Gabriel Edwards is a community development worker at William Morris Big Local, an organisation dedicated to improving and enriching the lives of those who live in Walthamstow’s William Morris ward. We caught up with him over a cup of freshly ground coffee to find out more about the work he’s doing, and how to get involved….
Gabriel Edwards, community development worker at WM Big Local.
Hi Gabriel! First off, could you tell us a bit about William Morris Big Local and its mission?
Big Local is actually a nationwide campaign – we’re one of a 150 areas. It’s lottery funded and the aim is to empower communities to respond to local needs through activities and programmes.
We’re not part of the local authority, we’re funded by The National Lottery who awarded us £1 million to spend in the local area over 10 years. We started back in 2013, and the first couple of years was all about getting our vision right through community consultation.
We went to lots of events and community spaces to find out what residents felt was missing in the William Morris ward. Traditionally, our ward has been quite underrepresented in terms of lottery funding.
In a nutshell, we’re a community organisation run by local people. We have 10 local residents who sit on a committee; they steer the programme and have overall say on how the money is spent. Everything has to be done through consultation involving input from the community.
Our public meetings and events are designed to enable us to get the word out and bring more people into the programme.
How can people get involved in William Morris Big Local?
There’s lots of ways in which residents can get involved whether through volunteering on our projects, helping at events or being part of our project steering groups. We also have a mix of funding streams – including small ones for residents, associations, community groups or small charities that want to run an activity that’s missing in the community. Think keep fit, dance sessions or sewing classes – things that just aren’t happening for one reason or another
A street party funded by WMBL.
Broadly speaking, our three main priorities are strengthening the community, improving outdoor spaces and supporting local enterprise. Each priority has a number of projects that we run and we had to pitch them to The Big Lottery Community Fund before receiving funding.
Our Big Local has tried to respond to as many local voices as possible. To date we’ve funded youth clubs, social isolation projects, outdoor space improvements – including a couple of street murals like the William Morris portrait next to the gallery!
The aim is to empower individuals through the work we do and team up with local organisations that are able to make a positive impact. Catherine, our communications officer/ and myself are the only two employees: think of us as facilitators and project managers whose job it is to ensure that the community’s ideas actually translate into live projects.
The iconic William Morris mural next to Lloyd Park.
All Big Locals need to have at least eight local residents on the committee. We’ve got a great mix of some who’ve been there since the beginning and alongside relative newcomers – the door is always open to new committee members.
How did you go about choosing board members – do they need to meet a criteria?
We don’t follow a strict set of rules or template; the aim is to be genuinely resident-led. Local Trust, our umbrella organisation, provides us with some loose frameworks and guidelines but how they’re implemented is very much done at a local level.
In terms of the committee, we haven’t had to advertise for specific skills yet because we’ve had a really diverse mix of professionals join the team, some of whom work in the third sector specialising in project management, accounting and so on.
We also have people who’ve lived in the area all their lives and have valuable local expertise and connections.
The only real requirements are that you have to attend a certain number of meetings, take part in the decision-making process and read some background material. Committee members can also attend events and get involved in the fun stuff too!
What kind of initiatives have you run with local young people?
We’re just in the process of developing a youth offer that’ll enable us to make everything we do relevant to local young people. 25% of William Morris ward’s population is aged 15 and under, which reveals just how young and family-orientated it is.
We want young people to be part of Big Local so that they can help shape it, get involved in decision making and pitch for funding.
We’ve run a few initiatives, including one at Creative Works with Big Creative Education’s NXT Creatives as part of their half term activities. They wanted to make sure that their offering was really available to people who live on the doorstep, because the programme is actually open to anyone who lives in East London.
Initially we sat down, brainstormed some ideas and figured out what our shared aims were. NXT Creatives wanted to curate a really interesting week of activities and introduce young people to new opportunities, and for us it was all about opening up a conversation with local young people and forging a stronger connection.
In one of the sessions we ran an exercise around redesigning our newsletter (we knew it wasn’t particularly interesting for them). The participants were so honest, clear of thought and insightful and I was blown away by their feedback and ideas. It made it more important than ever to me that they’re included.
WMBL at the Walthamstow Garden Party.
Why did you choose Creative Works as your HQ?
As one of our focuses is on supporting local business and enterprise, it made a lot of sense to move to Creative Works. It’s a space where lots of startups, freelancers and emerging organisations are starting out and growing their business.
It’s a real hive of activity and has made it easier for us to get to know the Blackhorse Road area.
How did you get into your role – have you always worked in the charity sector?
I started out working at a housing association in Islington in the housing management department. I was dealing with the nuts and bolts: tenancy agreements, rent, repairs – that sort of thing. At one point I thought I might segway into being a housing officer but an opportunity arose to work with their community engagement team.
My job was to make sure people had links to the things that were happening in the estate and I ran the community centre. I had a similar role at Lambeth then ended up being a bit of a troubleshooter; I’d support struggling community centres that were failing and bring them up to scratch.
After a few years I wanted to try something different. I’m a musician too so I decided to take a sabbatical to focus on that. I play acoustic and electric guitar and write songs and fancied a bash at just seeing where that could take me. I ended up running a few open mic and music nights – a bit like Sofar Sounds at Creative Works.
It was fun and I established a good network of musicians, but I found I didn’t have the space for the creative side of things due to all the rushing around. I realised that for me, it’s better as a hobby – I like doing it for the love of it and not because it’s a job.
I always enjoyed the community development side of things, so I ended up working at Priory Court Community Centre part-time while running music nights. I became aware of William Morris Big Local because my predecessor used to come into the community centre and talked to us about some of the initiatives they were trying to get off the ground.
A local board games club.
The opportunity to apply for a Development Worker role at William Morris Big Local came up and I knew it was the right job for me to bring all of my skills together. The fact that I had local knowledge and lived locally was a real bonus and I got the job!
We’ve gone from quite a small, slightly stuttering outfit that wasn’t particularly well known into a dynamic organisation with a growing following. To date we’ve funded 30 projects that have reached over 1,000 people and this is largely due to the fantastic committee that I work alongside.
Tell us about some of your environmental projects…
We’ve just come to the end of a yearly initiative we call Green Grants where local residents get up to £1,000 to transform a dead space. For example, we’ve funded a local resident who happens to be a herbalist to create a community apothecary.
She’s adopted an old disused flower bed opposite the fire station on Forest Road. A group of volunteers manages it now and plants everything from sunflowers to herbs. Her plan is to take local residents on tours of her patches to find out about the medicinal benefits of herbs and all the teas and ointments you can make using them.
We’ve also tested ways to encourage the greening of front gardens and balconies and this has led to a project called Greener Together, a partnership with Forest Recycling Project. Residents on Queen Elizabeth Road and Lloyd Park house have been supported to unite and support one another to make planters and grow loads of plants for all to enjoy.
We also have an event called Greener Together – Live coming up on the 27th July to celebrate London becoming a National Park City. We’re hosting an afternoon of fast paced and inspirational stalls that consider how we could make the most of outside spaces. They’ll also be interactive stalls, crafts and how to workshops.
This is all part of us “greening the grey”. There’s loads of evidence to suggest that just seeing green makes people feel better, not to mention the environmental benefits of having more plant life around us.
Because the population of the borough keeps changing there’s also a danger of social isolation. One street can contain a whole range of different ages, backgrounds and tenancy types – including and increasing number of short-term lets.
We had a look at the Age UK social isolation heatmap and there’s a pocket of the William Morris ward that’s in the top 1% of areas at risk of loneliness and social isolation. Our ultimate goal is to curb this by uniting people from different backgrounds and giving them a voice.
That’s what Big Local is all about: giving residents a platform to be able to make a positive difference to their community and enabling them to have more control of what is going on in the area.
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