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!

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8 thoughts on “Why write a PhD…about Oblong?

  1. Cindy erickson

    Stella, I am so proud of you. You have the maturity and insight that can change the world for the better. I like that you dumped the blame game and are focusing on what grassroots projects CAN accomplish despite big government! Kudoos to you!

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    1. Stella Darby Post author

      Thanks for the encouraging words! I guess I think it’s important to be able to recognise what isn’t helpful – like those government policies, in this case – and think about why, without getting so caught up in my criticisms that it keeps me from putting energy into practices that do feel productive and empowering. I’m going to try and tell a story here that weaves the importance of both perspectives together…I think that will be tricky, but worth the effort!

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  2. melissajeick

    Stella, This is a great example of how *possible* it really is to combine our personal passions and callings with practical applications if we really look for solutions. I’m in a similar boat of trying to do so, and I’ve found that if I have the faith to stick with it when things are unsure, it starts to get sorted out. Looking forward to reading about this and seeing what comes from your work.

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  3. martinatgreenleeds

    The introduction whets the appetite, but I do not know enough of the project ( I was a City Councillor in 1996 but did not work on these committee’s) and look forward to the historical review as an introduction to the values. Talking to someone involved in establishing co-ops, at the weekend, it is clear that retaining the core establishment values is a major problem.

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    1. Stella Darby Post author

      Cheers Martin. I’ll be writing quite a bit about the ways we try to ensure we keep coming back to our values – I think it’s always an ongoing effort and a work in progress.

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