We Need Creativity and Empathy to Engage Communities

The recent SustainRCA talk, Powering Communities through Co-creation, helped reconfirm for me that people have the ability to create positive social change, when their energy is channeled in innovative ways.

Tower Hamlets is the third most deprived borough in England. Unemployment and crime is high and it is home to a higher than average number of people with learning disabilities, along with many whose English and literacy is limited.

It is here that I am on a placement at the Bromley-by-Bow Community centre, where there are some acute and fundamental problems facing the community. Despite the range of excellent services at the centre, it is difficult to engage people in them, particularly in the shaping and improvement of them. I have been developing methods that will enable all members of this community to be involved in meaningful and productive conversations about their lives, their neighbourhood and services at the centre.

We asked centre users as part of a tea party consultation event, called Communi-TEA: ‘What do you think makes the perfect cup of Communi-TEA?’ Answers were written on giant teabags, put into the giant Papier-mâché tea cup, which had been lovingly crafted by the learning disability group at the Centre. 

The aim of the consultation was to identify the crucial needs that a new service at the centre should tackle. Was it social isolation? Unemployment? Unhealthy lifestyles? Getting details about people’s lives on a piece of paper, and running back to a computer to create statistics can feel like theft. People are hesitant to give their views when they don’t know what will be done with them. The intention for Communi-TEA was to be the beginning of a service that everyone was invited to create.

To gain the confidence and engagement of the community, I designed a number of different activities to suit the range of personalities, ages, cultures and learning styles of this very diverse community. We asked attendees to write down their future aspirations on their tablecloths, while another table chatted at length about community cohesion in the local area, aided by a translator and a menu of questions.

Where one person might need an interactive group activity to help them find their voice, somebody else may find individual reflection more helpful. Where some can chat easily in a group situation, many others may not understand, or have the confidence to speak out. In the case of those with learning disabilities, often no matter how clear and simple the task is, they might need someone to describe it to them in several ways before they grasp the concept. At Communi-TEA, everyone had a place, a voice, and could contribute, so naturally, they helped each other. As a result, the responses were honest, surprising and inspiring.

Public services, facing cuts, are falling on tough times and our communities at grassroots level are increasingly picking up where public services are leaving off. Engaging communities is no easy task, especially when time, resources and money are low. However, using sensitive, creative and empathetic communication methods can help community centres, local authorities and public services create stronger communities. Putting in the effort to work with service users in meaningful and unique ways is key to unleashing potential.