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  • Andy

The Gateshead Bridgebuilder Diaries: 1. Why do we need bridgebuilders?

The Gateshead Community Bridgebuilder project has been running since early 2020. The work has been muddy and confusing, and we have been painstakingly wading our way through it, which has meant we have had very little time to tell other people about it. We’re starting now with this new series we’re calling ‘The Bridgebuilder Diaries’ – a retrospective of what we’ve done, what has happened, and what we’ve learnt.

The Lankelly Chase Foundation approached me at the tail-end of 2019 with a fascinating proposition – would I like to help them establish “devolved decision-making around funding” in Gateshead, the place where I live and work? I was intrigued and confused in equal measures, but I’m always up for a challenge and do some of my best work in uncertainty, so I said yes.

Their insight was that decisions about funding for a place like Gateshead - a large borough in the North East of England, nestled just to the south of Newcastle – were not best made by a group of people in London (Lankelly) who had no knowledge or experience of the reality of the place. They had already started experimenting with Place funding – supporting geographical places around the country to step into decision-making about what that specific place needed, underpinned by an annual budget from Lankelly.

I spent the first six months pulling together a team of ten people from across the Gateshead system, choosing people based primarily on their character and values rather than the position they held or their level of seniority. In doing this, I knew I was opting for speed over a more considered approach to representation. This team (the ‘Gateshead Coordination Team’) then spent the following six months working through a process we received from the Lankelly Board of Trustees, considering our responses to a series of questions in order to provide assurances to the Lankelly Board that our aspirations were consistent with Lankelly’s aspirations - to tackle the forces and structures that drive disadvantage and marginalisation. Through this process, we collectively built our understanding of ‘systems’, the importance of experimentation, our tolerance for risk, and what we thought place-centred decision-making meant.

It was April 2021 when we finally received sign-off from the Board that they were happy to give this group decision-making authority over an annual budget of about half a million pounds. For me, this was a momentous occasion, something we’d been building towards for what felt like ages. So in the next meeting, I asked the team, “We have the money, what are your ideas for what we might do with it?”. People had no idea. A couple of vague ideas were floated, but they were offshoots of what people were already doing in their day jobs. Here we had licence and capacity to experiment with tackling systemic issues, and we were stymied.

I’m not going to lie, this sent me into a bit of a tailspin. This was the moment we had been building towards – how could it be the case that this group had no ideas about what next? Chewing over this question day after day, it slowly occurred to me that we didn’t have the right mix of people around the table. We had many great people, no doubt, but it was a very middle-class, professional group. You know, lots of people like me. It slowly dawned on me that if ’Gateshead’ was going to be making decisions about what Gateshead needed, then this group needed to reflect the diverse communities that exist across Gateshead rather than predominantly Gateshead institutions and organisations. ‘Place’ doesn’t mean ‘institutions.’ Above all, ‘Place’ means ‘communities.’ But when we think about decision-making, often our heads immediately go to our institutions – because these are the entities that currently hold most of the power. If we truly wanted to tackle the structures that drive marginalisation, then we needed people from marginalised communities in this decision-making body. In order to do this, we needed more and different people round the table. Later on we would discover that that wouldn’t be enough; we needed to build a new table too.

I spoke to the other members of the team about this idea and suggested that we spend a big chunk of our annual budget shaping up new paid roles for community members. These roles would give community members the capacity to join the team and learn about and engage with the work in depth. It would also give them the capacity to design their own experiments and initiatives based on their community insights – and to bring proposals for additional funding to the wider team. I started off calling these roles ‘Organisers’ because of my background in community organising. Somewhere along the way, we decided to give them a different name: Community Bridgebuilders.

After a few tweaks, the team was onboard with the overall idea, so we set about trying to make contact with the sorts of people we thought we were looking for. (I’ll share more details in a later post about the recruitment process we shaped up.) We went out through our networks with this:

Do you care about your local community? Are you tired of the same old approaches that miss what matters to most people? Are you creative, open to learning, and interested in exploring new ways of doing things?

The Gateshead Coordination Team is a group working to explore new and creative ways to discover what could make life better for people who experience poverty and disadvantage in Gateshead. We are seeking to expand our capacity so that we can work in more local communities and communities of interest across the borough.

To do this, we are recruiting six people to work as ‘Bridgebuilders’ to bring a community perspective to our work. We’re not looking for people with formal training or expertise. We are looking for people who are active in their local community, based on what they do on a daily basis.

The role will involve working with a community you’re already part of, surfacing and understanding the everyday issues that are impacting ordinary people, and to trying to collectively find creative ways to combat these issues. We believe that communities that experience disadvantage and marginalisation should be involved in making change and taking action towards a better life for everyone. The role of a Bridgebuilder would involve tuning in to this and helping to make it happen.

We met about 20 interested individuals at an information event. About half of these applied to become a Bridgebuilder. And we ended up offering paid positions to seven people (a mixture of full- and part-time roles). We now have people who represent the Turkish and Pakistani communities on our team, and one who represents multiple communities from the African diaspora. We have people with lived experience of coming to the UK as a refugee or an asylum seeker. We have multiple people who live with a disability. Bringing in these people totally transformed the makeup of the team. We spent around £250,000 – half our annual budget – just to get these people into the room. Once they were in the room, their presence made us realise that the room itself was not fit for purpose. What worked for a bunch of middle-class professionals does not necessarily work for a much more diverse mixture of people. The arrival of the Bridgebuilders has compelled us to collectively design and build new ways of working (much more face-to-face, much more tea drinking) that function much better for diverse people and communities. I will not pretend that we have nailed this particular issue – the designing and evolving continues to this day.

Why do we need Bridgebuilders? Because if we keep having the same kind of people in decision-making seats, we will keep getting the same old, tired approaches. We need decisions to be made by the people to whom (the outcomes of) those decisions matter. We need decisions to be made by groups that include people with experience of the thing the decision is about. We need Bridgebuilders because if we do not directly include people from communities in decision-making, then we exclude them. We need Bridgebuilders because inclusion cannot be tokenistic or done via representatives who already have power in the existing system, no matter how brilliant, knowledgeable or skilled they are. Instead, inclusion must be part of a fundamental rethink of how decision-making works and who gets to participate in decision-making about the things that matter to them.

Keep an eye out for future instalments of The Bridgebuilder Diaries to learn more about how this grand experiment is going.

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