What is your name and where do you live?

Susan Rodaway, Pennard Community, Swansea

What are Community Organising Teams and what will they be doing?

Community Organising Teams (COTs) are members of the community who are interested in making a positive change within their communities. They will be recruited and trained by me and will be going out into their communities encouraging all residents to participate in the community voice project. They will be delivering flyers, knocking doors, talking to people, arranging engagement events and using social media to raise awareness of the project and encourage as many people to engage in the project as possible.

What is the Rural Development Partnership?

The Rural Development Partnership was established by the City and County of Swansea in 2007 to develop a Rural Development Strategy for the wards designated as “rural” in Swansea as part of the Rural Development Plan for Wales. These wards are Bishopston, Pennard, Gower, Fairwood, Penclawdd, Pontarddulais, Llangyfelach and Mawr.

What motivated you to get involved in community organising?

I have been a Community Councillor in Pennard for almost 5 years now and I got very frustrated with sitting around a table having disagreements with my fellow councillors over what Pennard needed when nobody had asked the community what they felt they needed. This led me to apply for funding for a proper community engagement in Pennard in order to formulate a five-year development plan for the ward.

What does local democracy mean to you?

I believe democracy should happen from the grassroots up not the top level down. Everyone in the community should have the opportunity to have their say on matters that are important to them or that directly affect them. If we get this right at a local level, there are no boundaries to what can be achieved. For me, this isn’t just about informing local representatives of priorities for their allocation of funding, this is about communities mobilising together to do great things.

What will be your starting point in engaging with local communities?

I am starting with the usual suspects in communities, the Community Councils, WI, established organisations already doing good work, for example Friends of Pennard Library, Pontarddulais Development Trust. I’m talking to community leaders around their aspirations and then to the schools, youth clubs and wider communities to make sure everyone who wants to be involved can be.

Who can be in the community organising teams?

Anyone who has an interest in the community or the project can be a Community Organiser. The teams will need people with many different skills whether you’re a computer whizz, enthusiastic activist, social media giant or have great communication or organising skills – the only essential is enthusiasm and a desire to make the community better in some way.

How will you encourage debate around ideas?

VocalEyes is set up to encourage debate, each idea has a five star rating system. If you agree strongly you rate them at five stars and if you disagree strongly it’s one star and obviously everything in between. Once you’ve rated the idea you can then make any comment on it, for, neutral or against, to back it up. The functionality is there to comment on other comments that have been made too.

As well as the platform, we will be running engagement events in each ward to help people who are not online to contribute. These will be called “Coffee, Cake & Communicate” and will use more traditional engagement methods including debate to add to the process. There should be no barriers to taking place in the process, this is very much an accessible for all project!

How do you intend to encourage people to use the online voting system?

By talking to them! The aim of the project is to improve the communities we live in. Once you explain the process to people they are very keen to be involved. For so long, people have felt they have no voice, no say in what happens around them and this has led to a lot of apathy around politics and democracy. If people feel they are being listened to, they naturally want to make sure their voices are heard. It’s a new concept for most people and as with all things, it will take more time for some to engage than others but so far the response has been very positive from all communities.

Will the loudest win?

No, there is no one winner with this process. The way it works means that the ideas with the most support or the highest rating out of 5 will be the top priorities. Just because one person shouts louder than another will not make a difference. Every person involved carries the same amount of influence no matter what. It’s also all anonymous so if you have an idea and you’re unsure if anyone will think it’s any good then you can add it to the platform and nobody will know who suggested it – if anything it empowers the quiet ones.

How will you reach out to the underrepresented?

This project is all-encompassing. Nothing should present as a barrier to being involved and having your voice heard. Every household will be informed of the project and we will be encouraging people to sign-up on the doorstep, we will hold engagement events for those not online or who struggle with accessing technology. We will be working with local schools and organisations to ensure everyone has their say.

How will you improve people’s skills so they can get their voices heard?

We are hoping to hold digital skills workshops within the communities we are working in and maybe even get some cross-generation training in place!

What input will there be from external authorities as advisers/experts etc?

The aim of the project is to provide a set of priorities for each ward that has come from the people living in that ward. This will in turn inform the elected representatives, Community Councils, County Councillors, Unitary Authorities, where money needs to be spent. There’s also that age old saying, “you don’t know what you don’t know”! To tackle this we are in the process of engaging “experts” in various sectors to identify which amazing projects they would like to see emerging in our communities. We will then seed these ideas into the community groups for local people to discover and decide whether it’s right for them.

In addition, we are also working with established groups and organisations within the ward who may want to engage more with their members and use the platform as a sort of consultation to provide evidence of need for funding applications. I am also in contact with other similar projects across the UK for suggestions of best practice and how not to do it!

A number of ideas will emerge from each team. What will decide which ideas get progressed?

The ideas are rated by members of the community, whether they are good ideas and needed or not. This forms a list of priorities based on how high an idea scores. There will be some ideas that the Community Organisers and I can see would be achievable if people came together to make it happen so we would then create a project on the platform for interested parties to pledge their support to.

For example, a drama club would need someone to run in, someone to organise the logistics and someone to organise the marketing etc. we would put these requirements onto the system and people who want to help and have the skills can pledge their support – we then bring them together, in person, and help them to make it happen.

Susan Rodaway, Community Organiser, Swansea Community Voice, VocalEyes - Commemorative tree planted for celebrated Swansea poet

Where will the money come from to progress the ideas?

Not all ideas will require money to progress them as some may simply require people to get together for a beach clean or yoga classes.

Where money is required, it can come from several different sources, the local councillor’s community budget, grant funding, crowdsourcing or even the local authority – it depends on the scale of the project. We are planting a tree to commemorate Vernon Watkins in Pennard ward and the funding from the tree is coming from Pennard Stores, who kindly offered to donate it, and the stone is being funded by the Gower Landscape Partnership.

It’s become clear to us that many people are not aware of the budgets available to spend on improving our communities. In response to this we are developing a “participatory budgeting” function into the platform that will enable people to clearly see what finances are available, what they are being spent on and why. We’ve just had our first County Councillor agree to take part and are delighted about that.
What ingredient do you think the teams will most need to maintain collective energy to overcome obstacles?

The desire to make a positive change in their community. The world is a strange and scary place at the moment and it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing you can do to change things. This project gives people the ability to make changes to the world around them, from the ground up. It will empower people to improve their lives and the lives of their neighbours. Too often, people feel like they’re not heard, this project gives everyone the opportunity to make positive change. Yes there will be bumps in the road, but the desire to make the change, to realise the potential within a community, will drive the teams to give it their best shot and overcome obstacles.

How will teams be able to react to changing environments be it economics or political etc?

The process is apolitical so it doesn’t matter which party is in government or who the local councillor is and if they change through the course of the project it shouldn’t impact on the project other than we will have a new person to work with in that community. As for the economics, the process is not limited by local funding, some projects will need funds and the teams will keep on top of available grants etc. in order to give each project the best chance of success.

What excites you most about your work?

I love that elected representatives/community councils/organisations will have a list of priorities from the community rather than arguing across a table what people want or need without actually asking them but more than that, it’s the sense of community, the increase in community spirit that excites me.

Life in today’s busy world is becoming increasingly insular. We rush around in our own little bubbles and spend a depressingly small amount of time stopping to smell the flowers or look out for our neighbours. Technological advances mean we spend more time communicating but less time really talking and listening to each other. Although we are using an online tool for this project, we are keeping the human aspect very much at the forefront of the process and re-building the community spirit that has been eroded over time in all communities.

What is the absolute key aim of the project and how do you see it developing into the future?

The aim is to produce a list of priorities for each ward that have come directly from the people living there. These priorities will change over time and the process allows for this as people can input new ideas whenever they think of them and all members can revisit the site as often as they wish to rate them.

This will continue to work as long as we have: volunteers to help take ideas forward, elected representatives responding to those priorities and allocating funding accordingly and visible benefits of the process. Over time, I’d like to see every ward councillor taking on the process across Swansea and all communities benefitting from not only having a voice, but it being heard and seeing projects with positive impact emerging locally!

Interview with Susan Rodaway, Swansea, UK