Framework sections highlighted: Leadership, Organise

Hastings gets to work on self-organisation

A pioneering project in Hastings has given 61 local people the opportunity to run a co-operative business through self-organisation, transforming a once derelict building into a community asset in just one month.

Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust, part of South Coast Community Organisers Social Action Hub, brought together a group of local unemployed community members to develop their skills in construction, catering, journalism and administration through an experimental learning-by-doing approach called Organisational Workshop(OW). The OW involves participant groups being given real life projects to deliver within a set timeframe, whilst being left to self-organise the work between themselves without hierarchy or instruction from facilitators.

Originally pioneered by Brazilian sociologist Clodomir Santos de Morais, the OW was first trialled in South America in the 1950s, later spreading to Africa and eventually Europe.

Closer to home, fellow Social Action Hub Marsh Farm Outreach completed an OW in Luton in 2015, which saw a group of 40 long-term unemployed community members develop a 5-acre green space on the edge of the Marsh Farm estate into a community asset over a period of 12 weeks. Marsh Farm Outreach has since supported Hastings with their OW, sharing their knowledge and experience.

Community organiser Sam Kinch explained how the OW model gets right to the heart of building power with marginalised people:

It’s about taking a group of people who traditionally in our society are massively disempowered - people who are unemployed, and their only options are to go into low wage, low respect environments, and putting them completely in charge of something quite major. It’s trying to shift power, which brings its challenges, and was quite intimidating for a lot of the participants, but once they settled in and felt comfortable, they really ran with it.

In Spring 2019 the Hastings group formed a business named Observer Construction Enterprises (OCE), who were tasked with the transformation of the 4000 square foot Observer Building, which had been derelict for 34 years following its life as the local newspaper’s offices and printworks. For decades the iconic building had been passed from developer to developer but left empty, until its current owners White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures took the building on with plans to turn it into affordable workspace with leisure facilities and accommodation. The renovation work completed by OCE generated £4000 by the end of the month long project and a core group of participants named the Observer Pioneers are now working with this as seed funding for their next collective venture.

The Hastings OW offers a real life example of how work and enterprise can be done differently, beyond the typical hierarchical structure. One of the OW participants, Darren, spoke about his experience:

“I’ve been volunteering with Heart of Hastings for some time, and it’s always been a bottom up development type process with them, so I’ve always had my voice heard. The OW is another way of doing that but in a work setting. It was stressful, it was a challenge and it was definitely interesting. It was worth doing to see a different way that things can be done.”

It has also offered participants the chance to develop leadership skills, as Sam explains:

“We have to completely hand over trust and power to the participants, and that is part of the magic I think. Something a lot of the participants expressed was actually being put in charge of things like that was such an empowering feeling, and so rare in everything else that they do.”

A number of the Hastings OW participants went on to employment, setting up their own business and completing training, including Darren, who is now working towards becoming a paramedic whilst continuing to volunteer at Heart of Hastings. His advice to anyone that may be interested in the OW is:

“If you ever get the opportunity to create one or participate in one, take the chance and do it – you’ll be surprised, and it will be an amazing experience.”

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