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James and the Lemon Drizzle Cake

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Imagine if, our call to health creation was ‘Let them Eat Cake” or “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” as famously attributed to Marie Antoinette, on learning that the peasants had no bread.

Imagine if we started with what’s strong, like our love of communal cake eating.  Instead of what’s wrong – we should eat less cake, or, we need to have at least one of the problems on the list to qualify for a slice of the cake.  Often the cake has been baked by someone else.  If we’re lucky, we might get to choose the flavour or even get involved in baking it, as long as the person helping us has the relevant qualifications, and, the equipment has been deemed safe to use.

This story intends to shine a light on the possibilities of citizen led change through discovering, connecting and mobilising assets of people and place. It highlights the way it differs to a service led approach with a focus on recruitment, delivery, outputs and outcomes.

The story starts in July 2020, outside of the Post Office on Beech Hill Ave, Wigan, just as we were beginning to emerge from lockdown one. At this point groups of up to six people could meet outside and we were beginning to nervously venture out into some form of communal life.  A couple of the founding members of our local mutual aid group had taken four chairs, and lots of cleaning supplies, to sit outside the post office and say hello to neighbours.  Wanting to reach neighbours who may not be online, members had, during lockdown used their daily exercise time to walk the neighbourhood, saying hello, chatting over gates and noticing the bumping spots; the places where we might get to chat with a few neighbours if we took chairs. 

At the same time, in July 2020, some fantastic folk in Greater Manchester Health & Social Care Partnership were preparing a successful expression of interest to Public Health England which aimed to test how to increase use and connectivity to green social prescribing to improve people’s mental health. 

Hold that in mind, as we travel back to the post office in July for now.  

It was unusually quiet on what is usually a busy road.  At first neighbours mistook the chairs for the post office queue and it’s fair to say that there was an odd look or two on the first week.  That’s when we met James.  He was collecting his daily paper from the post office and his curiosity got the better of him.  He stopped for a chat, taking a while to decide whether to take a seat.  He shared his experience of lockdown; that he missed his wife, how his son had ‘put’ him on a diet and his love of baking and cooking. He used to enjoy calling the bingo too.  

We chatted with lots of people as they passed by, some calling at the post office, others on their daily exercise.  We listened to peoples experience of lockdown and took time to discover peoples gifts, skills and passions; what they had missed, and, what they might like to do together, now that it was becoming a little safer. 

It was on the third Monday when James asked if we’d be here next week.  “We will James” we said. “We are thinking about moving around the neighbourhood too, chatting with some more people.”  

“I was thinking of bringing you a slice a cake,” he said.  “What kind of cake do you like? I make a great lemon drizzle cake.”

“We’d love that.”  we said.  “Although James, do you think there might be a better place for us to eat cake together, rather than sat here on this main road?”

“What about the garden at the back of the community centre,” suggested James. “It would need some work, as it’s been left for a while.  That would be a good place. We could have groups of six.  Lots of people round here have missed seeing each other.”

James took us to look at the garden telling us all about his bread making skills. He offered to bake for neighbours if we could bring the garden back to life.  “I’d rather bake than garden to be honest,” he said.  We asked him if he knew who had been involved in tending the garden previously and he agreed to contact them and pass on our details.  We also suggested that we could ask the members of the community Facebook group if they’d like to get involved.  We’d been hosting online community treasure mapping and quite a few people had said they had skills to share, or an interest in gardening and growing.   

So the invite went out and in August 2020, neighbours, with support from the local Church, began to bring the garden back to life, bringing their own tools or safely using those belonging to the Church.   Agreeing as neighbours that it is our shared responsibility to keep ourselves and each other safe.  It’s what neighbours do. Photographs and stories were shared on the Facebook group, and before long more people were wanting to join in.  Some neighbours who were unable to join us began to offer gardening equipment and cash donations to help towards bulbs, and perhaps a safe seating space for hope, reflection and cake eating.  We discovered that the garden had been originally developed as a sanctuary, by a barefooted vicar, with families who were seeking asylum  in the community. 

By the end of October we had almost £300 in a fund and organised a safe community planting event.  Over 200 bulbs were planted to remember those we have lost and been unable to say a proper goodbye to, and for hope for Spring.  We knew we’d have to delay cake eating together until the Spring. We were preparing for another period of hibernation  as cases were rising. We hope that we may be together in some form when the flowers bloom.  We have a hope too, to eat James’ lemon drizzle cake together, surrounded by flowers.  Who knows, it may even involve bingo.  For now, he keeps his eye on the work.

We noticed that there were a number of ingredients that enabled this self organising community to grow.  Lots of different and unrelated neighbours joined in.  We invited My Life to join in.  My Life help to make lives better for people of all ages who need support to live a good life, including children, young people and adults with disabilities, people with ill health or age-related problems, and people who generally feel lonely or isolated within their communities.  The garden has become a placement for the horticulture students at My Life College, and they are converting one section of the garden into a sensory space.  Perhaps it was this that made neighbours feel welcome.  Perhaps it was also noticing when people said they’d like to get involved, and then didn’t make it, that we reached out and offered to meet them on the way to the garden.  The little things that really matter.  Always seeing people for their gifts, asking what they’d like to offer and give to the garden. 

The five women behind the mutual aid group, who happen to have lots of gifts and skills themselves, began to believe that with a little more resource, they could do so much more inviting in, weaving, connecting and gift sharing.  If only we had more time in our neighbourhood, more time to spend getting to know people, we could invite more people into community life, based on what’s strong rather than what’s wrong.

And, just like magic, a member noticed that Greater Manchester (GM) had secured £500,000 for green social prescribing.  According to public health guidance, green social prescribing links people to nature-based interventions and activities.  Activities are varied and may include green exercise, such as local Walking for Health schemes, active travel (such as walking or cycling), local Park Runs, care farming, community gardening and food growing projects, as well as conservation volunteering, green gyms, and arts and cultural activities which take place outdoors.  Activities are often led by a service, and are recruited to, based on a need, and/or risk stratification.  

Here’s an opportunity we thought.  We’re already doing it.  A community garden, community walks, plans for outdoor mindfulness sessions and more.    A chance to invest in community life, have neighbours inviting neighbours in, wearing gift spectacles, and perhaps people will just feel healthier and happier through a shared sense of belonging, and the ability to use and share their gifts in community spaces with others.  It doesn’t just happen on it’s own, it requires invitation, connecting and building. Perhaps existing resource that we have could be shifted to work in this way in the longer term.  Instead of doing to or doing for, or intervening, perhaps we can work in a way that promotes autonomy, self determination, connection and belonging.  Hoping to do it now, we looked at the framework and sighed. We shared our despair with the team at GM, who are great allies and friends of citizen led action.  We said, “This is a top down framework designed for citizens by those who fix them or want citizens to stop demanding.”  It could even be described as the colonisation of the vegetable patch or the walk with friends.   

Take a look for yourself.

On reading the framework, a lovely bench in Borrowdale came to mind.  It had been placed at a beautiful viewing spot so that people who had fought in the war could rest, sit and heal in nature.  ‘Embedded with MH prevention and recovery’ isn’t carved into the stone. You can sit there without having a label, or completing a wellbeing assessment.  You don’t have to feel better when your time is up on the bench. There is no one sitting next to you with the intention of fixing you.  

If this programme was to invite James in, first of all we’d need to recruit a programme manager and set up a steering group, with a detailed delivery plan and key performance indicators.  We’d co-design these of course, as that’s quite in vogue at the moment. Then we would test and learn practical techniques for engaging, and train link workers making sure they know how to make every contact count, along with all the benefits of green initiatives. (Imagine citizens knowing that themselves.)  Once that was in place, we’d have to cross our fingers that James lived in the right area and perhaps had the right problems.  If only James liked gardening, rather than cake making.  Perhaps we could encourage him to go for a walk, or refer him to general social prescribing, otherwise he’d have to wait for the scale up.  Then we would invite him into a project, designed by someone else. Perhaps we’d co-produce it, as that’s in vogue remember.  Even though we don’t want to, we’d ask James to tell us how miserable he feels so that we can measure the distance he travels with us.  Sorry about that James we have to do it for the funding.  We’d keep our eye on him to see if he’s case study material, so we can say look what we did for this broken person – we fixed him. We’d make sure that each session had some message in it or some visit from someone that might be useful according to our needs assessment.  Once we fix James, or the project ends, whichever comes first, we put him back in the community with a measurable increase in well being outcomes. He may well have made a new friend too as a by product.  If we did a really good job on him we might ask him to become a service champion. He can sell our service to others and talk about how we turned his life around.  He might even come to speak at the evaluation event. 

When you are rooted in community, as a citizen, it is clear to see that we are craving a greater sense of belonging, more friends and more neighbourliness.   Along with enough to live on – that’s another story.  When you are rooted in services it feels like the vision is different, as if we’ve stumbled into a place where we put people down first so we can claim success for rebuilding them.  

According to the framework, the GM Green Social Prescribing Steering Group (whoever they are) hope to develop an understanding of how to sustain green initiatives at locality level.  The answer is right under our noses.  If we polish our spectacles, lift a stone or two, and take a look. 

Of course we need well funded and local services but without community building and the reweaving of our social fabric so that we can heal together as well, it’s like running a bath without a plug.

We often hear ‘system leaders’ say they are unwilling participants in a game they don’t want to play.  They see the top down approach and at the same time want the resource.  It brings to mind for me an awful term, often used to describe the behaviour of families – disguised compliance.  Perhaps this is disguised compliance with asset based approaches?  Saying one thing and then doing another?  Perhaps instead of nudging the traumatised we should give those who dream up these initiatives a sharp elbow nudge. Perhaps its time to stop playing the patriarchal game.

Maybe we could shift from outputs and outcomes that count people as if we are tins of beans.  Maybe quality marks and the number of people trained to intervene and fix us isn’t what we need. Imagine if we were to shift to measuring what we treasure – more friends, and a deeper associational life.  

In community, our friend James, is a producer, not a participant to be fixed. He is known for his gifts and contribution to community.  Feeling useful helps him and his gifts help neighbours.  Let’s do more of that. Shifting from what’s wrong to what’s strong, and using what’s strong to work on what’s wrong.

After all, as our good friends Cormac Russell (Nurture Development) and Maff Potts (Camerados) articulate so well.  It’s about friends and purpose.  All people really need is someone to love, somewhere to live and something to do. Perhaps its time for the state to just decide it’s a good thing and invest in and work alongside neighbourhoods.  Let us eat cake together.