Changing places

How RSA Fellows are using their skills, passion and expertise to run community-wide events that aim to promote social progress

Turning an idea into action is no easy task. Persuading an entire community to take action is even more difficult. Yet more and more RSA Fellows in the UK and internationally are running community-wide initiatives that, slowly but surely, are helping to close the gap between the society we live in and the one we aspire to build.

Two successful events, both led by Fellows with support from the wider community, have recently taken place: one in Leicester, East Midlands, and the other in Todmorden, North West. Our Leicester Day enabled local community organisations, clubs, societies and voluntary groups to showcase their diverse activities in the communal environment of Leicester Market. Todmorden Talks, run in collaboration with the Incredible Edible movement, consisted of a ‘harvest festival’ event that celebrated the range and quality of locally grown produce, and an open discussion about how the way we grow, sell and consume food is changing.
In both cases, the event organisers sought to respond to a particular challenge within the community in an inclusive way. Richard Brucciani FRSA, who led the preparations for Our Leicester Day, wanted to create the conditions for the city’s diverse communities, which rarely mix, to come together with a common purpose.

"People of different races and religious faiths live harmoniously enough side by side in our city, but there are few occasions when they meet directly," he observes. "I looked at the many organisations in the community, from amateur theatre groups to Viking re-enactment societies, and I thought they should have a chance to promote themselves to the wider community." Leicester’s open-air market - the largest of its kind in the UK - provided the neutral territory and space necessary for the event.

Pam Warhurst FRSA, founder of Incredible Edible, was responding to an equally broad issue when she set up a local food movement. "I wanted the community to develop a greater sense of environmental responsibility," she explains. "I decided to focus on local food as a way of uniting residents, schools and businesses around the idea of doing things differently."

Since the start of the movement in 2008, this concept has manifested itself in a range of food-related activities, from planting orchards in health centres to building an aqua-fishing farm behind the local school. Warhurst says that the community rose to the challenge from day one, taking responsibility for running activities and communicating progress. "Incredible Edible is run by ordinary people who go beyond the call of duty to make it a success," she explains. "We've now enlisted the RSA’s help in taking the movement to the next stage of growth."

The team chose to kickstart this process by organising a weekend-long series of events. Todmorden Talks aimed to celebrate the success of the movement to date, while opening up a debate about ways to promote resilience and self-sufficiency within communities. The event, which attracted more than 200 people, involved Fellows from local schools and businesses, and featured a public lecture chaired by RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor.

Start-up challenges

The organisers of both initiatives had to deal with practical challenges such as funding and marketing. The RSA's Leicester Network supported Our Leicester Day's bid for Catalyst funding, which invested £2,000 in the project. This enabled the organisers to hire the market, as well as to set up a website and print flyers advertising the event. They also promoted the day by working with local journalists. More than 100 community groups attended and every stallholder paid a £10 entry fee; this helped to recoup some of the running costs and meant that the team was able to save £600 of the Catalyst grant for a future event. The support of RSA Fellows from the local network proved invaluable in administrating, organising, advertising and evaluating the project.

Although Todmorden Talks benefited from financial support through the RSA North West Venture Fund, the organisers were keen to cover their own costs where possible. "My preference is to do everything we can using our own resources and only to ask for money when we actually need it," explains Warhurst.

Until recently, Incredible Edible has raised awareness of its work primarily through the support of volunteers from within the community. But, with the movement now growing in profile, the organisers have decided to turn to the RSA Fellowship for additional guidance. Communications specialist Lily Barton FRSA is advising the group on ways to improve its networking skills, make better use of social media and design more effective leaflets. She also engaged the local school, Todmorden High, in the project by inviting a group of students to film the weekend of talks.

The next step for both projects is to build a model for sustainable growth. Brucciani hopes to make Our Leicester Day an annual fixture, but recognises the challenges involved. Rob Hunter FRSA, who recently carried out a formal evaluation of this year’s event, identified both its strengths - including networking opportunities among the promoters and greater awareness of local diversity among the general public - and its weaknesses, such as the considerable administrative burden for the organisers.

"Next year, we would like to see more members of the public contributing to the promotion of the event itself," says Hunter. "To maintain momentum, we need to attract a bigger, and more diverse, audience." The group plans to compile a ‘how to’ guide so that other communities can replicate the model in their own areas.

The Incredible Edible movement has already attracted the attention of communities elsewhere in the UK, with 22 locations having adopted the model. Interest is growing in Europe, too: representatives from Ireland, France, Germany, Slovenia and Hungary attended an inaugural meeting during Todmorden Talks to share knowledge. Meanwhile, Warhurst and the team are keen to collaborate with other movements, such as Transition Towns, so that Incredible Edible can benefit from their experience without losing its own identity.

Robin Tuddenham FRSA, governor of Todmorden High and a collaborator on the project, sees potential for the movement to expand beyond the issue of local food production. Talks are likely to take place on a quarterly basis, covering issues as diverse as sustainable architecture, human rights and governance. Tuddenham hopes to build stronger links between the school and the local community, and is looking at the RSA Academy as a possible model.

"We’re bringing together people on the ground with an organisation that wants to change society," says Warhurst. "It’s a powerful combination."

To find out more about any of these projects or to offer your support, please email the Fellowship team. If you have a new or early-stage project that could benefit from RSA Catalyst funding or support, visit the RSA Catalyst page.

Illustration: Gregory Iliopoulos