L30 Netherton: This Is Community Life

The Netherton community in Liverpool is discovering the power of building community life.

This interview was conducted by Sam Moon, with editing support from Sam Gregory.

How does a neighbourhood discover the treasures it holds within itself that enable a flourishing life to happen, by community, for community? What are the possibilities when you have the courage to step back, and what can happen when relationships are nourished to grow within a neighbourhood?

We speak to Debbie Stephens (Chief Executive), who talks to us about deepening connections through ABCD and the wonderful L30 Community Centre, Netherton, Liverpool. 

Debbie Stephens (middle): Community Weekend away in Llandudno

A lady that came with us who is 85 said she had the best weekend of her life

Debbie, what’s giving you a spring in your step? What are you working on that excites you most?

Everything is giving me a spring in my step at the moment, because what we're seeing is a community that is becoming so connected. What we're seeing is that circle growing and growing and growing every day. I can't remember the last day that I was in the centre that I didn't see a new face – it's been some time now. Just seeing how people are doing things for themselves, and really changing not just their lives but the lives of others and community life. It’s huge.

About twelve months ago, some community members got together because they'd been talking about wanting to put an afternoon tea on for the community. All singing, all dancing – let's bring the community together for this. They made their own aprons, we invested in chair covers, and funding for a professional singer. We asked everybody if they had any old cups and saucers and cake stands, and the hall was set up amazingly. That now happens every single month, and it's sold out within a day.

The community have done that, and they’ve brought all those people together. If you were to come down on a Tuesday afternoon, you wouldn't think it was a Tuesday afternoon in Netherton. You’d think you were living it up in Ibiza on a Saturday night. Everybody's up singing and dancing and having fun – there's a little game of bingo in between. A lot of people have come along to that on their own. They're people who live in the community, might say a quick hello to their neighbours, but who are generally living on their own and having days where they feel lonely.

They’ve then got involved in so much more – they're coming up for their breakfast on a Monday, they're coming for their lunch on a Thursday. Again, this is provided by the community. We’ve got nine people trained up to do food hygiene, they have a bit of a rota, and now they do full cooked breakfast on a Monday and a two-course meal on a Thursday. They've completely organised that.

It has led to people saying but I want to cook as well. So slow cooker courses have started. All completely fully booked, with 15 on each course, when they finish people are like "we don't want this to end". So now next month we are starting the slow cooker social once a month. So if you've been into the slow cooker course you can come back, there's a buffet of all slow cooker meals for you to try but also catch up with all the people that you got together with.

Last weekend, we had our first weekend away in Llandudno – we took 35 women. We do day trips as well, all completely sold out. Again, a lot of people who live on their own, ranging from people in their forties to people in their eighties. A lady that came with us who is 85 said she had the best weekend of her life.

Then coming home, I was called to the back of the coach and on the back sat five ladies. Two of them had spent their whole lives working in school kitchens, and they were with their three mates and they said ‘Can we use the centre to do Christmas dinner for the community? We've worked in kitchens all our lives – we think we could do this. Then other people were hearing this and saying yeah, I'd get involved in that. That's just one example – it’s really growing.

You talked about the deepening of relationships – what would you say are the conditions that have to be created to enable that to happen?

Just providing fun events for people to come together and connect with no agenda, or making sure that there's lots going on, it's regular, and those people are getting to see each other on a regular basis.

I really like what you're saying about how people go to different events, and then meet other people, but because there's this variety, when they go to a new event, they might see people from other groups. It is the energy and the fuel that helps create that community. What are you most hopeful for in community life, with all this in mind?

Our hope is that more things start to happen ‘by community, for community’ that also help in other ways. In the pandemic, we got lots of donations, and from that we set up a community pantry.

We did away with the food bank model, because it wasn’t sitting right with the way we were working. We moved to a pantry model where people could come and choose their own items and make a contribution – open to anyone, no questions asked. Then we got the community involved in running that.

Over the last 18 months we've slowly stepped back, and this year that group became constituted on its own. We've passed over all the funding that we had, and they've set up their own bank account. That is now completely run by the community, for the community. So all the time, rather than it feeling like a service that's being done to the community, it's very much: this is community life.

There's a really strong understanding of mutuality there, and where the power is placed. What’s really coming through is how people being connected is really important. So Debbie, tell me how this is making you feel?

Excited! So excited. We've just been made an associate charity of the Steve Morgan Foundation. We've had a relationship with them for a number of years, and they gave us funding in the pandemic to survive, really. So they've picked four charities from across Merseyside and north Wales who they are going to invest in over the next ten years. So they have just allocated us ten years of unrestricted funding to do whatever we want. So I'm excited for the community. Because when those ladies were talking about doing a Christmas lunch, I didn't have to think ‘But where are we gonna get funding for it?’ It's not all about money, but it just opens so many more doors.

So what are the possibilities that you're seeing?

I’ve just talked a lot about that weekend that we've just had, but I do feel for some people that it was a real turning point in their engagement with community life and wanting to give so much more. I'd love to see that with families, because I know when we put it out there people started saying ‘Can't you do this for families? Cant we have family getaways?’ With families it could become unaffordable, but with this bit of funding I can maybe subsidise some of it and make it happen for families. But let's deepen relationships between families across the whole community – across all ages.

What is the best thing that could happen?

The best thing that could happen is that everybody in this community who has a skill, a passion, a gift to share, has the opportunity to do that. I’m thinking of Jane, who nobody knew in this community until the pandemic, and she had not been seen since she was a child, and she is now in her fifties.

She’s now here every day and is our meeter and greeter, because she’s got a lovely smile, she remembers everybody's names, and she loves that role. You just want everybody to be able to contribute to community life and have the opportunity to do that.

What do you think is the courage that's needed to step in that direction?

To step back, and just be there when the community needs us, and not get in the way. That's quite hard sometimes. It takes courage to just step back. And even when you see things not going quite right, to only intervene when you feel it’s appropriate and you've been invited. And that's hard sometimes.

Say a little bit more about why that’s hard.

Because we all like to see people happy, don’t we. And when things go a bit wrong, people aren't always happy, and you feel you've got to fix them and make it right. And it's hard to let them go through that and have time where they're not quite happy with things, and come out the other side without getting straight in there to try and fix it for them. It's very much in my personal nature, but I think it's in a lot of our nature given the line of work that we’re in.

And what are the possibilities you see when you do step back?

That the community come to their own solutions, and they develop those skills to problem-solve themselves and see it through themselves. If there's hiccups in relationships with others, then they work out how they're going to resolve them without somebody else coming in and being a mediator.

A lot of these people, if they've had issues within school, their own children in school, with their next door neighbours or with family members, it's got to a stage where professionals have intervened and told them how those relationships should be rather than them developing the skills to solve problems themselves. That's what we should be doing. Because we're not helping people by intervening all the time.

Afternoon Tea in Netherton

What would you like, want or need from the community to make the next steps as wonderfully successful as they possibly could be?

It's just continuing to build those relationships. And also to be open to connecting with others. But I'm seeing that already, and I'm seeing different age groups, different people from different walks of life starting to do that. So maybe just that to continue. I think what we need from the community is just being more open to inviting everybody in themselves, and not us feeling like we sometimes have to make sure that people who maybe have been left on the edges are fully included.

Which is what we do, but maybe the community could take on a bit more of that role. What I need from the community is just for everybody to be inviting and welcoming to everybody, and maybe stop arguing about who's got tickets and who hasn’t!

Summer fun

So what meaning was made for you through the course of our conversation?

I think what I liked is that I've taken the time to step back and think about it all – the way things have snowballed, and all the different activities that have grown and led to something else. Through talking to you and relaying some of these stories I’ve realised how far the community has come. The community organiser was telling people at the weekend how she skips to work every day! It's just such a warm, welcoming place, to be a part of this community.

I've met quite a few people and been telling them stories. And many of them said ‘I'd love to live in Netherton!’ For years, if it was in the paper it was for bad things. But not only do people who live here now feel proud to be here, people who don't live here now want to live here because of how connected it’s become.

My last question. Who do you know who is working on something you admire, and whose story deserves to be shared?

I'm not sure if you've come across Emma our community builder? Emma is a person who's lived in Netherton her whole life. She is known by everyone, she's got one of those personalities where she just speaks to anybody and everyone. After all of our experiences – and disasters – with community builders, Big Local were looking to recruit a community builder who was going to be employed by the community centre. Emma was the natural person.

During the pandemic we connected again, and started to get her involved in things in the voluntary sector. And she started to see the way we were working and was really onboard – she's just the most amazing person. So we've talked about a community that's connected, but what we've really, really struggled with is getting the local associations and organisations connected. There’s a bit of suspicion. It's been difficult, but Emma is just so upfront and is seen as an impartial person in the organisation, and she's done an amazing job at connecting local assets, and local people into those assets.

What we're seeing now is people being able to make use of everything that's going on in the area, and having more say in what goes on in the area. She really does inspire me – she's got endless energy. People are getting engaged and coming along because they know Emma, because they've known her since she was a little kid – she's in her forties now! Every Wednesday she does a walkabout where she goes all round the community, like “I'm doing this, come and say hi, make us a cuppa as I’m going down your street!” She went to an event the other day and she said two women were sitting there nudging each other saying “We've gotta ask you, are you the girl who does walkabout Wednesday?

Then the health and wellbeing co-ordinator Suey, who you will have come across. Suey grew up in the area all her life as well and she knows Emma. Now once a fortnight they do ‘Meet Your Street’. Again, everybody in the community knows them, they get a couple of deckchairs and some flasks of tea and they do a ‘where are we today?’ We took it off Ant & Dec! ‘If we’re in your street, come out and have a cuppa with us and meet your neighbours’. They’re just some of the creative ways they’re doing it out on the streets, because it's not all about the centre.

Emma is the heart of Netherton. She is really amazing, so that's who I really admire as a local person. She’s in a role that she said she would do for nothing anyway, because she absolutely loves it. She's making a difference to her community with the community alongside and onboard.

Thank you Debbie, that was wonderful.

Find out more about L30 Netherton via Facebook at:  https://www.facebook.com/rene.l30/

Story | 30.11.23

community, Local Area Coordination, Neighbourhood Care, Neighbourhood Democracy, England, Story

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