Interview with Spaces of Hope Founder, Matthew Barber-Rowell

| Anna Eaton

‘Hope’ is something we have needed more than ever this year. With the nights drawing in, winter around the corner and the second wave of Covid-19 underway, we all need a little bit more hope to keep on going. 

That’s why we were excited to catch up with Matthew Barber-Rowell, the founder of Spaces of Hope, an initiative that brings people together from across communities and sectors to share their stories and get to the core of their shared values in order to build networks and identify concrete actions to tackle social isolation, hopelessness and improve wellbeing. 

Spaces of Hope grew out of Matthew’s personal experience of loneliness and his work as a Community Development worker at a town centre church in Stockport, a role he started in 2016. At that time Brexit was dividing the country and the impact of austerity was hitting communities and services hard. As part of his role, Matthew set out to find out what people in the local area had experienced and what they cared about in order to find a new way of working during these difficult times. 

These conversations started to grow into formal and informal gatherings of ‘safe spaces’ to share and listen, with 35 taking place over three years. And so ‘Spaces of Hope’ was born. Over that time Spaces of Hope has facilitated conversations between hundreds of people, particularly helping to bring in people who have found themselves on the edges of society, shut out or not listened to in the past.  

Part of the power of Spaces of Hope is Matthew’s personal story. Matthew has shared many things from his own life – from how found it hard to find work after graduating into the year of the recession, to his experience of domestic abuse and feeling let down by traditional services. It’s well worth listening to his full story here. Matthew found that many people shared his experience and also wanted to overcome feelings of emptiness in their personal, professional and community lives. In sharing his own story, Matthew has demonstrated the power of vulnerability and how listening to stories of how others have struggled can help us feel recognised, less alone and help us begin to form hope.

We asked Matthew a few questions to learn more about him and Spaces of Hope.

What’s your favourite piece of work Spaces of Hope has done so far?

If I have to pick just one, it would be the Spaces of Hope Hubs Network, commissioned by Stockport Council. This project harnessed the momentum from two previous pieces of work; the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) supported Health as Social Movement that Spaces of Hope was part of, and the Chester Cathedral gathering, and curated connections, stories, ideas, practices and shared values into a vision and toolkit for more connected communities.

The network emerged out of both physical and digital gatherings and opened up community spaces for exploration of what mattered to people, by 167 people and 70+ organisations from across the town. The network said that Spaces of Hope encouraged values of vulnerability, freedom and connection and highlighted the way that perceptions of different culture, beliefs, values and worldviews can be a barrier but can also be overcome through social connection. In a supposedly secular public square, this network represented a movement out of a local church that was discussing what mattered to people and declared an interest in the health and wellbeing of the full diversity of our communities and received a positive response, offering evidence for the need to re-examine how faith based organising is understood and engaged with in public life.  

Of the people that took part, 1 in 3 people noted that they were inspired to start new work and staggeringly over 90% of people noted that they wanted to continue gathering beyond the life of the commission to develop connections and shared values. This Spaces of Hope project highlighted how listening and engaging locally can unearth the different and creative potential that are so often overlooked. This sense was shared by the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in England, who completed a study of Spaces of Hope in 2018 and the Church of England Social Responsibility Network, who adopted Spaces of Hope as an approach for reimagining ‘Church on the High Street’ in 2019.

What’s been your ‘best mistake’ along the Spaces of Hope journey?

My best mistake? First of all, there are many to choose from. I have learned that mistakes or failures of any kind definitely exist and that they can hurt, and they can sometimes take time to move on from. But mistakes are invaluable learning experiences and opportunities to hone and develop relationships, shared enterprises and understand the beliefs and values that set foundations for the things we do.  

I think the best mistake I made was after a Spaces of Hope Gathering at Chester Cathedral. This was a real high point. The event had drawn participation from people of faith and none across sectors from across the region and well-respected keynote speakers and plenary guests helped to tease out a vision for how Spaces of Hope might grow in the coming years.  It was the best piece of work I had done to that point in my career.

My mistake was to think I then had to take forward the legacy on my own. In adopting an individual mindset; ‘how can I respond?’, ‘how do I make sense of this?’ I was limiting the capacity that had been identified for Spaces of Hope to grow. In recognising my mistake, I realised the cost of not opening myself up to others, working relationally and taking risks in order to see Spaces of Hope grow. 

The event at Chester Cathedral was the 7th Spaces of Hope gathering I had run. Had I not recognised the individual mindset I had after it, it might have been one of the last gatherings that took place. It has become the 7th of a series of 35 gatherings in 36 months, which have helped to define Spaces of Hope as they are known today. If I had not recognised my mistake, I would not have encountered many of the 900+ people that have helped to shape the work to help it become what it is today. 

How has/ will Spaces of Hope bring people together and share and connect during this time of Covid-19? 

During lockdown I began by volunteering at the local food project launched by St Andrew’s Church, Clubmoor. I offered support packing and delivering food for people in the area of Liverpool that I live. This wasn’t a Spaces of Hope project, but as with so much of the response to Covid-19, it was a collective expression of working together with others for the hope, health and wellbeing of the wider community.

I am also one of a team from the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmith’s University of London, tasked with mapping local responses to Covid-19 by Local Authorities and Faith Groups, nationally. The research commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Faith and Society will be launched at Parliament on the 22nd October. A new piece of work that is emerging is a Spaces of Hope backed movement called Yours Faithfully. This is a movement to combat the second wave of Covid, particularly in more transient and therefore more vulnerable groups who it is likely we will be unfamiliar with. This movement is seeking to catalyse local action based on what has been learned from the first wave, connecting local responses based on the different and creative potential expressed by people in communities. It is clear that local organising of collective, often food-based responses, has been pivotal to effective support during lockdown. I am hoping to see more fruit of this kind produced in the months to come.

What’s next for Space of Hope?

2020 has involved consolidating Spaces of Hope activity into my own doctoral research recently submitted to the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. The capacity to iteratively grow the work through action and reflection is I think what makes it such a detailed and dynamic approach to coproduction and curating community assets and networks.

The William Temple Foundation have supported the development of research behind Spaces of Hope over the last few years. Later this month the Foundation will be releasing an e-book I have written as part of their Temple Tracts library. The book will consider how Spaces of Hope inform approaches to local leadership and shared values for our post-Covid context. This Tract represents one of a number of new, free resources that are contributing to research and action as part of local and national conversations.

In addition to Yours Faithfully, there is a building momentum to curate networked gatherings and support for people in more transient communities in a more sustainable way. I will be focussed on this for the next few months in the hope that we can begin to make a difference as the second wave of Covid takes hold. This is new work which responds to the uncertain, uninvited and unexpected Covid conditions we are currently facing.

Where can we find out more? 

Spaces of Hope has maintained an online presence at as well as @SpacesofHope on Twitter.  Check these out to get a sense of the different offers available from Spaces of Hope and check them out in mid-October when the Temple Tract will be released and also during the autumn, for updates on Yours Faithfully too. 

Photo of Spaces of Hope locations in and around Stockport provide by Spaces of Hope.

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