Community, Politics, Social Media

Social networks, walls & nations at war

I’m having a stab at a definition here, but a social network is pattern of lines of connection between people which is held together by the participants’ interests and some rules governing what it means to belong to the network.

Simply having a connection with someone though a social network is commonplace. Many people can say, for example, that they have some connection with the Royal Family or a well known celebrity; this in itself is not surprising. Having a connection to a network and properly belonging to it are not the same thing; Living in a country and belonging to it are not the same thing.

A defined social network (as opposed to casual network of random connections) has elements of enclosure that makes for what some might call a “circle”. The rules of membership may not be formally written down or acknowledged but dig deep and they will be found; Social networks can therefore be open or closed.

Closed social networks can be open in the sense that anyone can participate, but the level to which people are accepted as members may be questioned. There will be thresholds of acceptance. So, some can be present but not fully accepted.

As the identity of the network becomes more established, a core group may begin to assert ownership over the network and it will often be led by a particular individual. Vanity of the membership will not allow the group to close itself off from the world but may instead attempt to seek fame and attention – characterised by status and exclusivity.

As popularity grows, some firm rules of membership will be formed in order to protect the group from outside influences that may seek to dilute the identity of the group or perhaps challenge the power of the core group or leader. The boundaries of membership become walls in order to protect the membership.

In time, the social network becomes a nation at war with its neighbours.


Thousands of Small Lights

The Archbishop of Canterbury is drawing attention to statistics showing the numbers of churches involved in social action. He mentions the food banks and money management courses, drop ins for the lonely and the winter night shelters among other work. This is a brilliant thing and shows that the faith communities continue to notice and serve people who are disadvantaged. But is it the full picture?

There is no doubt that churches of all denominations and other faith groups are specially motivated by their faith to serve the poor.

The report seems to focus on the Church as local CofE organisations rather than a movement of faithful people in everyday society. It has tried to establish links between these episcopal bodies and local partner organisations. This is helpful but I think this approach to data gathering might limit the view of what’s actually going on in terms of faith responses. Church responses and faith responses are not the same thing.

Across West Yorkshire there are countless small organisations and thousands of volunteers who don’t claim to do the work motivated by faith. There are many small churches that don’t have any such formal activities or partnerships and yet their members faithfully serve their neighbours and participate in secular activities not recorded as faith based responses. They are thousands of small lights.

I welcome report and encouraged by it. However, I think the real story is much, much bigger. There is a legion of people in this country who are motivated by something that goes beyond just good work. Even those people who claim to have no faith are perhaps responding God’s presence which is there is all of us. Without doubt it can’t be owned exclusively by the Church of England or any other faith group.

So yes, a great insight into what the churches are doing but let’s not forget that faith based social action goes way beyond this encouraging little window.


What does integration mean in Bradford?

Picture by Kaneez Khan

I’ve come from and interesting gathering in Bradford to talk about the government’s integration strategy. The group was made up of muslim women, people representing refugee communities, disability groups, council leaders – in fact an impressively diverse range of people representing Bradford communities. These are my unedited notes.

The first question to the group what about what we mean by integration. The first answer was tolerance of other beliefs. Bradford is certainly a pace of many faiths. Integration was felt to be an observable fact for many people at local level where faith groups already work together – but it must be said that the groups represented at the meeting were biased towards integration through their work.

Financial pressure and council cuts are causing a lot of anxiety and some thought that this made people resentful and likely to look for scapegoats – leading to some racism.

The government definition of integration was thought to be idealistic. These are high ideals but people are being left to deal with very basic, ordinary problems.

“Understanding difference and discovering similarities” is a two way process.

When we talk about integration we first think about racial integration, but we need a broader view of what integration means. There are issues to do with the age, gender and wealth which separate people. Geographical segregation is a serious problem inhibiting the movement and aspirations of people.

There are 25,000 people on Bradford who speak poor English. 62% of those are women and 38% men.

A consequence of poor integration is the impact on people’s confidence and aspirations. People need to feel that they have an opportunity to do what they want to do and go where they want to go. We don’t want to dictate that people will integrate but we must give people access to opportunities which are not constrained by status, faith culture or financial means. There are gated communities, for example in Ilkley – so what can we do to enable a broader territory for integration? Can we make moving around the district a viable choice?

Trust is an important value. Many people in our communities have low levels of trust towards the police and authorities. Local organisation that can build trust within the communities can provide valuable pathways towards new opportunities.

Some of the barriers towards integration include, cuts in services, language abilities, employment opportunities, prejudice fuelled by the media. There are links between education, employment and opportunity.

Public events like sport provide a valuable opportunity to bring people together.

Many people said that there was low awareness of what opportunities and services exists. Even though Bradford does better than most, effective communication and information sharing remains a challenge.

Working with children and young people appears to be a key area of work if long and lasting integration can be achieved. The Schools Linking Network brings children of different backgrounds together.

Many small project like Shine in West Bowling provide an opportunity for people to come together but also an opportunity for service providers to drop in.

We discussed the subject of leadership and in particular among women. There were an number of Muslim women present who spoke well. I did feel that while the men in the group were not intentionally dominating, the women did have to find some courage to speak.

There are strong family influences which can inhibit or liberate young people to integrate. There is a need to challenge the attitudes of some men.

To measure integration efforts we might look for improved employment rates, learning new skills, language proficiency.

Community, Faith & Church

Bread Church

This is an image I like. In took it at St Augustine’s in Bradford as The Bread Church was setting up. This is a small congregation made up of local people some of whom don’t have any other connection with the church. There I met Ann Challenger who led the group and has since died. Ann was like a mother figure to the group and each week would oversee the making of bread and the shared meal.

The group was in the process of changing its name to One Table and although the group was not made up of regular worshippers necessarily, this was a group living in a way inspired by the faith of its leader. These everyday activities – making bread, setting the table, eating together – are rituals which can help connect people into the meaning and values of the Christian faith in a way that some church formats struggle.

It was deeply moved by Ann’s little church and the conversations that went on over bread and soup.

Community, Faith & Church

Hope on the Edge – Prayer Our City

Wellsprings Together Bradford and Welfare Reform Impact Bradford are local organisation (or which I’m a part) help inspire and coordinate poverty responses among the faith groups. Twice a year they put on an event called Hope on the Edge at Bradford Cathedral which aims to bring together those working to alleviate poverty and transform communities.

On Sunday May the 7th our gathering this time will focus on HOPE for our Bradford Episcopal Area. Representatives of churches, groups and organisations from across the district are invited for a time of creative reflection and prayer.

You will be able to engage with a range of varied prayer styles – explore stillness; reflect through art and music; pray corporately, urgently and creatively.  Listen to Stories of Hope emerging in Bradford – seeds that indicate the new potential in times of adversity and disappointment.

Join us for an evening of creative prayer in Bradford Cathedral on Sunday May 7th from 7.00 pm to 8.30 pm.

Just turn up or let us know you’re coming on this link

More info



Leeds Clothing Exchange at Woodhouse Community Centre

Very pleased to see this article in the Guardian about The Leeds Clothing Exchange (see link) at the Woodhouse Community Centre.  This is one of the groups that Oblong Leeds hosts at the centre and works to support.

The Leeds Clothing Exchange , which gives people access to fresh affordable clothes, has become very popular in Woodhouse.  The video I see was made by Big Blue Whale in Leeds.  I’m encouraged that local groups like this including those producing video and photography can find a place in the big media.

The article is part of a Live Better series which looks great.


CofE communications. Why are we doing it?

Just has a couple of days talking about communications in the new CofE diocese and separately at the Woodhouse Community Centre in Leeds.  Here I’m capturing a few personal thought about the value of telling stories within an organisational structure and how important it is to work with traditional media.

At the CofE I was encouraged that we very quickly got onto the question of desired impact of our communications. If we are evaluating a piece of creative communication the big question is always who is it aimed at and what do you want the impact be? What change in the way the audience thinks or behaves do we want to see? That is the real point and power of communications. Unless something changes as a result of our communication then what’s the point? Bound up in this question of impact is a question about the overall purpose of the communication effort.

Is there one big, huge, hairy reason we want to do this communications thing?

For me, the Church of England is in an extraordinary position regarding communications, like no other organisation I know of. The fact that every square inch of the country is in a parish, and therefore within this great network presents mind blowing opportunity. More than any other organisation it is in a position to understand the realities of life in our communities and to witness the impact of Christian faith in people’s experience.

I have worked in newsrooms at the BBC and the organisation is rightly proud of its commitment to regional news. The BBC has reporters who mostly live within a couple of hours journey of where a story might break. They will not only deliver headlines on a daily basis but will also follow stories over extended periods offering analysis and understanding. But there is a real anxiety about resourcing. Where do stories come from, who processes them and what is their relationship with the consumers?

When you think about it the traditional media is at risk of becoming isolated and disconnected from the world they are trying to report. I met a camera crew recently doing a piece about a project in a poor part of Leeds, Woodhouse in fact. The crew turned up in an expensive black Audi car and they all wore lovely Berghaus ski jackets. The news presenter was tanned and wore a long black executive coat and was fiddling with an iPad. I didn’t feel comfortable.

In another situation I spoke to one senior correspondent who was saddened that he was servicing so many outlets that he didn’t have time to find out what was going on! The script was written in London and then read out by him in Brussels, so the concept of “being there” wasn’t fully realised.

Journalists would reasonably argue that their professional skills are essential if the integrity of reporting is to be maintained. This is true of course but the integrity of the reporting is also put at risk if there are stories and voices that go unheard. Over time imbalances in our ability to access stories can lead to a screwed view of the world which becomes self fulfilling.

The church, far from being other worldly, has a membership which if joined together and with their communities can be rooted in big reality. There are very few places where people of different backgrounds and generations can come together in the way they do in the Church of England. My own church in affluent Ilkley has a real mix of people from homeless to filthy rich, there are all ages and at least a tiny amount ethnic diversity.

But hold on, let me take my tinted spectacles off and start again. The church, I confess, has a long way to go to get real diversity into many if its congregations but there are signs of hope. If we can show the church as it could be as well as how it is now we may have a vision that can take off. It could be brilliant.

Bringing people together, using the diocese to encourage people to visit different parts of the region, sharing resources and ideas across social boundaries is exciting. Most of all I would like to see parishioners participating in telling stories, particularly those stories that the press and media will find difficult to break into.

If the church diocese can design a communications network that encourages people to tell stories and, importantly, can share those stories and invite reflection and analysis then I think it will be very powerful. This is not about the Church of England competing with the traditional media but it is an opportunity for the media to gain better access to community life. There is a huge and important role for professional journalists to process, analyse and comment but they do need the full array of raw materials.

My vision for the Church of England comms team (and those of some of our community centres like Woodhouse), would be about giving a voice to those who are falling through the communication cracks.  We would preach less and listen more.

The church should not just be an organisation that does communication but be, quite fundamentally, a communications organisation – bringing people together in relationship with each other and with God. Isn’t that the highest act of communication we could imagine?


Connecting communities, communication and compassion (all the Cs)


(Hastily jotted and incomplete reflection after a day talking about communication in Leeds in the context of an inclusive community organisation.)

Communication in an open and inclusive environment has the potential for chaos and misunderstanding. Making decisions when there are many stakeholders of different outlooks can be the biggest challenge we face if we are to move forward effectively. At Oblong Leeds we have an ongoing commitment to working on how we communication effectively and include all members of the community.

Top down organisation?
Top down instructions handed down to compliant employees in the traditional corporation can work until the employees start to question the decisions – at which point they either leave, rebel or become dormant.

Flat organisation?
On the other hand flat, non hierarchical organisations are slow and there’s the potential for unrecognised power struggles. Clear decision making can be almost impossible and strong leadership is misunderstood as being a tool for control rather than cohesion.

Participatory organisation?
Now more than ever all stakeholders have the tools to participate in conversations about how we run our affairs whether they are invited to or not. To keep people “on board” requires a more relational approach. Whether we think it is workable or not, a participatory style of organisation can unlock talent, bring forward relevant and exciting ideas, lead to much more cohesive communities. Difficult but potentially good.

Woodhouse Community Centre
I help run the Woodhouse Community Centre which relies on a membership of about 70 volunteers to run the centre and its activities. We took it over from the council as a step towards community ownership of the facility. So Oblong Leeds cannot be a mini council but has to enable local people to make decisions and exercise their gifts through participation. Oblong Leeds is non-hierarchical though I would say it is in a position of significant leadership.

Communication challenge
At Oblong Leeds yesterday we had a very interesting full day session on communication. A big topic, I know, but this was focused on how we communicate internally with each other in a range of contexts. We looked at discussion in groups, reaching decisions together, difficult one to one conversations, the art of the incisive question and so on.

Just one of the many styles we looked at was was drawn from Non Violent Communication which I confess I’d not come across before. The practice developed by Marshall Rosenberg seems to have been elevated to an almost spiritual height which worries me, it has the look of a bandwagon. That aside the idea is rather obvious and simple, if I can summarise it in my own way.

1. You start off by making a clear observation of fact. Be very clear about this observation and don’t just shoot off because you suspect something.

2. The observation stirs you emotionally and you believe something should be done.

3. Before you move forward examine your own motivation. Am I passionate about what I have see for good reason?Am I motivated by compassion or bad voices within?  Understanding the basis for our reaction is very important. We should be able to align our response to a key value we hold.

4. An action. What is the best response we can make reconciling to our values, abilities and passion?

With my journalist hat on I can see that this is even simpler – get the facts straight, ask why this is happening, who is involved and what might/should happen next.

More notes to follow.


Good relationships and adopting a range of styles good for communication.

Here’s a short note to myself about the Communities Creating Change course, you’re welcome to peruse.

In our business life building relationships in order to communicate better and taking time and care to properly understand what we are dealing with is very important. In a busy work environment this can sometimes be be seen as expensive, time consuming and a tedious process – particularly where there’s a top down culture. Let’s change that.


I was taken by surprise at the weekend. I knew Stella and Mark (my colleagues at Oblong) had put a lot of effort into the Communities Creating Change course and knew it was likely to be a good one. What took me by surprise was the speed at which everyone on the course (about 15) connected with each other and build really productive relationships (Good relationships = good communication = good relationships).

I’ve been on courses like these before as part of work but often there is a level of scepticism and indifference to the material. People will politely participate and say nice things in their feedback but you can tell there’s no spark.

This course very structured and deliberate all the way through with some firm but friendly facilitating. Each activity was carefully timed with a stopwatch. There was extensive use of flip charts and marker pens. There was a wide range of styles and approaches. Within the discussion there were a quite a few opportunities for guided one to one conversations with other attendees.

Particularly appreciated was the open discussion using discussion stations around specific topics which people could dip in and out of. This meant that people could gravitate towards a topic of interest or change to another topic.

The course illustrated that using a range of tools and styles of communication helps involve more people, but that this can take time and effort to set up. There may be a temptation just to use one discussion tool in a meeting if time is short, but including people effectively and getting to a point where issues have been properly explored does take time.

The use of Twitter to reflect what people were saying seemed to add significant value to the points being made. It was a bit like an affirmative that encouraged conversation and reinforced some key points. Having external followers added some excitement – including the London Symphony Orchestra

Here’s a link to the twitter feed

Food was an essential part of the success together with nice coffee.

Conclusion – 1. Use a range of media/teqhniques/styles, 2. Put in lots of preparation, 3. Take as much time as is required to build relationships and plan/discuss properly. 4. Be patient if the style is unfamiliar to you (it may be important to someone else). 5. Food is important.


Communities Creating Change. A daring circus troupe.

We’ve had a really excellent session at Woodhouse Community Centre today, Communities Creating Change. There were about fifteen people there, and as per my last blog post we were on a journey to understand how people and communities can work together towards change. What do we hope for? What issues do we face? How can we communicate? I would say the discussions have been mostly about communication in various forms.

The dynamics of human relationships as they are played out in our various communities are at the heart of this. We react to people who are different from us, we plot and scheme with those with whom we share interests, we are defensive, sensitive and often afraid.

Just bringing people together is a challenge. The needs that command our attention are often determined by our own stories and sensitivities – more to do with sentiment and emotional state; Money, history, power, the need for survival all swirling in the mix. The rational exploration of need and potential solutions is more likely usurped by a view which is filtered by self interest and personal pride as much as anything.

The mechanics of bringing people together around important local issues is a game played in the mind as much as anything else. We take scientifically gathered data which feeds into open and inclusive discussion – these conversations are engineered to ensure all voices are heard. Emotional feeling are acknowledged for what they are and balanced with more detached input. Flip charts, mind maps, twitter streams and team bonding games (see video below). Getting to the heart of the matter is more like a circus act than anything else, bringing together a thrilling combination of technical agility, risk and entertainment. It’s a messy business and who knows if the audience will applaud in the end.

The important thing is that we are together on the journey and that we are finding ways of bringing people together as members of this daring and unusual circus troupe. We need people of different backgrounds, world views, and abilities to come together somehow. As someone said at the meeting it is the critical need to embrace difference within which holds us together and without problems to solve there would be no community.

We have not only listened but heard some extraordinary stories today. One person said that for the first time he had experienced what it like to have someone really listen. Perhaps there lies the answer to much of this, the ability to be quiet and listen to each others stories.

There’s more tomorrow from Communities Creating Change course and if you would like to follow it on twitter the hashtag is #oblonglearning