Dispatches from the Real World 01: Time and Talents Community Centre

This is the first issue of Dispatches from the Real World. For more about this new series from Doteveryone, read our introductory post.

Thanks to materials shortages and an entirely privatised building industry, Britain found itself unable to house the millions of veterans coming home after World War I.

This led to the birth of housing estates, and by extension community centres: places where neighbours could gather for meetings, socials, classes and fundraisers. By 1997, more than 4.4 million people used community buildings each week.

Doteveryone’s Irit Pollak recently visited Time & Talents, a community centre based in southeast London, to learn more about how they’re adapting to the digital world.

Chapter 01: The hook

In a city built on plague pits, it’s no surprise to find a community centre in an old mortuary. The tide in this part of Rotherhithe used to spit bodies up on the shore, making it the perfect spot to store dead people and to keep an eye out for grave robbers.

Time & Talents Community Centre has been in The Old Mortuary for nearly 30 years, where they live happily alongside the building’s past. Ask the team for a tour and they’ll take you past tiled walls and cheerful bunting to “the hook,” a spot on the metal crossbeams where bodies were allegedly hung to “drip dry” after they were fished out of the Thames.

Whether the hook is real or not doesn’t matter. It’s part of the centre’s story, and knowing stories gives you ownership over spaces. Being able to say “Here’s where we have birthday parties” and “Here’s where Tom crashed his bike” and “Here’s our corpse hook” makes us feel connected — like we’re part of something bigger and longer-lasting than we are alone.

Time & Talents’ singing group practices.

“People crave places, not spaces,” says Alex Evans, director of Time & Talents. In other words, it’s not having somewhere to go that matters — it’s having somewhere to go that’s built on community and shared history.

People crave places, not spaces.

— Alex, director

Younger and more digitally savvy people have ownership over technology in ways older and less connected people just don’t. We remember Windows 3.1 and Geocities, MySpace and MSN Messenger — and that shared experience makes the internet our home. And at the same time, as generations who move away from home and change jobs in record numbers, we haven’t grown to love or need physical locations as much as our parents and grandparents.

Having this shared ownership, and taking it for granted — fish don’t know they’re in water — may be one of the least talked about hurdles to getting online. The clinical framework of digital skills (can you do this? Yes? No?) can’t make room for the human anxiety of travelling somewhere new.

For people whose lives are built around the tangible, asking them to get online is like asking them to move to a new town. Those of us who are already residents have shared stories, shared ownership of our place — and building that from scratch is a bigger ask than we give it credit for.

So how is Time & Talents seeing the effects of a world where some of us value physical places and half of us value virtual ones?

For starters, they’re not trying to force older people to get online or learn digital skills anymore. They’re pushing back on New Labour’s strategy to make community centres “skills-centres”, or the notion that those of us without digital skills must be converted — what Alex calls “the bullying approach”.

More what we see is the bullying approach to technology — it’s assumed that at some point they will fit in.

— Alex

Instead, the team at Time & Talents is actively giving people permission not to use technology. “We noticed a lot of older people felt really guilty for not using technology, or they were scared of it,” says Alex. “Why torture people who aren’t interested and don’t really need to be?

Staff and volunteers use their own digital skills and understanding to bring technology into older people’s lives in ways that feel enriching, not overwhelming — in essence, serving as human interfaces.

Yesterday I was visiting an older French woman. She barely spoke English so we couldn’t speak. I pulled out my phone and started streaming French music on Spotify — we had a really nice afternoon just connecting over music.

— Cindy, Older Person’s Groups Worker

And finally, they’re using social media to bring Time & Talents’ story into the virtual environments younger people so value. By “capturing the feeling of the place,” they hope, they’ll be able to convince new volunteers to invest their time and energy offline.

The approach seems to be working: their befriending programme has been going strong for years with noticeably more young professionals, the growing demographic in the area, getting in touch to volunteer.

Chapter 02: The data

You’re telling me the best way to get people together is to create transactions through a database?

– Alex

When it comes to revenue, “return on investment” is an easy metric to track. But when it comes to relationships — nonlinear, intangible — proving and improving impact can be a challenge.

As funders try to support connecting up local services and people digitally, Time & Talents is struggling to navigate both design and data requirements. Finite and precious core funding is being spent on digital initiatives like time banking and online befriending services, instead of supporting services. In other words, they’re building databases at the cost of the services they’ve been setup to map.

Although the intention of all this work is good, it can also very easily become a barrier between people. Alex refers to this as the “transactionalisation of relationships” — focusing on data points instead of people.

We’re at a moment where we’ve put data and design on a pedestal; if there’s a journey map or a Trello board, it’s a sign things are Being Done Well. But service design and data analysis are just modern constructs we’ve applied to issues we’ve faced since the beginning of time: how do we care for each other? How do we make sure everyone’s fed and clothed?

Design and data analysis have done wonderful things for society. However, they can also be top-down, reductionist, and middle class. This does not make them bad; it simply makes them imperfect, and not above reproach.

As workers in the 21st century, we need to keep checking in with ourselves to make sure our data and design is working in service to our organisations — not the other way around. (This is particularly incumbent for those in management or leadership positions.)

Even the best databases or the most well-designed service blueprints are still limited ways of quantifying complicated, interconnected human relationships. And just as PRINCE2 is the butt of today’s jokes, so too may be design thinking tomorrow.

The team at Time & Talents is now pushing back on their funders, asking them to identify what it is they’re really looking for in reporting. This approach has been successful so far — once they get people to separate techniques from intention, they can reshape reporting.

I spoke to one of our grants managers who is a data specialist, and I said to him, ‘Look — you want a theory of change, you want all this hardcore data, but basically what you want to fund is us doing basic community work. Seriously, how do you want us to prove that?’

He stopped and he said, ‘To be honest, you’re right. Just get some photographs and tell us who came.’

And although photos aren’t always easy, the real reason they’re worth it, the team says, isn’t to create even more data. It’s to make sure families can check in to see their loved ones are doing ok, to attract more volunteers to the centre and to remind their staff of what all their hard work is for.

We had a young Muslim woman who is blind showing someone how to use a braille machine and there was a young Chinese lady that lives in the local area and a couple of local kids of African descent and there’s a photo of this and you think, this isn’t a marketing moment, it’s real, it exists.

— Alex

It’s been more than 100 years since a handful of Victorian women made sure privileged young girls had more choices in life than to just be “decorative and obedient”. Time & Talents has reinvented itself from a genteel women’s club to an aid society to a World War II support centre to the institution it is today. It — and community centres like it — are vital services, ones that can’t be recreated or replaced by tech. We’re grateful for the chance to have spent time with the team, and we thank them for their support.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the first of our Dispatches from the Real World. Keep an eye on the main Dispatches page or our Twitter feed for updates — and if you’ve got a vital service we should look into, let us know by tweeting @doteveryoneuk using the hashtag #dispatches.

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