The podcast on the work of philosopher Gillian Rose in a later entry to these field notes explains the emergence in the concept of a ‘stake’. It is an antidote to a linear strategy. Instead of saying we are here, and we need to get to there, we say we will remain engaged in the struggle of where we are, what Rose calls the ‘difficult middle’.
The danger is then that we flail around, moving around, but not recording what we have done or why, and not learning.
The stake is the antidote. It is a statement of what we might do next. It is intended to evoke discussion and debate. An alternative is put forward. A third way between the two positions develops. Et cetera.
Early notes on the short and long history led to the following ‘stake’ for the future of the Walworth Living Room. It did not achieve any noticeable traction in the various conversations taking place within Pembroke House about the settlement’s future.
The Walworth Living Room
Pembroke House and the settlement movement has a rich and long history. The initial thinking about the Walworth Living Room doesn’t make much sense without this backdrop. On the other hand, too much history risks drowning out the future. So we start with a few highlights. (The Living Room holds a full strand of learning dedicated to the longer history, resulting in regular reports over the next year).
Settlements are about ‘social work’, not in the sense of we think of them today, with child protection and mental health professionals, but carefully tending to places and spaces that encourage connection across social divides. A Settlement is also a place of exchange, creating opportunities where people can serve their community. On top of this we can say a Settlement is a place of learning, a context where people come together to figure out how society can be a better place. (Many major advances in public policy can be traced back to Settlement learning).
The history can be enabling, but it can also restrict. The ingredients of a Settlement, a building, the religious context, the residents from outside of the community provide a strong frame.
Pembroke House Settlement has, like the community it serves, and the society beyond undergone a lot of change in the last decade. This has strengthened the historical frame, and also test its utility for the 21st Century.
Again, there is much to be said about the last decade, and this too will be committed to paper in the coming months, but for brevity we concentrate on two broad themes. The first is partnership. There has been a shift from thinking of the Settlement as a delivery agent to the offering the notion of a context, a focus for ‘social work’ in the broader Settlement sense of the term. This has meant opening up strong conversations with public systems serving Walworth, and the broad spectrum of civil society activity.
The second theme is the Triangle. The community that the Settlement serves is now defined, not in an arbitrary way, drawing borders on a desert map like colonial masters, but to reflect the way people live their lives, the world as it is. This definition of scope has opened up conversations with citizens and civil society organisations and activists to find shared challenges and solutions to those challenges.
The world today is not the world that created the settlement movement. People living in the Triangle today will live 35 years longer than the residents who watched or maybe helped the building of Pembroke House. There are new challenges, mental ill-health, obesity, and, arguably, social isolation. But then there are new sources of help, a welfare state that, despite the ravages of the last decade would be viewed by early Settlement folk with huge envy. Civil society continues to do most of the heavy lifting of supports for people facing tough times.
Given the settlement movement’s enduring focus on learning, it would be remiss to pass over the radical changes in science and evidence over the last century, and the emerging revolution in learning. We live longer thanks to science, and not only knowledge about pharmaceuticals. As machines get more sophisticated, our potential to learn from passive -routinely collected- data grows. At the same time there is a transformation in the agents of design and learning, drawing in the users of innovation. All of this is bearing heavily on the potential for the Triangle to become a focus for those learning how to improve human health and happiness.
The emerging ways of thinking lead us away from strategies and targets measuring linear progress from point A to point B. If we are to be true to our past, and make the most of the new opportunities to learn we have to engage with the world as it is (not the world as we would like it to be). We have to assemble shared ideas of how this world might change. And we have to collectively test, adapt and develop those ideas.
Our metaphor for this way of working is the stake. One of the partners in a change process puts a stake in the ground. ‘This is how I see the problem we share, and here is the beginning of a solution’. The others engage, drawing on learning, especially failures in the application of ideas, to suggest how the stake should move.
The Living Room 1.0 Stake
What follows is a first stake in the ground. It is placed in the name of the Walworth Living Room, an experimental space established by the Settlement for and with the Triangle community. Those engaged in Triangle life will be the ones who move the stake, develop the idea.
The starting point is a ‘third space’, strictly speaking somewhere between work and home. It is facilitated by Pembroke House, but it is not an extension of the Settlement. It is a place of connection to discuss new ideas, try them out and learn.
Given the powerful role of public systems in contemporary life, we began with the idea of the living room as a space to forge new relationships between services and citizens. We see this happening in three ways:
- To live, an ordinary place where professionals could come and meet and be alongside the people they serve
- To meet, a context where systems folk can discover the full range of statutory and civil society supports, and get to know their representatives
- To try, an environment in which a new idea could be tested, such as moving therapists out of the clinic and into the community. (We will publish our learning of an early prototype of such an innovation).
Of course for these connections to happen, the Walworth Living Room has to be attractive to citizens, a place where they want to visit. For them also we see the opportunity:
- To live, an ordinary place to connect with other Triangle residents, for the sake of meeting
- To meet, a context where civil society interactions that build resilience and buffer stress take place
- To try, in other words to get involved in some of the ideas that systems folk are testing.
Implicit in this idea is the Living Room as a middle space, a third space. We are not looking for public systems to settle in the space. Progress, we think, depends on the constant too-ing and fro-ing in and out of the Living Room, fertilising public systems with ideas seeded in the community. For citizens also, the potential of the Living Room lies in sharing ideas, bringing what is known from the neighbourhoods and taking back what is learned in the Living Room.
This was the first stake. It has been moved already. Richard, who leads on the connections between the Living Room and the citizens asks what about connection outside of the space? And while it is all well and good to challenge public systems, what are the opportunities for civil society organisations to live, meet and try?
Each month, those engaged in the Living Room will come together for a morning or afternoon to reflect on what has been learned, and figure out how to use that learning to improve. Collectively they will move the stake.
This initial idea will almost for sure be consigned to an archive, an obscure way marker on a path that builds on the strengths of the settlement movement but takes the thinking forward. And, crucially, contributes to population level change in the health and development of those living in the Triangle.