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Community Mobilisers: A developing service


This report summarises the most recent phase in an ongoing creative partnership between the Open University and Community Action Milton Keynes. This partnership was first forged in 2003 when the Open University was commissioned by Milton Keynes Children’s Fund to carry out a qualitative evaluation of a new initiative: the Community Mobiliser (CM) Service. Back in 2003, the Community Mobiliser concept felt timely, in its insistence on recognising the complex problems faced by children, families and communities which can’t be fixed by prescribed sectoral approaches. Then and now, the Community Mobiliser model is innovative in its crossdisciplinary, community focused perspective, deeply respectful of the very particular and complex circumstances that shape people’s lives, their feelings about themselves, their children, their environment and their ability to improve their future. The Open University’s initial study resulted in four reports between 2006 - 9, each focusing on a different aspect of the Community Mobiliser initiative, and on different stakeholder perspectives. This report is the product of a second study carried out by Katy Simmons, Kate Smith and Deborah Drake , during the summer of 2011. Despite inevitable changes over the years, the Mobilisers’ fundamental commitment to ‘targeted universalism’ has been sustained. The service recognizes everyone’s shared entitlement to a good quality of life supported by high quality services, but recognizes the specific situation of marginalised groups. This principle sits alongside a commitment to the view that community members themselves are the best people to identify what changes are needed to improve local services and conditions. Put simply the Community Mobiliser service aims to build social capital within communities by harnessing the potential within those communities. In the recent research, the researchers saw and recorded many examples of increasing independence, arising out of the mobilisers’ work – women returning to education and employment, communities improving their environment, children extending their experiences and developing new confidence.

Evaluating and measuring change in community development work is a tricky business, much more difficult than for social programmes where the intervention and indicators of positive outcome are tightly controlled. Being responsive, innovative and relatively unstructured and spontaneous are hallmarks of the Community Mobilisers’ success, and required an equally responsive and innovative approach to evaluation, with strong emphasis on participant observation and in-depth interviews. This report (like our earlier reports) confirms that narrative accounts, based on interviews, joining in with community mobiliser events, numerous informal conversations and embedding ourselves in community life can offer deeper, more nuanced understanding of the issues at stake and the complexity of what happens when ‘things go well’ in supporting community members to strive toward new aspirations. Our aim was to get sufficiently close to the everyday iterations of community development work to be able to document its dynamic quality. We have aimed to offer a deeper understanding of the work of Community Mobilisers as they interact on a daily basis with the lives of children , parents and other community members, recognising each as an expert in their own lives, and helping giving voice to their concerns and aspirations. The unique (non-judgmental) approach of the mobilisers and their relationship with community members is a distinctive ingredient of their effectiveness. Their non-statutory role also opens up possibilities, enabling them to support families’ sense of agency in ways that other mandatory services may find more difficult. When we began our work in 2003, Community Mobilisers felt like an exciting, if somewhat risky innovation. Nearly ten years on, the approach is well-established and well-respected, recognized as a worthwhile investment. The Open University is pleased to have played a small part in supporting the successes and the challenges of the Community Mobiliser service. Martin Woodhead Professor of Childhood Studies, The Open University

The 2011 study

This study, carried out in the summer of 2011, continues earlier work commissioned from the Open University by Milton Keynes Children’s Fund from 2005 to 2008. Our 2011 study, based in Wolverton, the Lakes, and Central Bletchley, revisits the service three years on and is a snapshot of where the service is now, what it has achieved and what its future directions might be. As we did in the earlier work, we have attempted to capture the impact of the service on communities and on individuals. To do so, we have listened to the voices of parents, children and community members, as well as the mobilisers themselves and their managers. The mobilisers’ work is based on the assumption that children, families and local residents are best placed to identify exactly what their needs are, how they think they might best be met and to initiate the changes they would like to see themselves – on their own terms. Mobilisers support children, families and residents to design, develop, commission and deliver projects by helping them to share their ideas and get the skills, money, people and other resources to make them happen There are currently 12 mobilisers working on estates in Milton Keynes. They support a wide range of activities and projects. Our Research: People and Communities Our research findings are based on a concentrated period of field research when we spoke to a range of community members, including children, parents, grandparents, and other residents. We also spoke to Parish councillors, corporate volunteers, media reps, care workers, family centre workers, sure start staff and social care workers. We spoke to 74 residents, including four who were formally interviewed. Our report represents the views of residents ranging in age from under 10 to over 80, with the majority falling in the 30s-60s range. We also spoke to people from a range of ethnic backgrounds, including: Bangladeshi, Polish, Russian and Spanish, but the majority (about 90%) of those we spoke to were white British.

What people said and what we found Excerpt from Research Notes: With regard to other more marginalized groups, I spoke with two mums at a barbeque event, who told me that their community mobiliser had not only helped them with encouragement to take courses but that she helped them with more personal health and emotional issues which were preventing them in engaging with anything outside the house. Both were now in a position to possibly get into employment (one was considering training as a social worker) and were feeling so positive with life. They had met new friends and their children were able to socialize. Their confidence had grown so much that they could hardly believe their own transformation… Our research showed that a significant part of the CM role involves supporting individual community members and families toward self-improvement, including: skills attainment, striving toward educational goals and improving employability. Self improvement often began with volunteering at activities organised by the CMs. I used to work so I didn’t do any activities at first…and my eldest used to come home and speak about the Community Mobiliser and all I was thinking was ‘who are they?’ …I then became involved with just the activities as a parent…[then] during the holidays I used to do day trips and art projects. You know, doing art…And then I started with the Dragons Club…which is the art club…And what happened was the Community Mobiliser was off and there was no club. I said to the Community Mobiliser when she came back: ‘How about I run it when you are not here so it carries on running?’ (Resident) Involvement with their local mobiliser could be life changing. For one parent, the contact had started some years ago when her child introduced her to the mobiliser at after school activities. From there, she had become a regular volunteer and eventually returned to education, now hoping to become a qualified teaching assistant.

M. was born and brought up on The Lakes and in Wolverton. Her involvement with the Community Mobiliser, initially due to her needing support during a challenging family situation has, in fact, had a truly positive impact on other aspects of her life. Lacking in self-confidence and rarely socialising due to her son’s diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome, her involvement with the mobiliser started at the local school. Without the support of a community mobiliser, I don’t think I could have coped with a lot of the problems that I was having and she put me in the right direction of agencies that gave me support. If you had a problem, she would help .. If she didn’t know she would find out the answers’. M. has built her skill set significantly both in terms of education and employment by participating in and running local groups. With the guidance of the mobiliser she has taken numerous courses - NVQs in English, Maths, Food and Hygiene and Community Development. She has also acted as a member of the interview panel for selecting Community Mobilisers, and is currently employed by the local school, supporting a child with Asperger’s Syndrome in the classroom. Her goal is to get a formal qualification in working with children with special needs and with the support of the mobiliser; she believes she will be able to achieve this.

As CMs have become embedded into communities, they have taken on a ‘signposting’ role and in so doing have made more accessible and comprehensible a wide network of support services and social opportunities, helping residents to help themselves: I am enjoying the book keeping course you signposted – hope it will lead to employment. (entry from community dialogue diary) The focus on education ran through a number of interviews, with parents being encouraged to improve their qualifications. The Community Dialogue records that were made available to us show that local mobilisers are often the starting point of access to education and training. The records showed the CMs helping individuals to maintain momentum in striving for their personal goals, for example, practising interview skills and helping to access funds for training costs. This excerpt drawn from our research field notes, provides a useful illustration:

I met B on several occasions. She participated in almost every event I attended .. She had an abundance of enthusiasm and energy and with her two children they would be there most days, planting and digging and chatting to everyone. B told me it was a different story a few years ago. Suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, she rarely left the house and didn’t have the confidence to talk to people. She met the mobiliser at the local school when she was looking for a new job and needed help filling out a c.v. - it was all too much and she was thinking of not applying after all. She said ‘I can’t fill this in - I’m no good at anything’. The mobiliser told her ‘ you run a house don’t you?.... bring up children....well there you go then, there’s your skills? and that was it - she filled in the form and got the job. Over the last few years, the mobiliser has encouraged her to take various courses (understanding community development, first aid, health and well-being) and her aim is to get a paid job working for the local community in some capacity, ‘giving people advice... helping people...pointing them in the right direction.’

Supporting communities In addition to supporting individual goals toward selfimprovement, CMs support community-led initiatives: The idea for the choir actually came from someone in the community [who] said I’d love to see a choir happen. And then myself and…another mobiliser were able to say how can we support you to do that? So we helped them find funding and then…we looked for a location…[and] We’ve just celebrated a year as a choir. (Mobiliser) Our Research report explored three projects that illustrate the way in which the CMs worked to support residents to fulfil their aspirations for their communities: the Garry Close Project, the Saplingettes, and Refurbishing Ruthven. For details of the others, see our full Report. Here we focus on Garry Close. The Garry Close project I’m working on a project at the moment … where we’ve got a bare area of ground which is bang smack in the centre of a group of houses – and we thought a great way of doing it is, if you give a group of local residents a pot of money, [which was] £1,500 from the Parish Deprivation Fund and the Ward Councillor, [they could decide what to do and make it happen]…They’ve laid a patio area which is going to be painted with snakes and ladders for the children, bought two benches … Bought plants for flower beds, put up a swing … The work and plan is all done by the residents and I support them … And because they’ve done it themselves – even the children have planted the plants – the plants aren’t being pulled up, the children are coming and watering the plants. They’re all looking after it and people are coming out and using the space … Families are coming out and doing it. (Mobiliser) The Garry Close project took place over a period of 9 months, during which the mobiliser’s work moved the project from an initial query by two residents to a fully-fledged award winning community garden. The initial observation by residents: We would love to see the green spaces put to better use. Many areas are run down and could do with some work doing to them...

was the starting point for a project that would involve others in volunteering, lead to successful fundraising and finally culminate in a grand opening of a regenerated community space, reported by local newspapers and a source of inspiration for other potential projects. From the initial expression of interest, the mobiliser’s focus was on local residents taking ownership of the project themselves. As the project progressed, ownership of the project increased, as did pride in the developing garden: I am starting to enjoy coming out here now….it’s starting to look lovely. It’s amazing what you can get done when you all pull together…(Resident)

In undertaking large projects of this nature, a key aspect of the mobiliser role was to help maintain enthusiasm and momentum in the moments when the project became daunting : It’s just harder than we thought. If I knew it was gonna be this difficult I don’t think I would have done this project. (Resident, Garry Close) One resident explicitly addressed how the mobiliser had gone about the task: I can see why you got us doing this work ourselves now – I didn’t like it at the time but it makes sense because we care about it and want it to keep looking good. During the course of the project, the mobiliser liaised with the council’s housing and environmental services, helped a group of residents apply for a grant, worked with other local volunteer groups and helped publicise the grand opening, a big event involving local councillors, residents and other community groups. Their emphasis was on enabling residents to achieve a goal that community members themselves had identified.

Reflecting on the Service Since our original study in 2005 – 2008, the scope and reach of the service has significantly expanded. The original Children’s Fund money was targeted at a very specific group, children from 5 - 13 and their families. Our 2011 study has shown how the service has reached further into communities. In addition, it has broadened the support it offers, extending, for example to the community choir and to the environment projects such as Garry Close. The service has expanded its reach while at the same time holding on to the model of approach that gave it such clear initial focus. Given the complexity of on-the-ground work undertaken by community mobilisers, such underlying clarity about the purpose and nature of their role is essential. Community Mobilisers continue to be community builders. They are building trust, in individuals and communities, as well as building capacity and confidence, again in individuals, groups and communities. Once these issues are identified, mobilisers support community members in making them happen. Finally, they bring together individuals and all the many agencies working in Milton Keynes, as ‘the glue’, in the words of one of our interviewees, that holds communities together.

What distinguishes the Milton Keynes service is the clear and explicit rationale for the service and a distinctive ethos that makes it very different from other services. That this difference is noticed and valued highly by communities is one of the most striking features of this study. ‘Maybe they need to be worldwide’

Community Mobilisers: A developing service

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Report written by: Deborah Drake, Katy Simmons, Kate Smith The Open University

Community Mobilisers: A Developing Service - The OU Report  

This report summarises the most recent phase in an ongoing creative partnership between the Open University and Community Action Milton Keyn...

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