A working life as a community activist

I gave this talk today (25/1/19) to 200+ students at Helenswood School, Hastings, as part of ‘Get Hastings Reading’ (see end of post for slides)

Hello, thanks for having me.

My daughter came to Helenswood. She’s doing her A-levels at Bexhill College now. So I was thinking about what I would have wanted her to hear when she was your age…

I think it’s: try to get ready for a future you can’t see yet.

My sister always wanted to be a doctor. Well at first she said she wanted to be “a nurse in Africa” but our Dad said “why be a nurse when you could be a doctor”. So that set her path. She’s done really well and been a very good family doctor down in Devon for the past 30 years.

I don’t have that kind of job, the kind you can describe in one or two words and everyone gets it. That’s always upset my Dad but I’m happy with it!

I didn’t have any specific ambition when I was at school. I was quite good at science so they encouraged me to do 3 science A levels but I absolutely loved history so I did that as well. At 16 I went on a biology field trip to a great place, stayed in a beautiful old building, and got interested in the inter-tidal zone – where you find mussels and limpets and barnacles and dog-whelks. The guy that ran the place was inspirational and I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was a bit nervous because I absolutely hate sharks but I concentrated on the limpets. I went round the country looking for unis, although really I was looking at places – at towns or cities I’d like to live in, and I fell in love with York.

After A-levels I took a year off. All set to do Biology at York the following year, I couldn’t quite bear to give up the history so I did another history A-level in my gap year, different syllabus, lots more coursework. Alongside working in various admin roles and travelling around Europe for 3 months.

When I got to York I loved university but I spent the first week cutting up lettuces and looking at them under the microscope, from 9am to 5pm. Not for me! I went begging to the Head of History to see if I could change. She looked down her nose at me and said how unusual it was but they let me change, and I never looked back.

That change of course meant I no longer had a career plan of any description. The limpets had been abandoned! I was free and I had no idea of my future.

– – –

Everything that has happened since makes a lot of sense when I look at it backwards, with hindsight, but it certainly didn’t seem clear to me back then how on earth I was going to make a living. I tried to just stay calm, keep my options open, and wait and see.

Skipping several decades (from leaving uni in 1991 to right here in front of you in 2019) I’ll tell you what I do now and then I want to highlight 4 things that made it possible.

I help community groups around the country take on challenging projects [SLIDE], especially when there is a building that people love but it’s in difficult or delinquent ownership [SLIDE]. I help them set up an organisation, get more local people involved, raise the money they need, get ownership of the building, and make it happen. I’m like their coach, to hold their hand, ask the difficult questions, get them to think stuff through, help them write funding applications. It’s about buildings, but it’s also very much about people [SLIDE]. It’s about local, but I also work with government, funders and other national bodies to make local change easier.

So I have long term coaching relationships with various groups. They pay me and I use that profit to invest in projects right here in Hastings. I love Hastings. I was very involved in saving the pier the first time around. [SLIDE] That involved a lot of campaigning, and trying to get the politicians to take action. But I always wanted to go beyond campaigning, and use my own money and skills to make real change.

That was the dream. It began to come true in 2014 when I pulled together a group of organisations to buy an empty 9-storey office block, now called Rock House [SLIDE]. Since then we have transformed it into space for living, working and community action – 6 flats and 43 little businesses, plus iRock is based there (I hope you know about iRock, fantastic service for young people), and now we’re finishing the basement to make a community kitchen and canteen.

We bought that building for £230k. We’ve spent £1M on it. It’s now worth £1.6M. In the ordinary capitalist world someone would walk away with that profit. In my world, we use that to borrow money to do the next one.

The next one is really big – the Observer Building [SLIDE]. It’s a massive concrete building with no heating or wiring or drains. It’s been empty since 1985 – nearly 35 years. What a waste! The really terrible thing is that there have been 13 different owners and all but one of them have made a profit out of it just by buying it, getting planning permission for some unrealistic scheme and selling it on. Meanwhile the building itself just deteriorates.

So we’re about to buy it. To break the cycle. To actually do something and make a difference – make it into space for leisure, jobs, homes, and a big roof garden on the top for events.

Rock House and the OB are next to each other but there is plenty more in that tiny area (MAP SLIDE). We’ve set up the Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust (SLIDE) that is buying other property in the area so we can cap the rents to keep it affordable.

We’ve also bought these caves (SLIDE) and we’re hoping to make a tiny Pocket Park just outside them. And we’re doing some work to make this fantastic Alley (SLIDE) more useable.

We think of it as a little ecosystem (SLIDE) – a set of individual buildings and spaces that each have their own identity but they share a set of values. (SLIDE) They all offer space for living and working that people in Hastings can afford. The important thing is not just that individual people and families can stay and be part of the town but also that the town stays diverse and interesting. Otherwise, as the rents go up, only richer people will be able to afford to live or run a business in the town and that would narrow the range, be less diverse, less interesting and in the end would ruin the neighbourhood.

(SLIDE) I want to show that this tiny area can be a site for social change on a big scale. What we are doing is ‘darning the fabric’, not demolishing and starting again but putting the neighbourhood back together, gently but actively creating a new future for it. I am both very humble – it really is a small area – and absurdly ambitious. To change the world we have to show that the world can be changed. And an area that is just a couple of streets, and a few hundred people, can prove that in a way that sends ripples out across the world.

– – –

I’ve been thinking about the things I learned early on that made it possible for me not just to make a living out of something I’m so passionate about, but also to make a profit that I get to reinvest in projects that I love right here in Hastings:

  1. writing. I’m not a great writer, I’m not going to write a great novel or win a poetry prize, but I can get what I mean onto paper. In my world you are always trying to tell a story about how good something could be. Sometimes you have to do it very formally, like with an exam where there’s a right answer – this many jobs, this many square metres of space improved – but mostly it’s about getting ideas across in ways that catch people’s attention.
  2. speaking. I’ve always been the chatty one. When my sister came home from school my parents would say how was school, she’d say ‘fine’. When they asked me I’d tell them all about what had happened, what we’d learned, what I thought of the teachers, everything! I’ve chaired meetings, given speeches, presented to government ministers (although none as scary as you lot!). And every day my job involves explaining how important it is that we do this thing, whatever this thing is.
  3. admin. One boring summer when I was about 13 I taught myself to touch-type. And ever since then I’ve learned all kinds of useful admin skills, including spreadsheets on Excel, designing databases, planning out projects with a Gantt chart showing how long each task will take. It was admin that got me my first jobs, and then it was admin that made it possible to run every business I’ve been involved in since.
  4. numbers. If you want to be independent you have to be able to add up. Some jobs might need you to add up so that the boss makes money but for me adding up is about making sure the projects I’m involved with don’t lose money, can afford to do the ambitious things we want them to do, and maybe might actually make some money which can be invested in the next big project.

Underpinning all these things is READING. When I was your age I was reading Watership Down, Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books, Jean Plaidy history novels. As well as Jackie and Smash Hits, I used to read Spare Rib which was a feminist magazine that really opened my eyes. I also took books off my mum’s shelf – she had gone to university later in life and was really into her sociology. I didn’t’ understand them but that didn’t matter! Reading is obviously really good for vocabulary – not just learning new words but getting used to seeing words you don’t know and not feeling intimidated, just curious.

More than that I think reading is where I got my values, my opinions. Books like the ones I was reading have very strong sense of right and wrong. But it’s also where you start critical thinking. You realise that what you’re reading is someone else’s version and you can try to understand where they’re coming from and decide whether you agree or not. Now of course there is the entire internet to explore but you need even more the ability to tell fake from real, to see bias, and to remember that there are two sides to every story.

You can’t see the future but I reckon there’s no single better way to get ready for the future than by reading.

And remember there are ways to earn a living that match up your skills, your interests, and the things you care about, and sometimes those are much closer to home than you might think.

Thanks for listening, and good luck!

a working life – slides