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Plugged in: approaches to community organising & listening

High Trees report launch (credit: James Hopkirk)

Photo credit: James Hopkirk

High Trees report launch (credit: James Hopkirk)

Photo credit: James Hopkirk

For change to be meaningful, it's vital that the people who are most affected are at its heart. 'Plugged in' is a mini blog series, where we'll be sharing best practice examples of how our funded partners ensure their projects are owned by the communities they serve. First up, High Trees outlines its approach to community organising and listening.

By Anna Coffey and Grace English

From its foundation, High Trees was set up to make sure that all our services are based on understanding the needs of the communities we serve and co-designed with our users. There are mechanisms in all of our services and projects, however big or small, that ensure user voice is central to everything we do. This is perhaps apparent in its purest form in our Community Organising work.

Community organising

One example of this is our ‘listening’ in the local area. Having identified a community we believe could benefit from our support (often a local housing estate, but this could also be other types of communities such as recently arrived migrants or people renting in the private sector), we go and reach out to people where they are. This could be knocking on doors or asking to be invited to places where people already meet. We listen 1-2-1 and in groups, to better understand people’s experiences, the issues they face, and what would motivate them to act.

The data we collect through these listening campaigns is then written up and shared with the groups that we support, providing them with a powerful tool that they can use to evidence the need for change. Through these listening campaigns, our team proactively seek to identify leaders with the potential and motivation to act on the issues that emerge from these conversations. We then provide mentoring and practical support to these leaders, helping them to develop organising groups with enough structure to build the collective power required to secure change.

High Trees has been using this approach to inform community action work for over 10 years now and over that time we've supported residents to land many significant wins: from securing £1.7 million worth of repairs to alleviate structural damp and mould on a large local estate to ensuring residents received thousands of pounds worth of refunds for overcharged water rates. We don’t pre-judge what issues these campaigns will focus on, or what any eventual action will look like – our role is to listen and facilitate, ensuring that all our work leaves a legacy with the individuals and groups we work with that outlasts our involvement and is owned by the communities themselves.

Community research

Alongside our community organising work, another example of our principles in practice is our community research work. There is a welcome appetite to understand the lives of the individuals we work with and to understand barriers to better meet need. However, we increasingly see communities and individuals ‘over researched’ and asked to give their time and energy to endless rounds of research and consultations with no meaningful identifiable outcomes. We believe that often the most meaningful research is undertaken by the community itself. This is called peer research.

Taking a peer research approach, we’ve recently carried out a project called the Lambeth Peer Action Collective. Forming a partnership of five local organisations, a team of embedded researchers from Kings College and a team of 12 young people – the peer researchers who carried out the work - we have undertaken research into the root cause of violence affecting young people in Lambeth. Importantly, as well as producing a research report with the findings, the collective are now working to ensure that the research results in action and can contribute to compelling decision makers to act, to create a safer Lambeth for young people.

High Trees are now working to establish a network of locally rooted organisations with an interest and expertise in community-based research that exists to ensure that research taking place in Lambeth is ethical, of high quality and has the needs and interests of communities at its core. This network will develop meaningful models and approaches for research locally (such as peer- research and participatory action research) to ensure that community members directly benefit from research undertaken.

If you would like to learn more about this work, the change we wish to see, and how we work to achieve this, more information can be found in our latest Impact Report here and on our website – www.high-trees.org. Here you’ll find Lambeth Peer Action Collective Research Report, our latest listening report from Tulse Hill estate and more information on all of the work touched on above.

About High Trees

High Trees is a Charity and Community Development Trust in Tulse Hill Lambeth, set up by local residents 25 years ago. Communities in Lambeth face multiple long-standing structural disadvantages – but many services aren’t designed to reach these communities. Our work helps under-represented individuals and communities to have the skills and connections to strengthen their voice. We believe that real, lasting change can only be achieved by ensuring communities themselves are enabled to lead this change.

Our services are delivered through five interlinked areas: Community Action, Education & Training, Employment Support, Children, Young People & Families Services and Partnerships, Research & Development