Systems change in Petersham

Fifteen years ago, Amie Brown began her career at Erewash Borough Council as a sports development officer. After years of working on target driven projects, going to work in Petersham required a completely different approach.

She explains how starting to work in Petersham alongside Community Builder Zoe was the catalyst for a different way of working, how her outlook has changed and what’s happened as a result.

A change to targets and numbers

“I started working for Erewash Borough Council nearly 15 years ago. When I started working in the council all the programmes were very target driven, with strict timelines to adhere to.

“In July 2018 I was told I had to go and work on the Petersham estate. I wasn’t overly keen on going to work there because I’d heard a lot of horror stories. What I didn’t know is although it’s one of the most deprived areas in Erewash there are lots of good people there who I didn’t know anything about.

“The first day I went down there, looked around and thought, ‘we’re never going to make a difference’. It felt like there was a lot to do with very little resource. Plus, the people seemed quite standoffish so I worried we wouldn’t be able to interact with them. I asked what my targets were and was told there weren’t any. I was told it’s organic and about learning from the experience.

“At the time I didn’t have any understanding of what that meant. When I asked what they wanted me to do they said just go and sit in the community café.

“I had the choice to really embrace it and get involved in the project or keep it on the backburner. People who’ve done it in the past didn’t really get involved so it was a complete change to immerse myself in the community.

Learning about Petersham – a change in approach

“On my first visit I went to the community cafe and didn’t talk to anyone. I went in my council hoodie, t-shirt and lanyard and no one spoke to me. Then I realised it wasn’t the way to be. People haven’t necessarily got the best relationship with the council. We send letters about rubbish, demands for council tax and things like that and they see us all under the same umbrella. So, the next time I went in I wore jeans and a jumper and just started chatting to people. I think they then saw me on their level. It made such a difference and I even got offered a cup of tea and toast which didn’t happen the first time.

“When it came to organising activities we would previously just take the sports equipment, stand in the field and think ‘this is what people want’. Now we work with people around what they’re actually telling us they need support with. Recently we managed to source some sunflower kits which they were really keen to do. We’d never have done that before because it wouldn’t have crossed our minds to. We just thought everyone had to be on the field doing rounders.

“I always make sure I’m there at the activities. If they’ve asked us for help I don’t think it’s good if we just send in someone new who they don’t relate to. Especially when it’s taken six months for some of the residents to build a relationship with me.

“At the end of the activity I’ll quite happily get a dustpan and brush just to show I’m one of them and not anything else. It makes them realise I’m not judging them and I’m no better or worse than them, we’re equal.

What’s changed in Petersham

“I’ve seen a number of differences since I changed my approach. I was invited to join a messenger group where certain members of the community message about things like the community café or the holiday activities they organise. That’s given me access to more open conversations than we see in partnership meetings as it’s a more comfortable space for people. Some of the residents now message me about random things on there which they wouldn’t have done before.

“One resident in particular has completely changed her approach to me in the last few months. The first time we spoke she asked me if I could do something for them. The second time she asked if we could help them do something which was a big turning point. This was someone who was fairly distant towards me to start with. Having that one-to-one dialogue with residents is a complete change.

Influencing further change

“The changes in the way we’ve been working is slowly having a positive impact on other people within the council. I kept talking to my line manager about what was happening in Petersham but he didn’t really understand it.

“So rather than trying to explain it I took him to the community café. He was really enthused by it and now tells everyone else about it and encourages them to go along too – there are lots of things happening there that people don’t necessarily know about which is relevant to their own areas of work.

“Seeing it all first-hand has made him want to replicate this work in other areas. Then when we did the Easter activities he just turned up, no one was expecting him.

“It’s definitely having a positive impact over time. People now see that making a difference to even one person is more important than getting 50 people to an event.”

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