Communities Creating Change – Join #OblongLearning on Twitter

As you may know I work part time for a charity in Leeds called Oblong. I’m proud of the achievements of Oblong which has taken on and refurbished a community centre. It delivers transformational projects for communities and individuals including volunteer programmes, mental health courses, arts and social events. There’s a cinema event every month to showcase and support local filmmakers, a media collective undertaking design and communications projects, language classes. There are now more than 50 volunteers, a significant proportion of whom achieve employment not unconnected to the experience they gain at the community centre.

The culture is one of respect for every individual and creation of an environment where they can flourish independently and in partnership with others. The projects we establish come from the volunteers and are led by them

ob-bobThis weekend Oblong is running a two day course called Communities Creating Change for people who want to create real change in their communities and in themselves. Participants will discuss their community’s needs and strengths, learn how to collaborate, engage and think together, practice new skills and make a plan for action. The course will include a look at how we establishing the needs and hopes of the community, how we gather information, communication, collaborative thinking, creative ideas, project management.

The course is full now but the reason I mention it here is because there will be more courses in future and tomorrow we will be extending the discussion to social media by using the Twitter hashtag #OblongLearning . I will try and post a timetable of the discussions tomorrow and schedule some opportunities to join in. In any event there will be nuggets from the group on #OblongLearning from around 10am tomorrow.

Let’s connect.



Inclusive communications and working with volunteers

At the Woodhouse Community Centre we have been immersed in discussions about communication – personal, team and external. We have a flat management structure with a non hierarchical way of working. This means that everyone is involved in the decisions we make and no-one has overall power (theoretically and practically for the most part). Here I want to share some thoughts about communications at Oblong Leeds where I work part time.

We aim for a community where everyone has a high degree of ownership and participation in the decision making, where each member is respected and considered, where the impact of decisions on all members is taken into account. This makes for a complex communications environment.

In the hierarchical corporate world where the CEO is in charge and where money is the motivator things are much simpler. You make a decision and everyone has to comply, mostly. But in our world the community is based on relationships which take into account personal needs as well as business needs. We have to gauge what kind of an impact a decision is going to have on community members not just professionally but also personally.

Communication at the Woodhouse Community Centre operates in a matrix of styles which are all connected – meetups, social,  one to one, on-line and so on.  We have more that 50 volunteers. At first we tried to communicate using email – it only worked for some. We tried to convene monthly assemblies where people could “have their say” few came.

So what are we doing now?  We have largely ditched email in favour of Yammer. Yammer is an on-line social tool for businesses which enables you to collectively follow projects, project discussions and members. We renamed the assembly meeting the Bobalong (play on Oblong) and made it much more social and fun. Good relationships = good communication = good relationships.

Project structure provides a way of encouraging good communication. An important part of the mix are volunteer led projects. Rather than the staff setting up strategic projects and handing them out, the volunteers are steeped in the values and strategic needs of the organisation and encouraged to come up with their own project ideas and get them going themselves. This volunteer ownership of projects is vital and in fact written into come of our funding agreements.

The establishment of projects (rather than simply ongoing activities) is really important. A project in traditional terms has a timeline, goals, a team, hurdles and requires structured communication. A project with a positive goal provides an opportunity for members to work together, build confidence,  affirm, build relationships and feel good about success. Endlessly ongoing activities sometimes lead to fatigue, a breakdown in relationships and isolation to the outside world. So projects can be much more invigorating.

To encourage good and effective project management we are looking at some of the tools which are available for on-line collaborative working. The one we are testing is Basecamp. Basecamp provides a communications structure. The elements include time-scales, tasks, assigned responsibilities, resources and conversation. I’m getting quite excited my this I admit.

Basecamp and Yammer aren’t, of course, a replacement meeting together but what they do mean is that when we get together we have an excellent resource of project knowledge a warmth of relationships.  The difference between Yammer and Basecamp is that Yammer focusses on the social interactions while Basecamp is structured around project management – we would use both.

As an organisation we also use Google Documents which integrates really well with Basecamp meaning that every document, decision, task or event has a collaborative, interactive element to it.

So may I commend to you Yammer and Basecamp and the whole idea of being much more project focussed and social.

You’re welcome to pop into the Woodhouse centre and meet out volunteers.  See old fashioned poster for next Bobalong.



Inspiring people

I’ve spent the day at Woodhouse Community Centre getting a few admin tasks done and trying to figure out how to get volunteers working on a citizen journalism project.  I feel that writing, photographing, observing, asking questions – just being curious – is such a life giving thing.  When you’re slumped in a chair doing nothing or complaining about the world it’s probably because you haven’t noticed how interesting it can be.

For this reason I’m cooking up a plan for volunteers to go out and find stories and work together on them. Woodhouse Stories in fact.  The simple act of talking about what we can write about and what will make a good picture is somehow energizing.

As if to affirm that this might be a good idea I chanced to meet a lady called Annie Hawkins who has been helping to run a social session for some older people at the centre.  It turns out Annie is a renowned bass player who has played with, and recorded with, many great exponents of New Orleans Jazz. A story which began in the late 50s and she’s still playing.

Now there’s a story we might want to follow up. Here’s a portrait of her by Peter Butler


Story telling from the inside and Hilary Benn MP

Busy day today making plans for roles and responsibilities at Oblong Leeds running the Woodhouse Community Centre. One thing we are sure about is that the media and marketing activities require focused effort. Selling services and maintaining good visitor relationships is, of course, everyone’s responsibility, but there are specialist outreach activities. Here I want to reflect on how we can approach communication as an exercise in building relationships and understanding.

The Woodhouse Community Centre, where I spend a couple of days each week, has been refurbished and our task over the last year has been to fill the centre with a mix of paying users and volunteer members. The centre is in a poor part of Leeds and so making a sustainable business out of a community resource is a challenge. However we are succeeding.

It seems to me that the communication task is not simply to tell people about what is going on and informing them about room rental rates. To think of communication as a process where useful information is shared is not really communication at all.

The relationship of a community centre with the community is about being a positive presence in the neighbourhood and encouraing a sense of pride and belonging in the area. Much needed. If we are to make strong connections into the community we have to tell relevant stories and relate to the local people on their terms. The communication can’t be an “us to them” announcement, in fact the whole communication challenge is about reducing the distance between people in such a way that the participants seem to be one.

Telling our stories is important because it brings people close enough to hear one another. Stories help us understand who we are talking with and how our message will be interpreted and understood.

In a place like Woodhouse it would be too much to expect that everyone we meet will have shared the same journey. Every day we meet people from all over the world. Some are learning English, there are refugees, many desperate for work and self respect, people struggling to get their heads into some sort of order. The most brilliant thing about all these people is that they have amazing stories and experiences that will be valued by other people. Just by being together and telling the tales can be transforming. We can begine to see ourselves in ways we could not have imagined without their help.

So when we are discussing communication it is very much in the context of relationship building and offering out some hope to people who need to be heard. By doing this we are creating a stimulating and creative environment that others will feel compelled to join in with.

It’s with these thoughts in mind that our communications are participatory and based on story telling. We will be running an online blog, making short films, training volunteers to do interviews, photography and so on. But it’s the involvement of a team of local volunteers that will make the difference, story telling from the inside.

Now for your entertainment here’s Hilary Benn MP talking to me about the centre when it was re-launched a year last April.


The lower rate: why is the church seen as rich and closed?

I’ve been having a number of conversations about the way the church communicates. There is undoubtedly an urgent need for the church to get a few key messages across more clearly.

If you set aside (difficult to do), the central thing of Christ dying for our sins, non church goers are even then confused about what the church is or does.

I work part time for Oblong Leeds, a secular community development charity.  Oblong runs Woodhouse Community Centre.  We let out rooms to organisations at two rates – the normal commercial rate and a discounted rate for non profit organisations.  The values of Oblong are around support for the poor and poor in spirit, equality, celebration of gifts, respect and care towards one another and so on.  We have collectively decided to charge political and religious organisations the higher commercial rate.  I don’t fully agree with this but we are a flat management and out of respect I go along with it. Here are two arguments:

  • Churches are rich and so can afford the higher rate (a local church is spending a few million pounds on refurbishments)
  • Churches are only open to those who believe or are prepared to be converted.

Any argument for the lower rate is undermined by the perception that the church is both rich and powerful. The finances in the voluntary sector are shockingly fragile.   Some unemployed volunteers would struggle to get to the centre if we didn’t give them bus tickets. We literally have to count the pennies ourselves. We can hardly afford cleaning but we figure everyone cleaning the toilets keeps us grounded and equal.   I heard a story about an unemployed man in Chapeltown who complained that all the jobs were in Leeds. Chapeltown is only a few minutes by bus from Leeds centre.

There are many churches in poor areas that are struggling and attending to the poor, yet it is often the richest churches we hear about first. The focus in the press is often on conflict, division, power and money.

On the issue of being open to all. I feel strongly that the church should make it clear who it is for and open its doors a little wider to people who are struggling physically, mentally and spiritually regardless of their place on the journey.

I remember attending a big church service in Birmingham during which a vagrant entered at the rear. A group of stewards flocked round and “encouraged” him out. “We get a lot of this but we have a system for spotting them and moving them out” one of the stewards told me. I remember the words clearly.

There will always, of course, be a distinction between those who believe, those who want to believe and those who reject, but actually there may be less clarity on this than we are prepared to accept.  I am open to welcoming anyone and not make up my mind until I get to know them,  and even then understand that we are enriched by our differences.   Failing to engage with people who are “not like us”, make us feel uncomfortable or cause trouble is a curse of modern life – perhaps it is driven by the media and advertising in particular?

Let’s see some evidence of how poor and open to trouble makes the church can be. Making a difference perhaps begins with accepting a difference.

Help me to make a case for the lower rate.


Video Story Telling – a 10 week course free for some applicants

If you know of anyone in Leeds who would like to take advantage of a superb  video story telling course, please pass on the information.  

The course will run for 10 weeks from the 7th of November and will be a script to screen practical guide.  It’s aimed at beginners so all you need is to be interested.   The course is FREE for some applicants, so please ask about this.

Video Story Telling begins Wednesday the 7th November at the Woodhouse Community Centre, Leeds LS6 2NY.  email

There are still places left but because it’s a valuable course offered free to some people we expect it to be over subscribed.



New 10 week film making course in Leeds

Here’s a heads up on a course we’re running at the Woodhouse Community Centre in Leeds.  Please alert anyone you think might be interested.

On Wednesday the 7th of November we will begin a new 10 week filmmaking course to be run at the Woodhouse Community Centre in Leeds. The sessions will run between 4pm and 6pm

The tutor on the course will be Abdul Rahman Al-Marsumi formerly of the BBC and with many years experience of teaching.

The course will cover

  • The language of film and video
  • How to understand the theme
  • Story boards and story telling
  • Composition

There will be a strong practical element with student creating their own film sequences.

The course is likely to be over subscribed, but if you would like to express and interest in this course we can send you more information.

Use my Oblong email address

Community, Photography

Creative media courses at Oblong in Leeds

Thought I’d update you in the media projects I’m involved with through Oblong in Leeds

Oblong is a community development charity based at the Woodhouse Community Centre in Leeds. The charity manages the newly refurbished centre, runs community development projects and supports the personal development of volunteers. As part of this we are steadily growing the Media Collective which provides learning and development opportunities for volunteers interested in various aspects of media.

In the coming weeks we are starting a number of courses which are aimed at giving small organisations and individuals the tools to communicate in the digital environment. The courses include an introduction to WordPress websites, photoshop and photography and video production.

An introduction to Photoshop
This is a new ten week introductory course in Adobe Photoshop
Mondays from 3.30pm to 5.30pm starting 1st October.

An introduction to WordPress
This is a new two week introductory course for WordPress blogs and websites.
Two Wednesdays from 4.00pm to 6.00pm from 10th October and the following week.

This is an eight week course starting early November and will be a script to screen cover the essential techniques involved in making short films.
If you live in the Woodhouse area of Leeds and know of anyone who would benefit please get in touch.