental income was lagging far behind necessary levels.  We hadn’t yet received the longed-for grant from the Big Lottery which, from March that year, would provide salaries and expenses to continue running volunteering activities (thank goodness!).  Our financial reserves were practically gone.  It was harder than before to get grants because of government cuts affecting the charity sector.  Similar cuts to local government meant that, when the boiler – inherited with the building – broke in January, Leeds City Council wouldn’t contribute to the £6,000 bill.

That was when I applied for the PhD funding.  I wanted to give myself a chance of getting paid for something other than dealing with building issues, and I wanted to expose those blockheads making Big Society policies – whoever and whatever they all were! – for the heartless idiots they seemed to me. It’s funny to think of myself channelling my rage into…academia! (As everybody knows, there’s just nothing so powerful as a 100-page academic thesis to change the world!)

Yet, despite my anger, I had an inkling that an ‘us-and-them’ approach lacked something.  It was hard to convey this, though.  People often looked disheartened when I talked about my research project.  My PhD proposal promised to investigate the real effects of the neoliberal Big Society on struggling charities…and the prospect disheartened me too. The reason I felt angry was the threat posed to organisations like Oblong – so dear to my own values – by policies which expect us to run like a business.  We aren’t here to make money, we’re here to make space for people to grow and thrive in their lives.  But the fact that we do manage to do that, despite financial threats and difficulties, gives me hope and inspiration.  I realised that I really wanted to do research which would share some of that hope and inspiration, instead of explaining why the government was getting it wrong.

I began to unearth my deep-down desire to transcend that us-and-them feeling – a desire to find ways around a seemingly sinister, futile feeling of battle.  After all, policy-makers and funders are just people too…  In fact, Oblong has used its difficulties as fodder for better practice – this is an on-going process.  I wanted to do something practical, something that would ‘Make a Difference’.  I wanted to combine academic stimulation (which helps my over-active brain thrive) with concrete work in the community where I live, and in the community of practice I feel part of at Oblong.  My focus shifted from anger about the Big Society to fascination with the everyday ways Oblong does keep its values as the focus of our work, even while repaying a £287,000 loan.

In my next posts, I’ll write about how I used a Participatory Action Research to design a PhD project which would be useful to Oblong, with Oblong’s input.  I’ll tell about what we’ve actually done together in the past year that I’ve spent two days a week here.  And I’ll share stories about the processes, tools and everyday actions at Oblong which make it possible to focus on people and deal with financial perils.

I want to be brave enough to tell a positive story without rose-tinted glasses.  This is not an exposé – it’s not a story of if or whether a community group can hold onto its values in the face of financial pressure, but of how it does that.  Neither is it a manifesto or a model.  I don’t need to gloss over the less-than-glorious sides of this story for it to be a story of hope.  What kind of hope or interest it holds will be different depending on where you are, what you do, and how you think.  I hope the blog will connect with work you do, whether on a practical, professional, personal or philosophical level – and I hope you will connect with me, and Oblong, by interacting and commenting on this blog.  Working with Oblong has enriched my life on all of those levels.  So here’s to sharing the riches, and hopefully learning even more!