Back to the future in Community Business!

Reading a recent Guardian article on the work of Vidhya Alakeson and Power to Change got me thinking about community business in the twenty-first century and the dimensions of continuity and change in the history of community business. For me there are some interesting parallels between the community business movement that began in the west of Scotland in the 1970s and the community businesses being supported by Power to Change in England today.

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We could all use a DeLorean sometimes!

I’ve written before about my research on the history of social enterprise in Scotland and the importance of studying the emergence of the community business movement in the 1970s as part of this work. In Scotland, the use of the term community business was superseded by the social enterprise in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Therefore I’ve been especially interested in tracing the histories of the organisations that were established as part of the community business movement in the 1970s and continue trading today; examining to what extent their practice has been affected by changes in the sector.

Most of the people participating in making oral history recordings for the CommonHealth project remain committed to the co-operative values of the community business movement. Some organisations have changed their operating structure to survive, where for others this was out of the question, but a strong commitment to their the core mission was a defining feature of their work.

For me this suggests an important thread of continuity, which is why I was so struck by the report on community business in England today…

A middle class pursuit?

Vidhya Alakeson’s description of communities coming together to say ‘we can do something about this’ echoes the words of John Pearce in the late 1970s when he described people coming together to say ‘what can we do?’. As part of her work Alakeson is keen to challenge the idea that community business is something that happens in idyllic, leafy, rural, communities where retired and affluent professionals have the time and expertise to take over the running of the local pub, shop or other services.

The story of the Scottish experience of community business, certainly challenges this representation; often established in estates labelled ‘multiply deprived’, and aiming recruiting people who had been unemployed for many years due to the economic crisis of the 1970s and dramatic changes in the infrastructure of the Scottish economy. The testimony of Susan McGinlay, who started a cleaning company with 3 other women as part of Possil Community Business in the 1980s and went on to become the commercial manager of the organisation, speaks to the importance of perceptions and the role of community business in challenging them:

‘It was such a proud moment when you look back and you think my god all the work that we have created in this area. It rejuvenated quite a lot of people, it really did. It was a turning point for many of them, who started to see what they could do and what they were worth, rather than being told oh you come from Possil or Milton and you are scum and you are this and you are that. The commitment was amazing.’

McGinlay also talked through the valuable support her and her friends had received from Strathclyde Community Business over the years, a key issue if community businesses are to flourish outside affluent areas.

Reflecting on the history of community business, social need and the desire of people to come together to bring about change are constant, but the ability to put structures in place that support that need vary according to the governance of funding and policy.

Historical research also reveals numerous inspiring examples from the past that show other futures are possible.

 

Gillian Murray

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The Way forward for Social Enterprise in Scotland: Reflections on a recent speech by Dr Michael Roy to the Cross Party Group on Social Enterprise, Holyrood (15 March 2016)

Dr Michael Roy is a senior lecturer at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at GCU and has a supervisory role on the CommonHealth team. Recently he was invited to present his thoughts on the way forward for social enterprise in Scotland, based on his many years’ experience working in the sector and as an academic, to the Scottish parliament.

Here we pick up on some of his thoughts and reflect on the links with the emerging findings of the CommonHealth researchers.

The most supportive environment in the world for social enterprise?

Dr Roy suggested that Scotland has a highly developed system of support for social enterprise:

This ‘ecosystem’ of support enables the sector to develop and provide input to policy initiatives and exert influence at various levels of government. As pressure on government budgets grows, it is important, in my opinion, to maintain the level of support to the sector, particularly given the role that social enterprise might play in alleviating some of the symptoms of austerity measures, which are already being felt most keenly in our most vulnerable communities.

Here Dr Roy was referring to both geographical communities and ‘communities of interest’.

Doing social enterprise

Emphasising the importance of the act of establishing a social enterprise for communities, Dr Roy believes that:

Doing social enterprise –people coming together to solve a particular problem in their own local community –is a profoundly political (some might say radical) act. Doing so means that you have chosen to address some sort of problem within your own community and not left it to the state, or indeed to the market, to solve it for you.

Thus, although there is often a focus on social enterprise as a deliverer of public services it is also possible to examine the act of social enterprise as an alternative way of organising the economy. This chimes with current debates that the economy is supposed to work for society, not the other way around.

An intrinsic contribution to community?

In closing, Dr Roy suggested that there needs to be a greater recognition of the ‘wider –intrinsic- contribution of social enterprise to community and individual wellbeing in and of themselves’.

The CommonHealth programme is focused on beginning to unravel what exactly the intrinsic quality or qualities that social enterprises contribute to health and wellbeing in Scotland. Reflecting on the points above, research so far suggests that a commitment by practitioners to network and share their knowledge and experience at regional and national levels (for example through Community Business Scotland and later Senscot) have been an important factor in raising the voice of a diverse range of organisations working in both rural and urban contexts; an important foundation for today’s ‘ecosystem’. Likewise, a feature of the sectors’ work has been to find ways of operating that assist communities to identify ways through the social and economic challenges they face.

We hope that as our work develops to connect the values that have been historically important to the sector with findings on the latest challenges and opportunities facing practitioners.

We even dare to hope, like Dr Roy, that this may assist in maintaining political support for social enterprise in Scotland.

Dr Michael Roy and Dr Gill Murray

Is there room for co-operation in self-directed support?

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The Scottish government has presented self-directed support (SDS) as an opportunity for people to gain choice and control over their social care. This has been welcomed in some respects, for example, disability rights activists have long argued that disabled people are not involved enough in discussions over their care. However, others have been concerned that moves towards SDS have been under-resourced and may undermine existing services, opening up gaps in the care and support of vulnerable people.

This debate has been preoccupying us at CommonHealth for a while, so this week Gill and Fiona have teamed up to unravel some of the issues.

The history of health and social care over the last 30 years has been very present in discussions of SDS. Academics have identified a policy trend towards ‘individual support and personalisation’. This can be placed within broader moves to situate the population as consumers of health, with public health messages that have increasingly urged people to take responsibility for their own ‘health and lifestyle’ since the 1970s. As well as this changing language, there have been important structural changes to the delivery of health and welfare support, particularly the transition to Care in the Community. Care in the Community must be understood in the context of the roll back of state services and the growing accommodation of the Third Sector; a trend started by Margaret Thatcher and continued by successive governments, often referred to as neoliberalism. This combination of the individualisation of public health, the positioning of patients as consumers and changes in the makeup of the health and welfare matrix explain how the language of control and choice in health and social care has gained ground over time; but are people really experiencing greater control and choice over their health and social care?

In a recent studies including our own, SDS payments were used by individuals as one part of a ‘mix and match’ approach to their care package. Social enterprises have seen the move to SDS as an opportunity to provide bespoke health and social care services, since clients can opt to use their SDS allowance to pay a social enterprise rather than statutory services. These social entrepreneurs have recognised SDS as an opportunity to generate more inclusive local services.  For individuals with complex needs, however, we found that some recipients with fluctuating conditions revert to their previous provision as their health changed. For this particularly vulnerable group there is a danger that local authorities may cut back their social care provision, leaving the burden of support with the third sector and communities.

How can a balance between the opportunities of SDS to provide access to bespoke services be balanced with consistent access to social care?

If we travel back to the nineteenth century it is possible to identify a different set of values and ideas that prioritised collective rather individual health in contemporary social welfare debates. Mutual aid organisations in the form of Friendly Societies and Trade Unions provided a form of insurance for their working class members. The pay-outs that people received from Friendly Societies allowed them to pay for medical services, in some ways comparable to direct payments in the twenty-first century. Membership of Friendly Societies required attendance at meetings and visits to collect payments, maintaining social links within the community. It allowed people to take control and maintain a level of choice over their health and welfare, but as a community rather than an individual endeavour.

In rural Scotland, there are examples of micro providers forming cooperatives to match people with services and allow people access to new forms of care.  These social entrepreneurs have recognised SDS as an opportunity to generate more inclusive local services, but will their efforts be enough to provide empowering forms of control and choice to patients and reverse the negative effects of individualised health and social care?

 

Gillian Murray & Fiona Henderson

 

Research quoted:

Kathy Boxall et al, ‘Selling individual budgets, choice and control: local and global influences on UK social care policy for people with learning difficulties’, Policy and Politics, 37:4 (2009).

The art of social enterprise, or how to craft a community voice

This year the UK’s most prestigious art prize was won by ‘non artists’ Assemble who used a social enterprise to showcase their work at Tramway, Glasgow.

 A lot of the commentary, as per with the Turner prize, has been based around the question ‘is this art’? At CommonHealth we’ve been taking a different slant on this conversation and thinking about the relationship between art and social enterprise.

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Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in an art gallery in 1917 to question definitions and boundaries of art

Assemble’s project with a Community Land Trust, Granby Four Streets, has been lauded as succeeding where other regeneration programmes have failed. This is a claim that we’ve often heard about voluntary groups and social enterprises. Historically, although attention has often focused on social enterprises that create employment, arts based organisations have always been part of the mix. Indeed in some places it was the community arts movement that kick started interest in community and social enterprise. In her book Let The People Sing! Helen Crummy a founding member of the Craigmillar Festival Society wrote:

The annual festival had proved to be the key to tapping and releasing the community’s creative imagination and talent. Once released, men and women’s horizon’s widened. They then became aware of the restrictive and often damaging effect on family life, of living in an area where there are only houses, scare community facilities, little work and second class education. (p58)

We hope to pick up this thread in the CommonHealth research program. Two projects are consolidating a participatory action research approach with the holistic problem-solving pragmatism of design and innovation: Project 3 – Growth at the Edge; and Project 5 – Age Unlimited. Both projects will use design-led workshops to facilitate social enterprise stakeholders’ generation of ideas about developing their enterprise. This approach can use a variety of visual techniques to allow individuals to express themselves in non-verbal ways, and so these projects have the potential to allow individuals to ‘think outside the box.’ As researchers, we are especially interested in how these visual practices can inform our research, and how this can help us to understand the best ways for communities to express themselves. We hope, therefore to begin to evaluate and explore how and why arts based approaches facilitate community expression. Work in this area is frequently expressed as organisations reaching communities that that state and private services cannot. However, what has been overlooked here is that the work of Assemble and Granby Street residents, like the Craigmillar Festival Society, allowed communities to attract the attention of those in power.

Assemble’s work at Granby Street built on the community’s desire to rebuild their homes and streets. It is important to point out that community groups had been working on various activities before Assemble arrived. Assemble worked with residents to rebuild their homes and in doing so developed skills to craft objects that could also be sold.

Does this attention to crafting also resonate more broadly with the work of social enterprises?

At the Knowledge Exchange Forum in Dundee discussed in our earlier blogs, art ran through some aspects of many of the enterprises. One group member there noted a man came into their arts-based enterprise one day and silently worked on his own art project without engaging with staff. Then he silently left. The next day he returned, following that pattern wordlessly day after day until eventually he began to speak. As researchers, we need to become increasingly skilled at listening to and understanding both his art and his process before he says a word.

While we continue to ponder how to capture the intangible value of art and crafting, we will leave you with the wisdom of the monk and author Thomas Merton:

‘Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.’

 

 

Knowledge Exchange Forum: Social Health Farago!

Last week we brought you the first instalment of our reflections from our recent Knowledge Exchange Forum. This week we follow up with more detailed comments on social enterprise support and structure.

Thanks again to everyone who came along and shared their experiences and proved that there’s a lot we can learn in the city of Discovery!

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The strength of many social enterprises is their flexibility to be responsive to peoples changing needs

For many people working in the sector the central strength of social enterprises were considered to be their responsiveness to the needs of the community and the changing market, particularly in this time of austerity.  The group agreed that while one size (or type) of social enterprise doesn’t fit all, catering for the diversity within our communities through this wide range of social enterprises is also a core strength of the sector. One participant felt that social enterprise can quietly challenge services and push them to be better, and her group agreed social enterprise can be a vehicle for small organisations to empower themselves.

However, the issue of delivering specific services also offered by the NHS was a controversial one, with the recognition that it could lead to a more joined-up, effective service delivery, but also could risk the state gradually retrenching support and funding as a cost-cutting exercise.

Social enterprises were also discussed as a test-bed for new ideas.  One participant noted that the building of the Bluebell Flats in Dennistoun, Glasgow in the 1970’s resulted in the Council trying to persuade people to leave their homes in the tenements and move in to the new high rises. People were unhappy and one woman in particular resisted. From her resistance and subsequent community support, one of the first housing associations in Scotland was born. Today that housing association is still going strong and residents continue to enjoy tenement life. The Bluebell flats are being demolished as we write this…

Support for Social Enterprises

A major theme within the discussion groups was the need to support individuals attempting to sustain social enterprises who are struggling with the pressures of workload and uncertainties over funding. It was suggested that a network of peers would be valuable. This situation was seen to arise as a result of the often isolated nature of social enterprises and the lack of support offered by government or local Third Sector Interfaces.

Participants also talked about the ways that they are seeking to provide support for future social enterprises through colleges. Participants working at Dundee and Angus College described classes that they deliver for students involving social enterprise activities. Their aim is to engage young people with ideas around the meaning of social business and the value of money; allowing students to set up a mock social enterprise café on the campus, getting them to shop for ingredients and place a price on each item. Through this simple approach students learn about the significance of work, entrepreneurship, and the amount of effort that is needed to create something of value. Students are able to add these skills to their CV, but the experience also gives them an insight into setting up a social enterprise and, importantly, that they are capable of building something for themselves and their communities.

The idea of giving something back was one that powerfully united the Forum.

 

Bobby Macauly, Clementine Hill O’Connor, Danielle Kelly, Fiona Henderson, Gill Murray

The historian and the archives: an overlooked form of interdiscipinarity?

This week’s blog comes with a warning. If you likely to be offended by a gushing, unabashed report of how I’ve been geeking out in the archive, look away now!

Carole and I discussing our work at a recent Knowledge Exchange Forum
Carole and I discussing our work at a recent Knowledge Exchange Forum

As I’ve talked about before, the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland) -held by GCU- is at the core of my post-doctoral research. Part of the collection has already been beautifully catalogued, however work on the correspondence and personal papers of social enterprise pioneer John Pearce is ongoing. I’ve been working with university archivist Carole McCallum to sort the papers and fit them into a hierarchy ready for cataloguing.

It’s a fascinating process. What differentiates the archival process from library cataloguing is that an archivist will, as far as possible, preserve the original order of the papers. In the John Pearce papers different points of interest may sit together, or they may flit back and forth through time as he revisited an idea. An archivist aims to keep these seemingly disparate materials together rather than sorting by topic and scattering them throughout the library. Therefore the challenge for this project is to look at how John Pearce organised his papers and find a way to label and catalogue them, so future researchers can make the most of them. The value of preserving the papers in this way is that researchers can gain insight into Pearce’s own thought processes and how he saw the different components of social enterprise fitting together.

Carole and I have been discussing how best to label and catalogue Pearce’s papers. Keyword searching and indexing terms will ensure related items will be identified in the archive catalogue. This will be available electronically to allow people across the world to find out what the university holds. I’ve been struck by just how different our skills and backgrounds are and how bringing them together to solve a shared challenge has been really valuable in producing good work. Carole’s experience in working with collections means she is an expert in judging how to balance preserving the integrity of a collection while making it accessible to users. Whereas my background in History means I can help contextualise the evolution of the various organisations Pearce founded and worked with; providing insight into the links between his various interests and projects. For an archivist and a historian to work together in this way is very rare, but we believe it will really enrich the catalogue records we produce.

This made me think about the relationships between historians and archivists more generally; are the discussions between Carole and I an example of an overlooked aspect of interdiscipinarity?

As a history student I was always told to respect archivists and that if you could find a friendly archivist to help you uncover new material your research would be better. Later, during my PhD, funded as an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award, I learned from the inside about the pressure that archivists were under to provide an ever growing range of services under tighter and tighter budgets. Recent discussions by AHRC CDA’s (#CDAvalue) have highlighted concerns amongst the research community that the relationships we build with our archivists and the value that they create for research is not recognised in funding opportunities post- PhD.

Rather than seeing the relationship between archivists and historians as taken for granted within the study of history (and other studies supported by archival research), it may be time to recognise the distinct set of skills that archivists hold. We need funding opportunities that allow us to build these relationships and maintain the important resources that archives and libraries store.

A failure to do so may risk us looking back to the library and the archive to see that they’ve gone.

Report on the Inaugural John Pearce Memorial Lecture and launch of the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland), or reflections on a quiet revolution

On Monday night GCU hosted the Inaugural John Pearce Memorial Lecture and launched the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland). The Lecture, ‘Community and Social Enterprise -Then and Now’ delivered by Willy Roe CBE (Chair, British Council Scotland) was both a personal reflection on the striking vision of John Pearce and a comment the challenges and opportunities facing the sector today.

John Pearce and his donation to the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland)
John Pearce and his donation to the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland)

I don’t have space here to do justice to Roe’s tour de force of the past four decades, but have picked out three highlights that stood out for me as the CommonHealth programmes historian in residence!

Vision

One of the first points Roe made was that John Pearce was a man of extraordinary energy, who combined community development work with positions on numerous committees, research and writing. Roe admired the clarity of vision that was evident in all aspects of Pearce’s work. Having worked with his personal papers over the last few months, I have to agree his consistency and determination shine through. Pearce’s consistency however, should not be confused with dogmatism, he was willing to work alongside people from a variety of backgrounds and adapt his practice to changing times. An overview of the work of Community Business Scotland of which Pearce was a founder member (est 1981), provided in one of the introductory speeches to the lecture and delivered by Alan Kay, gave insight in to this breadth of work. John’s desire to donate his papers and grey literature to the GCU archive and special collection upon his retirement is another reminder of John’s vision and foresight. He understood that in order to move forward sometimes we need to look back. University archivist Carole McCallum described how meeting John in 2011 started the journey of what has become the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland). She talked passionately about how their conversations inspired her commitment and vision for the Collection to become a hub for Social Enterprise research; the importance of which we are only just beginning to realise and develop.

Scotland in the 1970s

Talking to colleagues after the lecture Roe’s picture of Scotland in the 1970s had been an important reminder –to those who remember it- and insight -to those who do not- into Scotland’s recent past. As a historian I’m familiar with the history of depopulation in the Highlands and Islands, deindustrialisation and the resulting degeneration of the urban fabric of Scotland that took place between the 1970s and 1990s. What Roe brought to life was the similarly important upheaval in the public sector marked by the establishment of Regional Councils in the 1970s. Roe made the important point that there have been various precursors to community business, but the specific environment of the 1970s that allowed it to take hold. Dissatisfaction with both state and markets brought to bear the energy for community democracy and social change that sparked the interest in the community business movement; are we experiencing similar restlessness today?

A quiet revolution

Roe described the work of social enterprise over the last four decades as a quiet revolution. In numerical terms the comparisons between then and now are impressive. Contemporary analysis by Alan McGregor and colleagues at TERU identified around twenty community businesses operating in the summer of 1982 in lowland urban Scotland. By late 1986 this number had risen to an estimated sixty seven businesses, with around half of these in the Strathclyde Region. The recently published Social Enterprise in Scotland: Census 2015 identified 5,199 social enterprises operating around the country. How did we get from there to here? The dialogue between the past and the present is a productive one to uncover when questioning how social enterprise should proceed in the future. Capturing the story of this quiet revolution is what I hope to do in my current research.

It seems appropriate to end this week’s post with a quote from John Pearce. The text below has been taken from his 1993 publication At the Heart of the Community Economy and describes how he saw the community business movement:

‘It is a grassroots movement of local people asking the question “what can we do?” and deciding that it is preferable to take action on their own account rather than wait for “someone else” to come and do it for them; it is local communities seeking to obtain power over their situation and their prospects’