I was born in Livingston in Scotland, and after moving to Bristol when I was five, we moved to Birmingham when I was nine. My dad was a Methodist Minister and I think that probably got me into wanting to be involved in the community. I'm not a churchgoer, but I realised fairly early on that I need community and lots of other people need community. I like being involved in getting people together and making things happen.
I've always had a very keen sense of social justice. I am very aware of the inequalities around me, and also that I've been very privileged in terms of having a stable background. I've always been outraged by injustice and I remember sticking up for others at school when I thought teachers were treating them unfairly. I think that this was partly from my dad who is very much a political being and my mum who has always been fiercely determined to treat people fairly
Community is about belonging. It can be created anywhere, in any space, in any size of space. The most important thing is belonging and supporting each other to improve things. I think that's because we are social beings. We like to grow up alongside each other and have a good time, and in days gone by would have shared food, childcare and all sorts together. Community is about feeling that sense of connection - when you don't have that it's very tough. I've had experiences of being lonely or homesick or slightly isolated so I've had a small sense of what it can feel like.
I've been in Bearwood since 2008. I got involved and developed a number of different initiatives. It started when there was a consultation by the council about the future of Lightwoods House and Park, and what it could be. I hadn’t been in Bearwood long, and I walked into the marquee there and no one came up to speak to me and no one welcomed me. I just went up to the organiser and asked “Can I start talking to people and just gather some information?” I just wanted to get others more involved. And as a result of that, I collected stories of people's use of Lightwoods Park. Then I shared those stories - I wrote them up, shared them on a website and got a group of people together to think about what Lightwoods House could be. And I was told at the time that doing this was a really very valuable contribution to the £3 million lottery grant application to revitalise the house and park.
When I was at the marquee collecting stories I got talking to a local expert on musical heritage. We talked about the need to bring people together and lamenting the fact that the bandstand in the park was never used. So we created the ‘Bearwood Shuffle’ which is a free community music event in the park where a number of different style bands play on the bandstand. And so we got the bandstand back in use. That created quite a lot of community action and the momentum from that is still going on.
Then Mary Portas decided that she was going to transform high streets. This is where the idea of Bearwood Community Hub was born, all those years ago! Some people suggested having meetings to discuss what could be done here in Bearwood. I went to one of those meetings and out of that, we created ‘We are Bearwood’ which is a community organisation that puts on lovely events like small toddler parties and the massive Bearwood Street Festival where we shut down the High Street and had about 8000 people there. It was incredible.
It’s all about getting people together. This was at the same time that social media was building across the world so I decided to set up the Bearwood Facebook page. It has over 21,000 people connected, and although sometimes it’s a nightmare - especially for the long-suffering admins, it’s also a really good place to share information and what you're doing.
I enjoy bringing people together. For want of a better word, I am good at dragging people along by saying, “right, you'll be good at this and you'll be good at that, let’s do that together.” And then holding on to people who have got involved. I'm definitely a starter. I think some people would question whether or not I am a completer or a finisher!
By the time of the second Street Festival, the Community Hub idea was developing.
Throughout all this voluntary activity, the one thing that we've really struggled with as volunteers is having the capacity to reach out to people who don't already know what's going on. If you're not on Facebook you might not know that in Bearwood there's so much that goes on. There is so much going on now and it’s pretty much through social media you get to know about it. So the digital divide is a massive problem. And we always felt if we just had a place, if we had a space where people are on the High Street where people could just happen upon us and access information, friendship or support or signposting, then things could be better. So the idea of the community hub was born.
We thought co-working might be a good way to raise some income so we started by doing a pilot co-working and creche at Lightwood's House. We only did five Monday mornings, but it sold out pretty much instantly, partly because it was run by a great creche leader. We also had a community design day with a repair shop and model making for the kids. The feedback and learning from doing this meant I could then go to the lottery and say we needed a grant. I waited about nine months until I had enough capacity, at the same time registering as a non-profit community interest company and creating the board of Directors. We also started doing more in-depth community design workshops and inviting people along and working out what this could be. During the pandemic, we also raised money to fund the Community Engagement Lead so I could get on with the most strategic stuff, and she could work on events online.
At the same time, I approached St Mary's Church. The church hadn't been using what I would call the community spaces behind the church for seven or eight years, and we really needed space to bring people together. I fostered a good relationship with the Church of England Birmingham Diocese who have been super helpful, and St Mary’s Church. I basically said, “can we take care of your building, please?” I eventually got a 'yes let's talk about it'. And now we’re in and Bearwood Community Hub had 2,000 visits in its first six months.
We managed to open up because SCVO granted us the money last summer to be able to. So we opened the playscheme, the co-working space and the community bakery. The community bakery is run by refugee and migrant women. We have a creche for some of those women's young children. We opened up the creche to be a ‘small stay and play’ for anyone in the community. We also have a community garden so people can come and garden when they want. We have a coffee morning. We have a digital skills drop-in cafe. We have a ‘bring and share’ community lunch, and we have a well-being walk. We even have a ‘free shop’. We have the Listening Ear Project where a volunteer gives up two mornings a week for people to offload. And that's free for anyone that needs it. All of this stuff has been suggested and is led by local people.
There are three things that the community has said through many different events and discussions that are really important. One of these is arts and culture. So having access to creative work whether it is participating in creative activities or starting their own groups like our art club. Then there is well-being in the broadest sense. So that can be about the government-funded playscheme so that the kids that are on free school meals will get a hot meal and lots of active fun during the summer holidays. The third pillar is having a more inclusive economy. So this is recognising that some people just don't get the chance to step up into the local economy even if they have lots to contribute. So this might be providing employment opportunities for the women involved in the bakery, or the opportunity to get work experience and confidence in running an enterprise. It might be the co-working space that we have which is enabling people just to get on with their jobs better than they can do in their bedroom, and offers free space for those on low incomes.
I love what I do. I absolutely thrive on it. It's the dream of welcoming people, connecting people, and helping people feel comfortable. Every single week we have examples of people saying “this has made such a massive difference to me.” And that's great because that's what we should be as a society. I believe we are here to help each other and have a good life. But not everyone gets that chance.
There is absolutely no way any of this would happen without so many incredible people giving their time to help and to be a part of it. And that can be the smallest thing or really big time commitments. And it just wouldn't happen without space enabling people who make it happen to come together.
My dad would also take me on walks along the local canals and that further encouraged my own interest in canals themselves and the wider Black Country landscapes.
My dad would also take me on walks along the local canals and that further encouraged my own interest in canals themselves and the wider Black Country landscapes. My dad would also take me on walks along the local canals and that further encouraged my own interest in canals themselves and the wider Black Country landscapes.