Building bridges

Active Citizens partners gain an international perspective and new opportunities. Helen Clifton speaks to partners to find out the benefits.

Following the 2011 UK riots, Jill Mann read various reports that referred to young people having a pervasive sense of hopelessness. She vowed to do something to tackle their alienation. 

‘Active Citizens has allowed us to do some amazing collaborations. Some of our Active Citizens have been through the criminal justice system. I have seen people from all kinds of backgrounds meet up with police to discuss social action projects together.’ says Jill

Jill, a project worker with Leeds-based community development non-profit organisation Together for Peace (T4P), has been delivering Active Citizens training in the city since 2010 – and says the programme has given her organisation kudos and connections.

In the UK, Active Citizens is delivered through a national network of funded partners like T4P.

By creating partnerships, Active Citizens is building the capacity of these organisations within the huge range of fields they work in – whether it’s conflict resolution, community development, or social cohesion.

Active Citizens Director Radha Nair explains that the highly adaptable programme works equally well with individuals, family and organisations.

‘Active Citizens has a “systems thinking” approach, which is really just about developing a lens through which we look at society,’ she explains. ‘And the skills which are developed through that approach are key to personal, community and organisational development. Because they are all linked.’

A unique offer

Dom Weinberg, Policy Manager at the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services (NCVYS), agrees there is something ‘unique’ about Active Citizens that has benefited all who have participated.

‘A residential I delivered as part of our Active Citizen programme was one of the most powerful weekends I have ever experienced – and the same goes for the facilitators as well,’ he says. ‘We’ve all just got a huge amount from doing the programme.

‘The appreciative enquiry aspect of the training really stuck with me. Most of us don’t really get a chance to reflect on what we do. It’s really useful.’

Since being selected by the British Council to deliver Active Citizens in 2012, NCVYS has run three courses for around 90 young people.

Many participants come from existing charities, but some have wanted to set up their own social enterprises. Their input led NCVYS to offer charities created by the under-30s free memberships for a year.

‘Non-traditional members have a huge amount of to offer,’ Dom explains. ‘So this is a way of encouraging them to be involved. It’s had a transformative effect on the organisation.’

NCVYS participants have also taken part in International Study Visits, including a visit to Sri Lanka in 2014, whilst representatives of NCVYS have visited Lebanon, Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia as part of networking events designed to build links with international partners.

Dom adds that this international perspective has been incredibly useful.

‘The issues that we are focused on here in the UK are very similar to the issues of rights and identity that are going on elsewhere. By making links with different organisations across the world it changes the narrative around international development. It makes it much more collaborative and equal.'

‘You have to look outside to understand that some of the best examples of best practice are happening internationally.’

Jill agrees. Active Citizens gave T4P participants living in an area affected by many social challenges, and some racial tensions, the chance to visit Corrymeela – a Belfast community known for its peacebuilding role throughout Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

They met former paramilitaries from both sides of the community who were working together for peace, Jill explains. ‘They were able to see for themselves the similarities between the Belfast communities and the tensions that exist at home. And we were able to share our learning as much as they were learning from us.’

Capacity building has also come through the strong relations built with local authorities. Traditionally, Leeds’ Afro-Caribbean community have been very mistrustful of local police.

But, Jill explains, Active Citizens has opened some doors. ‘We ran an Active Citizens workshop between the police, fire service and the council and a group of local 18–25 year olds. The authorities co-facilitated the workshops, and the idea was for the police to become educators, rather than enforcers.’

One of the participants was so inspired; she applied for a youth and community work degree. Her life experience became relevant in her studies, and she was asked to help train response officers. She is now in the third year of her degree.

By connecting activists and volunteers with those in power, Jill says ‘relational trust’ has been generated with external partners, as well as profile. ISV community visits from international groups have given local Active Citizens a fresh perspective on their home city.

The flexibility of the programme

Jill says the draw for Active Citizens was its flexibility, and the fact the programme could be moulded around different contexts and locations. By developing new ways of thinking, Active Citizens has brought new dimensions to T4P’s work.

‘I was looking for a programme that was ongoing and would bring depth to what we do, rather than just being a one-off activity,’ Jill says. ‘With Active Citizens, we have created our own model.’ 

Jill has also benefited personally from the heightened profile Active Citizens has provided. She now sits on the panel of a local grant-making body, making decisions about how grassroots social action projects should be funded.

‘It’s been really great to see all these connections that have come out of Active Citizens,’ she adds. ‘People have gone from being unemployed, to being employed. They have gone from having an idea to meeting someone from Kenya on an ISV and being inspired to make it happen.

‘It’s a ripple effect that leads people to become change agents – and challenge themselves and others to think and behave in a different way.’

Now, thanks to the new system for collecting evidence of organisational development that has been developed for the Active Citizens programme, it is easy to capture these stories of change and identify the journey that an organisation has taken. The system also collects participant information, aggregates and disaggregates data, collects powerful stories from participants and stores reports on community projects. Partners can also use the online monitoring and evaluation system to support their own reporting as well as that of the British Council.