Connecting local responses around the world
In December I began a more formal application of SALT in the community I am working in. Up to now, I have been practising my communication techniques in how I interact with the wonderful residents on the urban inner city London estate on which I work. Our project is an informal, ABCD project where, a couple of days a week, we hang out at a borrowed social housing flat, inviting residents in for cups of tea and letting the ideas they naturally begin to speak about over a hot drink, take their course. We have been running this session for just 5 months and in this time we’ve seen many a story unfold. This has included a charming and empathetic grandmother from the traveller community, who is illiterate and has previously struggled with her confidence to lead a project, now leading a bingo club for local residents. Another time when two women were having a cup of tea, one told the other how she wished there were more empowerment courses for women and it so happened the other was a psychology student and interested in the very same thing. Not long ago they launched their bespoke course for their peers and neighbours. The course is now half way through and as well as supporting each other in their emotional development through cognitive behavioural therapy techniques, they now have a social media group where they arrange babysitting for each other, go to see each other if someone is feeling low, or needs a child picked up from school, or needs help sewing a school blazer etc.
As I said, I’d decided to apply SALT in a more focussed group setting so, in December I ran an informal “Community Leadership” workshop for residents who regularly engage in our project and who I felt the SALT skills would benefit, both through the “receiving” of appreciation through the exercises I planned and through being able to perpetuate the SALT way in their own community networks.
We had 5 attendants; all residents of Hackney but with different ethnic backgrounds. All were women and all were single mothers. All five of these women have been through traumatic experiences in their past. All are unemployed. And all through the time I have got to know them have demonstrated to me remarkable resilience in how they have overcome challenges. Lastly, all are passionate about their local communities. One runs the local primary school’s PTA, another volunteers at a local church, the third had been running poetry sessions before having gone through a phase of depression and had to stop, though she is slowly becoming involved again. Number 4 has had every possible trauma you could think of happen to her but is vastly empathetic and spends the majority of her time caring for family members and friends, being an ear to anybody who needs somebody to listen. Number 5 is the remarkable young lady above who is studying psychology part time whilst raising her child alone, living on very little means and doing her best to forge a career for herself.
We started with the very exercise that had first got me interested in SALT when Rituu had ran a session at the CDJ conference in Edinburgh a few years back. I asked the group to get into pairs and for A to tell B a story that made them proud.Though I was facilitating I had a partner who told me her story, so I did not hear the others but I could sense and see that it was an emotional but wonderful moment.
The story from my partner was as follows. K was proud of the fact that despite having gone through incredibly difficult times, and hitting rock bottom where her children were removed from her care, she realised she had a choice. And that choice was to realise the only way was up. She realised in that moment that she was naturally an empathetic person and that she had to put it to use. She went out her way to be nice to her neighbours, to be helpful and to be present. Every week she would speak to her elderly frail neighbour who had no washing machine and was often straining his arms and hurting his back doing his washing. She did not mention anything straight away because she knew he was a proud man and wouldn’t want anybody to know he needed help. As she became closer to him she told him “I am going to do your washing for you. You don’t need to tell anybody about it, I’ll get it done and bring it back.She made extra special care to bring back everything fresh and warm from the iron and neatly folded. In disbelief, her neighbour told her she was an angel. She said that in that moment she knew she had a purpose. Since then she has been volunteering at her local church, and makes it her business to know her neighbours and offer help where she can – whether that’s linking them into local sevices that they need or just being someone to talk to.
At the end of this exercise it was clear to feel in the room and uplifting aura; that everyone had been taken by surprise in noticing wonderful things about their selves.I then explained the SALT acronym and we reflected on how the initial exercise we have done reflected this communication technique. I introduced the following questions which we spoke about in a group, with everybody contributing
1. What is strength?
2. What makes us human?
3. What is a local response?
Interestingly it was the question “what is a local response” that produced the most passionate discussion. The participants were proud of their community and spoke about the many ways in which they had seen their community come together to deal with issues on hand. For example the area suffers from high levels of violence with fatal stabbings by rival teenage gangs; yet affected parents had come together to discuss ways to support each other in parenting and ways to look out for signs of children entering gangs, and providing them with different routes .
Another participant spoke about her love of poetry and how she felt the conversation about strengths in the community were reflected in a poem she had written about her neighbourhood called “my beautiful junk yard”
However the conversation progressed very naturally onto a following topic of which there was agreed consensus. That many local people knew there were great strengths to harness in the community but that these were not recognised or nurtured by local infrastructure. Many participants had been encouraged by local NGOs to volunteer, work with their communities, and indeed they do spend their time acting as “community connectors.” However this is where they felt that support stopped. It seems they felt no NGO, local authority etc. in the area had any interest in them beyond them reaching a certain point in development that fit their outcomes. The question of said residents actually being hired by and involved in the non-profit sector seemed non-existent. They were wanted as volunteers but not as employees and certainly not as leaders. They were there to be empowered by other people, not to empower others their selves. All felt strongly that not only was no effort put in place for this to happen but perhaps it was actively avoided. The notion of residents actually leading the development efforts in the area seemed to have been given no chance. In other words, many, whom are under great pressure from the job centre to be employed, who have great passion and skills in the area of community development, have no way of entering this field and working more formally for their communities.
For my next session with the group, I would really like to explore this further.
As they facilitated I made a conscious effort to sit back and not intrude. I wanted the conversations to feel authentic and for the ladies facilitating to really get into their zone without feeling as though I was watching and judging in anyway; so as they sat having enthusiastic and engaging conversations, I busied myself making tea and serving biscuits.
The ladies decided for the last few questions to bring the group together as a whole and have a group conversation.
What really struck me was just how much of an impact the notion of SALT had made on the women, and their reflections on the impact of the questions we had used. In turn I could see that this was resonating with the newer participants; the sheer strength of aknowledging strength and the possibilities this could hold for their community. We left the session in a state of excitement and buzz, with everyone saying "this is great! what can we do next?"
Luckily the support of my triad learning team will help me create the space for the next session in which I have no doubt these wonderful women will start to create their shared dream.
Finally here are some pictures below and also a video of one of our participants speaking about the impact of the question "What are you most proud of?"