Published 15th October 2015

The impact of connecting internationally

One country. Two flights. Three nights. Four days. Five train journeys and hundreds of people.

Community Organiser Fiona Bond reflects on her visit to the Netherlands with Nick Gardham, CEO of the Company of Community Organisers (COLtd).

Organiser Fiona Bond and CEO Nick Gardham on their recent visit to the Netherlands

I’ve just returned from a four day visit to the Netherlands with Nick Gardham, CEO of COLtd.  We set out with the aim of connecting with community organisers and sharing our ways of working. To say we achieved that would be an understatement.  We built relationships.  We talked, we listened, and we created connections that have potential to benefit the Community Organisers (CO) network for years to come.

Beginning a Conversation
We arrived in Amsterdam in the morning of the first day and before we could learn to say ‘thank you’ in Dutch (dank je), we set off on our first train journey to Utrecht, a city south of Amsterdam.  There, we visited the office of Movisie (Netherland’s knowledge institute for social development), where we met with Paul Vlaar who had initially invited us to the Netherlands, and has twenty years of experience as a community organiser.  We learnt about Movisie and the context of community work (opbouwwerk) over the years.

Paul took us to an old school that had been turned into an enterprise hub, fully equipped with a bar, social spaces, and theatre-style rooms.  We delivered a workshop on the Company of Community Organisers to various people from Movisie, Krachtproef (the annual gathering of Community Organisers/Builders in the Netherlands), a social work union, a senior lecturer for a social work degree, and a journalist from the national community sector magazine.  We shared everything from where we came from, to where we’re hoping to go. I spoke of my experience knocking on doors – something that many people picked up on – and shared stories from my own work and the work of other COs.

Nick focussed on the policy context of England and the journey COLtd has been, and is now on, with the work around Community Rights.   This provoked a lot of conversation both at the workshop and throughout the week. Whilst there are some instances of similar offerings in the Netherlands, the process is not legally binding. The discussions that followed allowed for questions to be asked, and at dinner that evening, we talked with employees from Movisie about whether a similar programme in training community organisers could work in the Netherlands before getting the train to Den Bosch, further south, where we were staying.

Exchanging Stories and Challenges
Another train journey, another city: Eindhoven – a newer city than Utrecht and Den Bosch – where we visited a neighbourhood office in an area of the city called Doornakkers (a name we found quite fitting given our work).

We met Willian, a Community Organiser/Builder who uses coaching as a key principle to underpin his work. He has a vision where the unemployed could have a whole person (and community) approach to supporting people back into work. You could feel Willian’s passion and drive to make a real difference in his community but he worried about how to fund this vision and whether the old school gym community centre he worked out of would be available for much longer.

We sat down with Thijs van Mierlo and Ties de Ruijter from LSA (a national organisation that brings together residents from different organisations to make changes in the community for the better), Willian, Kiyomid (from Movisie), and were joined by Hans Vetser from the Municipality of Eindhoven (the local council).

Through swapping stories, ways of working, and sharing more about ourselves and our work, we were able to develop a greater understanding of democracy in the Netherlands.  Whilst voter numbers have gone down to 23% in the city of Eindhoven, the group were not worried about this, as residents have other ways of being involved in their communities.  The government have been actively promoting do-democracy (doe-democratie), which brings together initiatives, individuals, social entrepreneurs and the government.  The aim of this is to increase the opportunity for governments to connect with local people and involves residents taking action and influencing decisions outside of traditional democratic processes.  This includes being able to influence the final decision over who will run services from a short list provided by the council.

Walking around the community of Doornakkers, we were able to get a feel for the area. The Netherlands is exceptionally clean. Ad – from the LSA board – talked about how social regeneration starts with a clean and tidy neighbourhood.  Something that we know many of us recognise from the work that we have been doing in communities here in England.  We saw very little litter on the streets, and the play areas were well maintained.  This made me think about what we can do in our communities to better support cleaner and tidier neighbourhoods.

Developing Relationships
Our last two days were spent at the Netherlands annual gathering of community builders: Krachtproef.  The event was in Dutch, but we very quickly learnt that we didn’t need to understand the language to understand the atmosphere and environment being fostered at the event.

A number of inspiring workshops took place with a keynote speech from Professor Doctor Roelof Hortulanus who talked about six principles of community building, a session on ABCD, and site visits.

We attended a session run by West Lancashire CVS (the only other English people at the event) on how they work with health in the local community.  They’ve really developed the services that they offer so that they spend less time and money on staffing services and more on connecting with, and empowering, individuals within the local community.

Sitting in on a session on ABCD, delivered in Dutch, made me reflect on my own community organising work.  Having worked alongside refugees and asylum seekers for much of my trainee year as a Community Organiser, I was aware of the experience of being unable to speak the language of the country you’re in.  It wasn’t until that moment that it really hit me, though, how difficult it is.  I knew that if I needed them to in an emergency, the room of people could switch to English, but what if they couldn’t?  It was a very grounding moment which really helped me to gain clarity on the experiences of the people I work alongside in my local community.

Where do we go from here?
Meeting community builders in the Netherlands was an experience that will stay with me for a long time.  I have been given a glimpse into life in another country, into the community work of another country, and into the world of people who do similar jobs to my own.

Although we work differently from many of the people we met, we all share a value set: people matter, listening matters, communicating and bringing people together matters.  We work towards creating a better world now and in the future, and we do so by enable people to better fight for their rights and building communities up (starting with people first).  We have a commonality which is so important when you’re doing similar work.  Though nobody talked about door knocking, my mention of it seemed to push people to consider this.  I had a conversation about the fact that many community builders knock on doors – but they don’t talk about it.

The week has produced a lot of reflection for me – where do we go from here? The connections we made are so valuable that the next steps are equally important – as they are in our own communities. Transferring my experience into my work, and sharing it with others, helps to expand the network of people who can benefit from this exchange.

But the impact is wider, it has the potential to stretch from individuals to the local communities we all serve, right through to the international connection we have created.  Unlike in the UK, the annual gathering is the only opportunity community organisers/builders have to meet up.  I think we had a real impact on some of the people we met, inspiring thoughts and provoking conversations on how individuals can move forward as a network.  This was especially significant when, by the end of the week, Paul Vlaar felt inspired by our work to ask his fellow community workers what they wanted, and they started to organise.

We also posed the question: what is the purpose of our continued relationship?  It’s a question we didn’t answer, and in many ways it wasn’t important that we answered it right away.  It’s a question for another day, and a question that our network in the UK, and the network in the Netherlands deserves to be part of answering.

So many times in our training year we talked about building networks and power in our local communities. COLtd is about how we start to build that power in regions, and potentially nationally.  But why not take it to another level?  Start with individuals, and we can stretch right through to our European neighbours, making our impact even bigger!

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