Skip to main content

Street Connecting: "Amazing things will happen"

Out on the street

Paul with Street and Youth Connectors at the big summer event: Having fun is such an important part of community life

As told to Sam Moon

Building community at the speed of trust in Firs and Bromford, Birmingham, Open Door Community Foundation Street Connector, Paul Wright shares his journey of the magic and joy that can emerge through the tough times and good when you invite in the passions, skills and gifts of community and create space to welcome the stranger.

Can you give a brief overview Paul, to set the scene in your own words?

Firs and Bromford is an outer city estate, built in the 50s and 60s. It is quite a defined neighbourhood. People know when they're here, they know if they live here. There's a stigma that comes with that. To an extent, lots of outsiders will describe this place as something negative. The people that live here have a sense of pride and a sense of community and togetherness. And it's our place. It's our neighbourhood.

I have the privilege of working here, as well as living in Firs and Bromford, as a Street Connector Mentor. We made the decision to really embrace the connecting, being out in the community and bringing people together. When people have ideas that they would love to do, we help people shape an idea or a thought or a way that they would love to get involved.

Street party

Dancing at a street party - using skills and joy to bring people together

I really picked up your passion, of how you speak in terms of how you identify the community as your community. I like how you said people describe it as “people know when they’re here.” That is really meaningful.

With that in mind, what are you working on that excites you most?

The thing that really excites me is when you find those people that are really passionate about the place, the community, wanting to do things with their neighbours and bring their neighbours together.

That really excites me – to pay attention to those people, and to help people understand the contribution that they would like to make, how they would like to show up and how they would like to work.

This last bank holiday weekend embodies that. The journey of the street parties has been fascinating. You get to that point where you really do put money in the hands of the neighbours, and the people who run them are totally using their gifts and skills. One lady who ran a street party – she's a DJ, she's a party planner, her partner cooks the curry and homemade punch.

Finding people that really want a street party is something that resonates with people and is a good way of bringing people together here in Bromford and something we've been doing for quite a while. It always finds a way to bring more people to be involved and spark conversations.

I hope I never lose the spark that comes from having a space where people can have a conversation where there's possibilities – a conversation where people can imagine and think and dream, and look beyond what's already in existence.

Street party

A party led by Muslim neighbours who wished to celebrate Eid with everyone on their street

Awesome. You're talking about discovering people who are passionate and want to do things together – how it’s about paying attention to that and then seeing how people show up.

You talked about finding people, but also this spark that can be seen and felt and discovered.

What is it that helps to find people or to create that space where people can contribute?

What's critical, and it's hard to trace it back, but opening up spaces where people feel welcome is such an important part.

The journey here involves physical buildings, dropping-in sessions, coffee mornings, opening that space up and having people there who are genuinely wanting to welcome people, wanting to listen, to hear what other people want to contribute, to hear ways in which other people want to show up and people that pay attention to those people on the edges.

It reminds me… quite a few years ago, when somebody was helping us understand our journey and what we were doing, the words, “people getting dragged to things” came up. So we had this joke about being called the “drag queens.”

People would say, “Why are you here?” They would answer, “Because Paul dragged me here.” It's interesting how people would describe that – someone else has dragged me here. What they were trying to articulate was that the offer was there. The encouragement was there, the nudge.

It is being out and about – a sense of being invited, and in the space having people that are naturally good listeners and want to pay attention, nurturing and valuing that. It’s something that we've been doing for quite a while.

There is a lot of power in what you're saying, Paul. You are talking about welcoming people on the edges and how you are nurturing and nudging, or ‘dragging’, which has become very playful.

When you talk about it being really important – why is this important to you?

I personally think we've found other people that have a deep belief we are better humans when we are connected to others, and there is a deep longing to be connected.

On a personal level, growing up I was a victim of bullying and had places in school and places in life where I didn't feel any sense of belonging. I didn't feel valued. I also had other spaces where I really did feel valued. So for me, my personal journey of Church and Boys Brigade was the place that I went to, spaces where I genuinely felt valued for who I was, and that has stuck with me to this day.

Street party

Food and hospitality at the heart of every event - an opportunity to welcome, and to share gifts, culture and heritage

I am really touched by what you're saying in terms of how it's been a personal experience that has deep importance – of what it feels like to belong and not belong, what that does when you are part of the creation within your community and the ripples it creates. Tell me, what are you enjoying most about this journey so far?

What I enjoy is when you see people getting it and feeling it, and the joy that it brings.

There is a deepness to this. ‘Joy’ is a word that I think gets used without fully feeling that there's a deepness to joy, that it is beyond happiness and laughing. You hear these words of when someone's heart sings. When they experience something in the neighbourhood, that makes my heart sing and brings me joy.

Through all the complications and the hard times, this isn't just a plain sailing journey. This is tough at times, but you find sometimes in the cracks the joy can come through some pain and suffering. It's not just flowers and happiness. It's [that] we find joy in tragedy, in tough times as well.

What happens when people ‘get it’? What do you see the possibilities are when you see people get it?

There is a feeling. This is an emotional thing. It's not just a transaction or signing someone up. There's an emotional connection or feeling, and you can see and you can feel it. It goes back to a sense of joy. There's a feeling of, ‘Oh, this is how the world should be. We should be connected to each other.’

The pandemic was an interesting experience here, where you are told that lots of the things that you do and take for granted aren't allowed, or actually could kill somebody. But what happened was for lots of us here was still that deep desire to stay connected, and we just found other ways to be connected with each other.

Table and Chairs

Mystery table and chairs in the woods

Tell me a little bit about that. What did people do to be connected?

There's a set of woods at the back of the community. Early on [in the pandemic] we went out for a walk and discovered a table and chairs in the woods. Really random!

We had no idea where they had come from. Somebody had properly laid it out like a dining room and it was really surreal and a bit spooky. For a long time we were [thinking], “What the hell is this table and chairs for?”

I put it on Facebook. Within days and weeks, this table and chairs became a focal point for the community. Somebody went up there and put a jar on there and said, “Write messages of what are you thankful for.” Then somebody took up a candelabra, a thing you put candles in, to make it into a proper table and chairs, and then somebody went up and put knives and forks.

It was a laugh, it was interesting, but I think it was that sense of, we want to be together, we want to be a community together. It was funny, at one point there would be a queue of people [to use the table and chairs].

It symbolises the story for us, because it did get damaged. Somebody set fire to it. Again, that mixture of joy and tragedy, it really embodied [it]. There was that sense of, we're going to crack on with this. We are not gonna let a couple of people spoil this. It was a real symbol of, we want to be together, we want to do something together, we want to still stay connected to each other.

I love the table story. So when you are looking forward, what is the best thing that could happen?

I would love, beyond the cycle of a funding stream for what we do with Street Connecting and going out door knocking for all those street parties to continue, that there will be a long-term sustainability, if you want to use those organisational terms.

The culture of this place has changed a little and that's quite a grand statement to make. There's an argument to say that the culture was there already, we've just shone a light on it and embraced it. The best thing is this continues to grow and we find new, creative ways for it to happen beyond the funding.

Tell me a little bit about what comes to mind about new creative ways. What are your next steps in that direction?

We've been on a bit of a journey of stepping back and wanting to step back, and whether the neighbourhood wants people like myself and other paid workers to step back. You make that judgement that says, oh, we should always be stepping back, and then people say, we don't want you to step back [...] It's a fear and a worry of, oh, if you guys all step back [...] what are we going to do? So I think there's a real journey with all of that.

We want the neighborhoods to lead [...] And I think that's the next step.

Really, I think, more and more of those opportunities to genuinely say: look, this is yours.

That’s an interesting relationship, when you talk about the fear of stepping away. What do you think the courage needed for that to happen is?

There's a courage as a paid worker to genuinely step back and to genuinely help others to step into spaces. That fear of failure and the feeling of, what if things go wrong?

People need space to make mistakes. Some of our biggest learning has been through things that have gone badly wrong, the things that haven't quite worked. As somebody who feels a sense of responsibility that things go well, it's having that courage to say, you know, I've made mistakes and been given the space to make mistakes. So other people need the space to make mistakes and learn from them.

Having the courage to step into leadership and stepping into more responsibility is a challenge. There's lots of people that have courage, but sometimes life gets in the way.

That's one of the complicated things at a community level. In an ideal world, you'd have all these leaders and they lead stuff, but we've got some people that have been evicted from the house, or they've got to care for a dying relative, or their mental health takes a massive dip. They've got the courage to lead, but there's lots of other things that are going on in life. So it's a tricky balance, but I think the courage needs to come from opening that space up and rolling with the tough times and the hard times.

I really like what you are saying about creating space to make mistakes and that it is ok to fail. With that in mind, what would you like, want or need from the community to make the next steps as successful as they possibly could be?

That’s a good question. What do I need from the community?

It's already there. I think willingness to take on those responsibilities and hold spaces that come with the stresses and the anxieties of tough times, but wanting to embrace that. And there's lots of people that are, it's definitely happening. It’s good that more people are willing to do that.

It's not easy. There's a real challenge. It needs kindness with each other, care for each other, support for each other. Continuing the journey of saying there's always room for others, and there's always room for other people's gifts and other people's skills.

In what ways, if any, have you been changed by your experience with this so far?

I've been changed in wanting to be more grounded – realistic, sometimes, but also still seeking imagination and creativity and possibility. Holding on to possibilities and holding on to hope and holding on to the goodness and the possibilities amongst the times when it's been hard.

There's definitely something about the long-term presence and being present. It has its moments of hardness and toughness, but how important it is. I've been able to roll with the highs and lows, find ways to stay hopeful, stay positive and learn. This is a collective journey which involves other people's gifts, being the peacemaker, being the hopeful one, being the joyful one – and embracing that too.

Community fun day

Street event on the local green - a space claimed by community where events happen throughout the year

What are the possibilities you're holding on to?

The possibilities are [that] despite all of the things that are happening locally, nationally, globally, we can still hold on to each other, our neighbours. That change is possible, that our fundamental thing should be to care for each other, to welcome the stranger, to embrace the gifts of our community.

It's blatantly obvious every time you turn the telly on the national pressures, the international pressures. The world isn't as we would want it to be and hope for it to be, and we feel more polarised and dizzy. It's always one person against another person.

Holding onto the possibilities in a community, where good conversation can happen and listening, amazing things will happen – not ‘can’ happen. It's holding on to that.

That's beautiful. My last question is: what, if any, meaning was made for you through the course of our conversation?

I talked about some of the tough things that go on. I've talked about that more than I thought I would. This is a journey. That can be quite hard at times. It's really important to be honest about that. That's one of the things that I think a few people here have tried to pay attention to a bit more – that as we come out of a pandemic, things are tough [and] other people's mental health, including my own, have had their ups and downs.

It is not about, ‘just crack on with this, just focus on the positive possibilities.’ Actually, it’s embrace the tough journey. I'm interested in that during this conversation I've had that kind of balance. This isn't all flowers, joy and sunshine.

And you know, one of the things that does get thrown at asset-based community development is that “you're only interested in the goodness, you're only interested in the possibilities, you’re ignoring the problems.” And it's like, no, we will hold on to the good, we'll hold on to the possibilities and we'll hold on to the joy and the hope. That is still the belief, that is still what we hold on to. But to get through to that you've got to embrace the tough times and the brokenness – the brokenness within ourselves and the brokenness within each other. So you have to live through that, which is hard, and interesting from this conversation. I kind of feel like I've covered all of that.

How you have framed things, expressed and created the picture of those pictures has been really powerful. Is there anything else that you'd like to add?

No, I think it's all good.


Paul and connectors

Paul door knocking with Phyl and Jo. Phyl was the inspiration for street connecting

This interview was conducted by Sam Moon with editing support from Sam Walby

More stories & updates