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Let’s talk about being more connected: Continuing citizen action in Frome

Annabelle Macfadyen

Annabelle Macfadyen

Following her NDM talk in 2021, Annabelle Macfadyen updates us on continued local citizen action rippling out from Frome Neighbourhood Network, including the Let’s Talk and Transition Streets projects.

Annabelle shares her wisdom on the impact of polarisation and individualism – and her passion for more connected, powerful neighbourhoods.

What are you doing in Frome that excites you the most?

The Neighbourhood Network is going through a process at the moment of becoming independent from the Town Council. We've got our own website, we've got an administrator, so we're getting funding and we have set up ourselves independently. We're still very much supported by the Town Council and we use their spaces. That’s going well. We're moving forward.

Our big thing at the moment is the Transition Streets project, which is coming from the Transition movement and it's about getting people together on their streets to talk about how they can live greener lives. This is for people who want to do something about reducing their carbon footprint and also save money in the process, who want to feel engaged in making changes towards a greener world. We're just beginning that. So that's exciting.

The other thing I'm really involved in is called Let's Talk. It came from a discussion within the network, with people on the street saying: When tensions arise with our neighbours it can cause a lot of unhappiness. We don't feel we have the resources or know what to do, and can someone help us?

And so we did training around how to have restorative conversations with people. That led to a group of us getting together to form an organisation called Let's Talk. It's been going for over two years now and we offer workshops and support. It's not specifically for neighbourhoods, but it has come from that and so we're very often meeting those kinds of situations. I'm passionate about it, and that's also developing and growing and in a good place.

These projects go hand in hand and there are other projects as well that have come out of the Neighbourhood Network.

Milk Street Party, Frome 2021

Milk Street Party, Frome 2021

From those two projects that you've talked about there, what are you most hopeful about?

I'm hopeful about opportunities for people to come together in positive ways and to connect with each other, and perhaps overcome some of the divides that exist in our society and our streets. That feels really important to me, because we're living in a time of such polarisation of society, through social media and everything that pushes us away from each other and divides us.

I love all of the things that go on in individual streets – people having street parties. We're having an apple pressing in our garden in a couple of weeks and we're finding ways on streets in Frome to keep those connections going. We stayed connected more during Covid. Even though we weren’t able to get together physically, we supported each other a lot and found creative ways to connect. I think things have gone a little bit back to the way it was before, where people have their own family links or work links, but there's still all these groups with WhatsApp groups or Facebook groups, where there is a way for people to connect on a hyperlocal, street level.

So that's exciting and hopeful – that once you've got those connections, there's more scope for helping each other and for sharing more, and for understanding and building trust and a sense of belonging, and all those things that we need.

Thinking about that sense of coming together, can you share any stories about when that's happened recently?

There's one that I really like and it sprung out of the Neighbourhood Network, which is a group that calls themselves The Wild Bunch. They focus on people's gardens and the wildlife that exists in the gardens. They champion the idea that gardens and open spaces are interactive parts of a much larger wild space and that we connect with our wild neighbours. So we've got hedgehog highways and we've got bat boxes and we've got sharing ideas about flowers for pollination and bringing the bees into the gardens.

I just love that, and it is happening on streets where neighbours meet in each other's gardens and share ideas, and it's also meeting as a town. People from an individual street will go to the meetings and then take that back to their streets. That's quite a good example of things that are happening which connect streets up in a shared project.

Wild bunch making bird boxes in a neighbourhood

Wild bunch making bird boxes in the neighborhood.

That's fantastic. There's something amazing about coming together to care for the place that you're in that can just knock down those divisions that you were talking about.

Exactly. Nature and the outdoors and gardens are a subject that doesn't involve politics and it doesn't involve controversial subjects. Most people love their garden and want to want to share and talk about it – and they love nature and want to protect it as well.

So what's the best thing that could happen in Frome?

There's lots happening in Frome. The Town Council have a very active Community Development Department and they are doing a very good job of connecting community organisations together.

For me, the best thing could happen is that there's a sense of connectivity running right the way through Frome, from the street level, where people know each other, to the wider neighbourhoods – people getting involved in social activities and projects and feeling that they have a say in the decisions that affect them. So on more [of a] governance level.

We're not there yet, but I like the idea [of] neighbourhood parliaments that exists in India. I always have that in the back of my mind: how do we create a democracy which starts with the smallest unit, which is a street, and then build our democracy from there? It’s this connectivity that interests me.

You've got your streets and then you've got your community groups. How do they all connect, so each group knows what each other's doing, so that we're not overlapping, or if we are that we can collaborate and the opportunities for collaboration [are] there? Everyone is aware that this is happening and feels they’re part of a town that's really connected and caring – that I can have my say and that I matter here, in this place, and I can contribute to it. Rather than being atomised and isolated in our individualistic lives, which [is] the way that things have gone, especially in the last 50 years or so.

Frome Neighbourhood Network

Frome Neighbourhood Network

If that’s the big aim, what do you think the next steps are for the projects to move towards that?

With the Neighbourhood Network, you can't make streets connect with each other or take that first step to local democracy. You can't make it happen. It has to happen from the grassroots and from place itself. So the best thing I think that can be done is to provide the scaffolding, or the architecture, or the ways that people can have access to being connected.

Neighbourhood Network isn’t the only one doing that in Frome, but I think they have a place in saying we're here to support people in the community who want to improve their sense of community on their street, who have ideas but don't know how to put them out there, or who want to make something happen but feel on their own with it.

People shouldn't be doing things on their own. This is all about us doing stuff together. So it's about continuing to put out that layer of structure or support, and making sure that people know that that's there, so that then they can run with it and do their own their own thing in their own ways.

With the Let's Talk group, the bit that really interests me at the moment is that we're looking at supporting local organisations who have recently started up, or who are meeting the kinds of challenges that you have with a new community group: Who makes the decisions here? How do we take care of people in in our group? How do we make decisions together? How do we maintain the health of the team and a sense of co-operation? What happens when someone feels their voice isn’t being heard, or they experience someone as taking up too much space, or there are systemic issues that aren’t being addressed? How do we create a restorative system in our groups?

That's something that we're really interested in going to groups and helping them to think through – how they'll establish some agreements and understandings about how to be a really well functioning organisation, so that these things don't knock things sideways. You hear so often about groups that start out with lots of enthusiasm and then something goes wrong and people have to leave. I really like that idea of support for new organisations.

That really ties in with what you were saying about polarisation. If we only mix with people who are like us and who we get on with, and that's what groups are formed of, we don't have that diversity, do we? And then we’re not as connected as we really should be.

Yeah, it’s important that there are places where we meet with people we don't usually come together with. And that is the opportunity with streets, because usually – not always – there's a mixture of people from different social backgrounds, who could come together to share things they have in common.

What would you want, like or need from the community to make the next steps successful?

I think with the Let’s Talk group, it would be brilliant if there was a willingness from the institutions that exist in the town to recognise the value of restorative conversations – how we speak to people, how we embed restorative practices in the ways that we work together, particularly in schools, that we give those skills to the children so that they that they know how to manage. It's also about how they manage to address difficulties when they arrive in terms of relationships. We all encounter difficult challenges in relationships, so let's get better at it.

I love the idea that these institutions would think about embedding a restorative approach in the ways they work. Frome Town Council staff have taken this on and received training in having restorative conversations and I really applaud this.

[Through] the other group, Neighbourhood Network, you meet people who really get that it matters that we have a sense of being connected where we live. When I meet those people, I can feel like we’re kindred spirits. We see the value of social connections as being fundamental to our wellbeing. I think that is something that perhap has been a bit lost. To feel well, we need these connections not just with our family, but with people in our community and those who live close to us, and to feel that trust is there. I would love to have a sense that there's more people who understand we need to rebuild this trust that has been eroded over the years because of the individualistic culture that has been promoted by governments, newspapers, social media.

I'd love to think that there's a revival of a sense of belonging and of trust and [that] we need to be empowered to make our own decisions: come on, we can do this! The community is strong and we don’t have to wait for the powers-that-be to tell us what to do, because we've got it all here and we just need to we just need to look to each other.

You mentioned that some of this did come back a little bit in COVID and I've seen the talk that you did with NDM in 2021, so I'm wondering what's happened for Frome Neighbourhood Network since then. What's been emerging and what's taken a back step?

Initially what we were doing was supporting groups to establish themselves. So you might have an individual in a street who wanted to set up a street group and they just needed a bit of support. That whole piece was quite important at that stage, and then also supporting people who wanted to start some activities on their street.

During COVID they had to be really careful what that was, but they were being creative. When we heard about creative things happening on streets, like someone playing music on the street or the Window Wanderland, we passed them on. We'd go, ‘Hey, you could do this on your street! And it's a way of staying connected through this difficult time.’ We were doing a lot of that and people were coming to Zoom calls to talk about that.

Now there are different kinds of things happening and we have kept the newsletter, which shares stories of what's happening on streets. There's more street parties happening now than there were before COVID, and that is always a really great way for people to [get] together and think about what else they're going to do.

Jumble trail

Frome Jumble trail poster

There have been things like jumble trails happening – a whole neighbourhood putting stuff out and people coming around and chatting and buying things and taking things. The share boxes have done really well and that's still going on in lots of different places. I think that also brings that sense of a good feeling for people – someone's just put something in and I've just received it. There's a good feeling of connectivity, even though you may never see the person who put the thing in there.

We've decided to do this Transition Streets project because we felt that there was a need for a project that people could get to grips with. The Neighbourhood Network can help to get things started, it can happen on a few streets, and if it really works well it can happen on other streets. We haven't started doing it yet, but we're putting quite a lot of energy into that and into publicising it. We decided to go that way to try to re-establish what we are doing here. There weren't so many people coming forward asking us for support, so that was what our steering group decided we were going to take on.

What meaning, if any, has this conversation brought you today?

I think it's definitely focused me in on the deeper motivations and visions, and helped me to connect with those. By reflecting on what’s been happening it’s reconnected me with the dreams and aspirations of the projects. That's really helpful, because it reignites something – the potential. Thank you.

That is my dream of what would happen in an interview, so that's brilliant to hear! Thank you so much.

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