Let them eat cake! The story of Chestnuts Community and Community Arts Centre, Tottenham by Yvonne Field

After almost 20 years as a hallowed 'organisational consultant', I recently found myself in an interesting and at times rather uncomfortable place. As a result of this unexpected change of status and place, socially and physically, I ended up in the forefront of a campaign to save an African Diaspora managed community centre in Tottenham which was due for closure by Haringey Council.

It was precisely the rich learning experience I needed, and the timing, though I did not realise it at the time, was perfect. The experience allowed me to shift from the 'espoused theory' of community empowerment, which I often teach to students and workers in training, to the 'theory in use' (Argyris and Schon, 1974). This came after almost three decades of being away from the community development 'field'.

Chestnuts Community and Community Arts Centre,(www.facebook.com/Chestnutspeople or @chestnutspeople), operated with 100% self sufficiency, and the model, in my opinion, should have been viewed as an early form of social enterprise. All their income was generated as a result of their own entrepreneurial activities - no grant aid in sight!

This much used and deeply, loved 13 roomed community space was built in the 1980's and is fortunately located in the same neighbourhood to where I recently moved. It ran into trouble financially in 2012, and had rent arrears and considerable building dilapidation costs, due to having a full repairing lease and not raising enough renewal income..

Haringey Council adopted a rather ‘arms length’ approach, refusing to renew their 20 year lease when it ran out in 2012. The whole matter ended up in a court case last Summer, with the management signing an agreement to return the keys to the Council on 31st December 2014.

After hearing about the planned closure, one of my colleagues in Tottenham, Philip Udeh, Director of Community Builders (www.communitybuilders.org.uk) and I, in my role as founder of the the Ubele Initiative (www.ubele.org), approached the management committee to see if we could assist.

Previous attempts by the centre management committee to engage the local authority in dialogue had failed miserably - there had literally been no communication, for years prior to, or even post court case. This was after more than two decades of providing much needed services on an independent basis to a deprived South Tottenham community, as well as further afield.

As the deadline drew near, the management pushed for communication. The eventual response received was a blanket 'all out!' for the centres' forty-two (yes 42!), culturally diverse user groups which served literally hundreds of local people each week. Where to and how this would be managed did not appear to be given much forethought. The local authority had no idea as to who was actually using the centre, what was being offered, for how long, what communities were being served, the quality of the provision and the social value that was being generated through the activities. They had definitely not conducted an equalities impact assessment.

The activities and services delivered by the 42 user groups included Bulgarian dance, martial arts, after school provision, summer projects, carnival workshops, physical health and well being for young people, supplementary education, sewing and knitting classes, Trades Union meetings, police liaison sessions, campaigning groups and faith groups, to name but a few.

The centre played a dual role  by offering a home for a community of interest'  from the African Diaspora community for funerals and other important rights of passage activities, as well as offering a weekly programme of diverse activities to diverse communities, young and old alike.

However, due to it being managed by a predominately, but not exclusively African Diaspora committee, it had been labelled negatively as a 'Black Centre'. This misconception seemed to have clouded it from the onset and I am left wondering if centres with a predominately White UK leadership, hold such negative connotations?

After receiving the devastating news from the local authority, myself, Philip and people from the local community joined centre users and revitalised and formalised an intergenerational group, called 'Chestnuts People', which had begun life some 18 months earlier.

Over the next two months we campaigned using Twitter (which I learnt to love using after some original apprehension and technical support from my 21 year old daughter), the local newspaper, an online petition and local networks of community organisations such as 'Our Tottenham' (www.ourtottenham.org.uk).

We held weekly meetings, including sessions with local Councillors, wrote emails to the local MP's office, organised two successful local consultation events on the future of the centre, one of which included a family day and showcasing some of the centres' activities which were captured on film (link). We had a meeting with the Council to which over 60 people attended.

As a result, the Council agreed that the centre would reopen, after a short period of closure for minor repairs. They then appointed an interim service provider without knowledge or consultation with anyone who had been previously associated with the centre. This happened after they had categorically denied that one had been appointed, even though this news had been conveyed to the group by the local MP, David Lammy's, office.

This unpopular decision led to an increased campaign, however, after a last minute court appeal failed, the management were evicted by the Council in late January. The interim management group took over earlier this month and long term management arrangements for building will be tendered later this year.

A journey consisting of tremendous highs and lows has unfolded over the past few months, and the eventual outcome some might feel, hasn't led to a deprived community getting a big slice of the Community Rights cake! Well, it is not over just yet and so much has been learnt and achieved in a very short period of time. We have also demonstrated that a culturally diverse community in an urban neighbourhood can be brought together to make a real difference and act as a catalyst for change.

This is a really important lesson as many urban communities are experiencing rapid change due to gentrification and new demographics with some of the more longstanding established communities feeling pushed out. Brixton is an example I have heard quoted on several occasions over the past six months, and in not very positive ways. Ubele has also been capturing evidence of these changes  through Project Mali ('someone or something of value to our community'), the findings of which will be published by Locality later this year.

Deprived communities usually start from a different place to more affluent communities (even those which are found within them) - people in affluent communities are skilled, highly (socially media) networked and usually time rich. Local authorities are struggling under the weight of fiscal cuts (Haringey has another £70m to find on top of £100m of cuts already made), and yet groups like Chestnuts People are not readily facilitated or helped to build positively on what has gone before (and there has been so much) - they appear instead to be adopting a 'ground zero' approach.

Chestnuts People have been awarded 'Emerging Potential' status as part of Localities (www.locality.org.uk), new pilot programme and through a process of professional support, will develop at least two options by next month which explore in depth possibly ways ahead. Whether to move forward in partnership with other organisations in an attempt to create a new vibrant community centre led by local people, or to close the group ...or something in-between....we will let you know what happens over the coming months. I suspect the group still have some way to go! 

What is crystal clear to me now, is that in order to help deprived communities get a real slice of the cake, direct and sustained intervention is needed and through this new diverse community leadership consisting of younger and older local people.  I feel someone needs to act almost as 'guardian' of planned local change process to ensure that communities are not displaced, wittingly or unwitting, and even though they might be viewed as the 'trouble maker' can step to one side once the initial work has been completed.

Unfortunately, an arms length, telephone, email or online platform approach will not automatically help deprived communities get their share of the cake,. Community Organisers though very helpful to the system, do not have over 30 years experience, neither do many of them have the skills necessary to deal with often very complex territorial community politics found in urban areas - this was one of my key challenges and I was born and raised in one of them and professionally trained in community and youth work back in 1982!

The question which I am now left holding is, who is going to roll their sleeves up and get our hands slightly messy and help share the cake? This probing question is not only for the likes of you or I,  but also for the plethora of new and rather grandly named institutions which have been established to provide community enterprise loans, offer forms of social investment and other support to economically and socially deprived communities. I really don't mean to sound condescending when I say that many deprived communities haven't a clue what all of this means in practice, and how they can access them, even if they have heard of the new organisations.

My questions are also aimed at those responsible for the policies which, at the moment, seem to support  those most able to help themselves. Are you reaching your real targets and empowering deprived communities or are you simply creating groups of people (mainly the boys?)  who know the name of the new game, have global online and other old school networks,  sophisticated language and ‘design’ skills, to be able to play it well? I believe we all need to wake up and smell the type of coffee we might be offering with our slices of the cake!

Fortunately, I have had the best of both worlds. I can return to my hallowed world, as new opportunities come in. I will also stay deeply connected to this process through the grass roots as well as national work the Ubele Initiative is doing with Black and. Minority Ethnic communities. I will also continue to nurture the rich 'Tottenham village' connections and relationships which have resulted and look forward to taking up some of the new local invites I have received for coffee and cake.

Roy Edgeworth