Programme 7: The CAN Do CultureFirst broadcast Friday 22 November 2002, 3-3.30pm
Every community contains enormous resources of human potential and capability, even those communities which seem to have the most problems - such as poverty, crime, drug addiction, environmental degradation, loneliness, ill health and bad housing. Government regeneration programmes have been designed to tackle those problems which need massive public investment (such as poor housing), but there remain all the fine-grain problems which are only fully recognised and understood by local people themselves. The Community Action Network (CAN) is a national network of social entrepreneurs - individuals who are leading community action projects around the country to tackle the many problems which so often escape the attention of mainstream public services, but which make all the difference to improving the quality of life for people living in the poorest areas.
One of the most successful examples of the social entrepreneurial approach is the work of Andrew Mawson in Bromley by Bow in east London. Mawson arrived in Bromley by Bow in 1984, taking over as Minister of the United Reformed Church. He saw the massive problems faced by the local population and put the church's resources of buildings and land at their service. Initially, he offered rooms to a struggling community nursery run by local parents. Other activities followed, including a community care facility working with disabled people, and a wide range of arts projects run by local artists.
Nearly 20 years on, the Bromley by Bow Centre covers a three-acre site, supporting 150 activities each week, and about 35 enterprises are under development. The arts focus has remained strong and has been the basis for many of the enterprises. For example, local artists were offered free studio space in church buildings if they agreed to teach and involve other local residents. Now, Signs of Life brings together practising artists and local teenagers to do community projects (murals, etc.) as well as public and private commissions across London.
Many of the enterprises are run by and for the different cultural groups in the area - there are 50 languages and dialects spoken within ten minutes' walk of the Centre. To give just one example, Zenith Rahman, a local woman, started to tackle the isolation of other Bangladeshi women by setting up cooking and sewing groups. One of these groups is now running the Bandhobi restaurant which provides high-quality Sylheti food for community events as well as catering for high-profile corporate functions. The other group has become a sewing and craft enterprise.
Zenith has been working at the Centre for over ten years now. She is one of many local people who have grown with the Centre. Some started by taking part in activities provided by the Centre, then worked as volunteers and later, as their skills and confidence grew (often as a result of formal training and qualifications organised by the Centre), they were offered paid jobs. The Centre now employs 105 staff and 2,000 people pass through the facilities each week.
One of the biggest projects for the Centre has been the development of the first Healthy Living Centre in Britain. This is owned and managed by the community through their own development trust. The Healthy Living Centre offers traditional GP services (the GP practices pay their rent to the trust), alongside an enormous range of complementary services from counselling to opportunities to work on allotments - which can be a better treatment for depression than a bottle of pills. Bob's Park, which surrounds the Centre, has been transformed by the trust, hugely improving the local environment as well as providing jobs (and a boost for the local economy), alongside lots of opportunities for community participation from tree planting to taking on responsibility for community plots in the park. Even the development of the buildings has been carefully managed to ensure the highest-quality design and materials. The Prince of Wales opened a new 70-seater restaurant on the site in February 2002: there is no room here for poor-quality community buildings hidden away from public view.
The attention to detail in Bromley by Bow is a central aspect of everything they do, alongside the focus on encouraging creative and innovative solutions to what are often seen as intractable social problems. It is an entrepreneurial approach, seeking to enable individuals to develop to their full potential through the setting up of business-like initiatives which generate money and enterprise. It brings together many well-established community action principles of self-determination and community enterprise, together with long traditions of philanthropy which aim to ensure benefit for the most vulnerable sectors of society - with more than a dash of private sector entrepreneurial spirit.
At national level, Andrew Mawson has co-founded the Community Action Network (CAN) with Adele Blakeborough to bring together social entrepreneurs across the country. Adele's own Kaleidoscope Project works with drug addicts in Kingston, Surrey, using the social entrepreneurial approach. Eighteen CAN 'hubs' are being established around the UK to support networks of social entrepreneurs, and there is an online service to encourage interaction between members so they can share common problems and learn from each other's experience. This gives access to a unique online marketplace with 10,000 pieces of practical information (e.g. where is the nearest architect, or how to set up as a charity).
The establishment of the CAN headquarters in London follows the same principles, bringing together a range of projects from business, public and voluntary sectors, and a number of think tanks, who are interested in innovation and sharing services. They have created a highly stimulating work environment - essentially a trading floor for ideas, projects, bids and opportunities - as well as reducing costs to individual organisations so they are able to afford central London offices in Waterloo, right beside the London Eye (Millennium Wheel). This combination of entrepreneurial flair, unwillingness to compromise on quality and ambition, high-level political support and excellent media connections continues to serve CAN and the Bromley by Bow Centre well - and offers many lessons to other innovative schemes from local to national level.