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Sometimes, you have to be part of the change you want to see

Posted on 29 March 2016

One of the great things about Groundwork is that we support communities to be part of the change they want to see where they live.

Since joining four months ago, I have read numerous reports and case studies that have helped me to understand on an intellectual level why the work we do is so vital for local people and communities.

But, despite this, I’ve always been very aware that I would never be able to completely appreciate what life is like for those living in the communities we work with without going to experience it for myself. So when the recent opportunity arose for the Groundwork UK Communications team to go to Manchester to see a couple of Groundwork projects in action, I was very excited. Despite the 5am wake-up call…   

Rich pickings

Our jam-packed schedule included a morning helping to maintain an orchard in Queen's Park, in Harpurhey.  I didn’t really know what to expect. In my head I had naïve images of a Bertolli butter advert, as we all tended to thousands of fruit trees and placing picked fruit into wicker baskets. But when we pulled up at the park, I soon found the orchard was nothing at all like I was expecting and was a dozen or so fruit trees in the corner of a sparse park. They may not have seemed like much on first impressions, but set in the context of a park clearly in need of some TLC, the trees gleamed with newness – and hope.  

As I looked round the park I clocked a local museum sitting on the top of the hill, almost like a giant castle overlooking the vast green landscape. But that was a problem in itself – there was so much space, and very few people to fill it.

The remains of two football nets lay rusting in the corner crying out for some kids to come and play a game of footie. There was ample space for a picnic benches and a play area.

It has so much potential – it could be amazing.

We met up with Julie a colleague from Groundwork in Manchester, who was in charge of the day. As she set up the tea urn and passed around the biscuits, we were soon joined by local volunteers, who had no reason to be there, apart from a strong desire to restore the park to former glories. 

I know that there are many different reasons why people volunteer in their local community, with giving something back, a general interest in what’s on offer and making the place they live a better place to be usually high-up on the agenda. I soon got chatting with a local resident, who told me how much Queen’s Park meant to her, and how her dad used to take her to the swings when she was a child. Listening to her speak I saw something that I would never be able to pick up from a report – the sparkle in her eyes as she talked about a place she treasured.

Charity starts at home

Around an hour into our work – by this point, I was convinced I was the next Charlie Dimmock complete with lopping shears – a lady came over to our group with her dog and we soon found out had lived in Harpurhey her whole life. If anyone knew anything about the local community, she did, and she was more than happy to fill us in.  

Thanks to this lady we all learnt first-hand the troubles that both the local park and the local community faced on a daily basis. It was a quiet Tuesday morning, so there wasn’t much to report from what we saw, but come the evening and the weekend we learnt that the park was a thoroughfare for locals on quadbikes and was a hotbed of anti-social behaviour involving drugs, alcohol and dangerous dogs.  

I learned that despite the difficulties the park was slowly starting to be used again, thanks to migrant families who have been utilising the park with their children, unlike, she said, ‘other people who lived in the area all their lives who would rather take their kids to the pub’.  

As she spoke, it soon became very clear to me that it was going to take much more than a community orchard to inspire change. 

But it’s a start – and the fact local people turned out showed me it was a cause they could begin to rally around. 

Facing facts – but realising potential

Even if a fairy greenspace mother were to suddenly turn Queen’s Park into something amazing, it would be naïve to believe that it would instantly inspire a sense of community spirit and all the negatives and the anti-social behaviour would instantly stop.  In Groundwork’s experience sustainable change comes from involving local people in projects that affect them, rather than having projects ‘imposed’ on them.     

I also understand that councils are grappling with difficult decisions as to how to invest best use what are smaller budgets. Major change is unlikely to happen overnight, unless someone with a chequebook decided to make a considerable donation to the park.  

For me, change has to come from a grass roots level and needs to be a community driven enterprise. The orchard, no matter how small it may seem in the grander scheme of things, encouraged members of the community (including a four-legged friend) to join the conversation and to start talking about how to make the park a great place for everyone. If that’s what an orchard can do, just think of the possibilities that can come alive if people put their heads together, work together and start to put their community at the top of their agenda for themselves and the future generation.

Groundwork has worked for 35-years to inspire communities to work together to create change and since my trip to Manchester; I’ve learnt that in the most challenged and challenging communities, it can sometimes be hard to see the finish line. You have to wade through a lot of discontent, anger, apathy and good old disaffection before you feel like you’re making even the slightest bit of progress.

But I’ve now seen with my very eyes the impact that comes from seeing the possibility of what could be and being prepared to stay the course.

Sometimes, you have to be part of the change you want to see where you live. 

Post by Stacey Aplin, PR and Communications Officer

Groundwork UK