Kindness at the Heart of Rochdale

| Maria Passingham

For anyone used to working within strict guidelines, with prescribed goals, and time-honoured processes, suddenly being asked to drop those formalities and think outside the box can be either totally freeing, or somewhat unnerving. Sarah Pearce (Development and Volunteer Coordinator at Action Together in Rochdale) shares what that experience was like for her, as ‘Heywood with a Heart’ was born.

Sitting in a community café in Rochdale waiting for the first Ideas Shop I had absolutely no idea what was coming. Despite some explanation from Kerry, the creator of this project (and my manager at Action Together) I hadn’t been quite able to imagine just exactly how these ideas shops would work. Phrases like ‘co-production’, ‘power sharing’, and ‘community value’ had flown around in our meetings, and although I nodded enthusiastically I really didn’t know what I was nodding for.

People filed in through the doors; some faces I recognised, some I didn’t. We had asked for 24 collaborators – people who lived, worked, or played in Rochdale Borough. We were aiming for a mix of public sector decision makers, voluntary sector workers, residents and artists.  We awkwardly queued for tea and coffee, making small talk with those we knew, relieved that it was a Friday afternoon and whatever happened in the next two hours we would soon be rewarded with the weekend. I remember thinking that despite asking council workers to take off their lanyards before they arrived, I could spot them a mile away — looking a little stiff and polished in their suits next to the well-worn tables and chairs of the café, but also evidently excited to be part of something so different.

We were organised into random groups, representing one of the four Rochdale neighbourhoods, and started to get to know each other through a few warm-up exercises. My group was a fantastic mix of a senior health and social care manager, a self-care lead, a service manager for a voluntary organisation, and an artist — although we didn’t know that at the time. Crucially, we were not allowed to introduce ourselves through our job roles. Instead, we had a refreshing discussion about what we as individuals cared about, and compassion for others emerged as a big theme for all of us. We also talked about our individual skill sets and I remember some exciting hidden abilities bloomed out of our conversations — skills like reflexology and classical singing. We are more than our job titles, we are deep and interesting people.

Each group was given a ‘treasure chest’ full of fun resources, snacks, and a small envelope marked ‘budget’. Kerry then explained that each group had £1200 to spend on a project of our choice. It could be an event or project, or something else entirely, as long as it was within our neighbourhood. We were free to choose whatever we liked. Those of us from Community, Voluntary, Faith or Social Enterprise sectors were able to take an additional £400 to pay for our time or add to the project to ‘supercharge’ the idea.

What struck me the most was the money was available up front.  Right there. A small but perfect amount to create something and make a difference. None of the pulling together of evidence and persuading those in power that ‘there is a need’ or ‘fills a gap in services’. Instead, we instantly felt a sense of trust, ownership and the power of creation.

I also noticed feeling a lack of pressure that this money had to be used to make the biggest impact or to reach the most people, or even to match “strategic priorities” of the local authority. We could do whatever we wanted! In fact, it didn’t need to be life-changing or informative, it could just be something… well… nice.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying we shouldn’t evidence the need for provision or try to make the best (which isn’t always the biggest) impact we can when delivering projects. I’m saying that perhaps we don’t need to do that every time; that doing things differently, creatively and together can bring surprising results. I finally realised that the Ideas Shop was much more about the process rather than the end results. 

*

Two more sessions, and we were on our own, and ‘Heywood with a Heart’ was born. 

From our earliest discussion our group had focussed on compassion. We decided that Heywood especially had felt the broad brush of the national picture of Rochdale that has circulated in the media since the 90s. We felt it was time to change the narrative, and depict the kindness and humanity of Heywood residents.

We created compassion cards for residents to write their own message of kindness to pass on to others, and devised a kindness workshop to be delivered in schools and voluntary groups. These cards were then to be passed around the community, in shops, homes and public spaces. We’re hoping to hold an exhibition of kindness in the spring.

A project about being kind felt like a luxury we hadn’t afforded in quite some time. Like buying new soft towels when the old ones still get the job done (if a little thin and scratchy). Talking to people about kindness automatically brings a smile to their faces. Hardly anyone can resist the idea of a simple kind message from one person to another, or reaching people that you know may not speak out loud to another soul that day. Many of the messages bear simple truths that we never tire of hearing:

‘You are loved’

‘You are trying your best’

‘Have a lovely day’

Innovation can be huge overhauls or ground-breaking ideas, but it can also happen by changing the small things, or recognising what is already there and bringing it to light. By taking our little slice of power and using the skills and connections we had already – the artist’s interpretation, the services manager’s connections to other local organisations, the residents’ experience – it all rolled up into something of value, and each of us came into our own at different points of the journey. It is amazing what you can be empowered to do using a small pot of unrestricted funds and your own skills and knowledge. 

Photo by A. L.

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