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  • Writer's pictureAndy

The Gateshead Bridgebuilder Diaries: 2. Recruiting 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.

If you’re trying to explore new and creative ways to discover what could make life better for people who experience poverty and disadvantage, if you’re trying to avoid the same old approaches that miss what matters to most people, how do you find the people who might be able to help you with this endeavour?

This was the challenge facing the Gateshead Coordination Team in late 2021, as we explored devolving decision-making about funding to place. We had decided that we needed to bring half a dozen community members or ‘Bridgebuilders’ into our team. We had decided to create paid roles for community members. But we didn’t know who these people were, so we needed to figure out how to find them. Here are the steps we took:

1. Proactively seeking potential candidates

We started by going out through our networks, and through our networks’ networks. As a team, we were well-connected to a variety of charities and community organisations who work closely with diverse communities across Gateshead. Through informal conversations, we said, “We think this is roughly the sort of person we’re looking for. Who do you know?” From those conversations, we built a list of 20-25 people, and we invited those 20-25 people to come to an event to meet us and have a chat about the role and the work.

Received wisdom says that if you're seeking to get a diverse pool of candidates, the very worst thing you can do is to use your networks. Instead, you should cast your net through anonymous, open-access means - like job websites. But the kind of people we were looking for wouldn't necessarily be looking on those websites. They might not think 'this is for me' without nomination from someone who knows them and has seen what they can do. They might not have the skills or the confidence to write a traditional job application, especially if English wasn't their first language - which basically all the jobs on job websites ask for. They might not have the self-belief to think they’re ‘good enough’ for the role. Most importantly, the kind of stuff we would be asking them to do is stuff that they already do in their spare time - it's not 'work', it's who they are. (Many of them have since expressed surprise that anyone would fund them to do it or conceptualise it as 'a job'.) We needed to bypass the traditional channels that we might use for a 'normal' job to instead find the people who embody community.

2. Bringing people together for relationship-building and an informal exchange of information

We organised what we called an ‘information event’ in the building of one of our charity partners. We had a little bit of ‘speaking from the front’, but most of the event was given over to small round table conversations to give people the space to explore their questions in greater detail. We needed to not only tell people what our thoughts were about the role, but we also needed to hear from them what they thought about what we were describing and any barriers they would potentially face in what we were proposing. If these roles were for the purpose of including community, then they needed to work for community.

One thing I remember us stressing at the eventwas that this work is messy and constantly evolving. I was really struck by the fact that this ‘messiness’ or ‘vagueness’ was what most people said they found most attractive about the role. The majority of the people told us that they loved that we didn’t pretend to have all the answers, that we were willing to keep things vague in order for the detail to be filled in later by the concrete individuals who actually stepped into the roles. The fact that we didn’t over-prescribe the role was definitely a major selling point. It showed people we were serious about community involvement and being led by the grassroots. In just the past few weeks, several Bridgebuilders have said to me that they have found the way they are permitted to do this work to be ‘liberating.’

3. Writing a vague job description

Here’s the job description we wrote and shared with potential candidates:

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.

Some of the things this might involve include:

· Listening to people’s stories and experiences

· Exploring different and creative solutions to barriers that people face

· Collaborating with other people and organisations who also want to make change

· Facilitating community conversations

· Facilitating two-way discussions between your community and people who hold positions of power and influence

· Collaborating with other similar projects, both in Gateshead and beyond

· Sitting on the Gateshead Coordination Team to help make decisions around funding projects and experiments in Gateshead

These may be things you’ve already had experience of in your community, as a community member, or possibly even that you’ve undertaken in a paid capacity. Training will be available to help you develop additional skills during the course of the work.

4. Designing an inclusive recruitment process

We were clear with people from the start that the information event was not part of the recruitment process. At the event, we outlined to people what the recruitment process would look like. The first stage would be a short ‘written’ submission from interested candidates. Those inverted commas are there because we told candidates they would have the option to submit in writing, in a voice note, or in a video recording, whichever worked best for them. We also let people know that they were welcome to submit their application in a language other than English, asking that if people took us up on this offer, to let us know in advance so we could arrange suitable translation.

We asked people to share the following information with us:

· What excites you about the role?

· What strengths would you bring to the role?

· Tell us about your community.

We decided that this was the only information we needed at this early stage. We specifically decided not to ask people for a CV or about their professional experience, because this was not what we were interested in. As the job description says, “We’re not looking for people with formal training or expertise.” It turned out that this was an accidental masterstroke. As one of our Bridgebuilders, Zahra, has subsequently said to us, “If you had asked for a CV, I wouldn’t have applied.” Zahra is a wonderfully talented and insightful individual with a wealth of voluntary and life experience, and frankly magical qualities and capabilities that add untold value to our work. But she also has very limited paid work experience. Asking for a CV would have implicitly given the message that paid professional experience was what we were really looking for. I had never considered that asking for a CV could itself be an act of exclusion. Now, I will never forget that fact.

The second stage of the process was an interview. Again, we gave people the choice for this to be in-person, over the phone, or on a video call. We also let people know that they could have a support person with them if they wished. In the interviews themselves, we thought a lot about how we would create a relaxed, informal atmosphere. We were seated in a circle of comfy chairs with cups of tea on a coffee table, rather than the more traditional across-a-desk setup. We discussed body language before we invited people in – deliberately adopting a relaxed posture, like you would be sitting with someone in a café. When people came into the room, we gave plenty of time to generally shooting the breeze, in no hurry to get into the questions themselves. All of this really helped to put people at ease. The questions we asked were deliberately person-centred: ‘What does work within a community bring to you in your own life?’ for example. We tried to elicit stories rather sales pitches. We wanted to hear the human. We encouraged people to ask questions throughout and to treat the experience as a conversation rather than an interrogation.

From the feedback we received, giving people choice was one of the most powerful things we did to make this process genuinely inclusive. No-one submitted their written application in a language other than English, everyone submitted in writing, and no-one brought a support person to their interview with them. But many of the Bridgebuilders have told us that offering these things is what was important to them. It showed that we genuinely cared about supporting people and respecting – and valuing - difference. Not being prescriptive in the job description and not being overly prescriptive in the recruitment process showed that we wanted the people we were recruiting to be decision-makers.

5. Being flexible about start dates

We ended up offering roles to seven candidates rather than six, because we thought all seven were great and would bring something unique to the team. Most of the roles were part-time. We decided to bring people in as two cohorts, staggered by six weeks, to make things more manageable for us. We tried to match people to cohort according to when they would be available to start. This worked for six out of the seven individuals. However, there was one Bridgebuilder who was working on a project that got extended while she was going through our recruitment process. She really wanted to see that project through to the end, so she talked to us about what would be possible with the Bridgebuilder role. We ended up keeping the position open for her for an additional eight months. We both respected her commitment to this other project, and we valued what we thought she would bring as a unique individual in her own right. I think she was a little shocked that we were prepared to wait this long for her, counter cultural as it is. But if you are working to value people with all their individuality, quirks, and needs, you have to be flexible.

Keep an eye out for future instalments of The Bridgebuilder Diaries to learn more.

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