Local community action: Birmingham Community Matters

As it’s the very last day of Volunteers’ Week 2017 today, I thought I’d share my experience of one of the bits of volunteering I’ve picked up since moving to Birmingham (I’ll tell you about all the others another time, no doubt).

Birmingham Community Matters is a ‘surgery’ style event held in different venues across Birmingham, which is run by a group of people including, among others, top community organiser Ridhi Kalaria (who has made me feel really welcome, and who has great chat about local networks – so thanks Ridhi). Today’s was at Billesley Ark, home to Malachi Family Centre: a community interest company originally founded on Christian principles, but now operating on a non-denominational basis to help whoever needs support in a ward that has some challenges (but some great assets too). It’s a fab, bright place full of enthusiastic volunteers, willing to support projects that come from the community to support the people living there – a good example of a community hub, something you hear a lot about in Birmingham, and something I might write about later. Others have been at Stirchley Baths, Ort Café, Erdington Welcome Centre, and next week’s is at Soho House. It’s a good way of getting to know bits of the city, for sure.

The surgery itself brings together lots of volunteers who think they have something to offer, some expertise or are just willing to have a chat with people who need help and advice running their own group, getting an idea off the ground or generally making their communities better. If you come looking for advice you’ll get ‘triaged’ (essentially you’ll have a quick chat about what you need help with) then joined up with someone who can offer that help. I’ve talked to people about how to get more volunteers involved and organise workloads, what different legal forms of organisation there are (still learning that one), and about really new ideas that are just starting to form – giving an outside perspective, some pointers, links and encouragement. Today I talked to someone who had identified a gap in services, and wanted to do something about it. They had all the passion, frustration and great ideas they needed, but an event like Birmingham Community Matters gave them the headspace and sounding board to start getting all that organised into the makings of a plan. I wish them all the luck in the world, and I hope I was of some use.

From a volunteer perspective it’s really minimal commitment. You can sign up to as many or as few sessions as you like – they’re usually a couple of hours in the morning or evening at an ever-increasing range of venues – and you’re just there for that time. There’s no commitment to do anything or take anything on outside of the events, although I’m naturally super keen to hear about how people and groups get on. In my view it complements and extends other forms of voluntary sector infrastructure in the city; as a model its strength is in its flexibility; it can get around to local communities and meet with very small groups, even single people with good ideas, and start conversations, plans, developments and partnerships going. It can also bring in partners to provide opportunities for networking and promoting opportunities; today there were people from the City Council who are responsible for building partnerships, networks and neighbourhoods, a Sergeant from Billesley Police, building links with local groups, and others from more established charities looking to join up their work with others. And if you’re interested in getting to know your local sector (in its widest sense) in its geographical context, and if you’re interested in seeing that process of people starting to take action and build groups and better communities – well it’s just my own research nerd heaven.

So, I’ll be back for another next week, and hopefully will be of some use. I hope you’ve all had a lovely Volunteers’ Week 2017, and a chance to reflect on and celebrate all the great work volunteers do.