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.