Places transformed by people re-inventing everyday life
by Tom Baker
Life & Loaf Loaf is a social enterprise business that promotes good food in communities and builds community through good food. Since late 2009 we have run a cookery school and community bakery from my home in Cotteridge, south Birmingham.
Flour The story begins way back in 2005 when I have my bread epiphany on a chilly day in Oxford. I’m studying for a masters in human nutrition when fellow student Vladimir Niza, who alongside studying happens to be holding down a job at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat Saison restaurant nearby, shoves half a loaf of sourdough into my hand, insisting “try this!”. He knows I’ve messed around with making bread in my spare time, but I’ve never even heard of sourdough bread, let alone made it. I think he says something about Degustibus, the artisan baker who’d made the loaf that was about to change my life, but as I tear and chew my first piece all my senses numb as new synapses are formed in my brain - I’ve never tasted bread that could taste so good. On it’s own. Ever. Wow. I know instantly that I have to find a regular supply of this stuff, or failing that, attempt to make it myself. What I don’t know is that this loaf has started a chain of events that will eventually lead to me rashly quitting a successful and enjoyable job for a life of uncertainty, sometimes poverty, but always adventure. This is the seed that forms the wheat, that goes to the mill, that ends up as flour in a bakers hand.
We have this thing, a show, more correctly: a Performance Installation. It’s called Of All The People In All The World, it uses grains of rice to represent human population statistics, it sounds unlikely but it works. I’d been doing a bit of work in different cities around Europe and it had started to occur to me that there really were a lot of people in the world. I started to feel agoraphobic. I found myself needing to know how many people I share the planet with. Getting home I looked up the world’s population. I found the number, 6,200,000,000, but didn’t really understand what that meant. What I really needed was to see that many things in a pile, then I would understand.
Being a theatre maker/director/artist person I’m in the privileged position of being obliged to follow up such thoughts. It took a few days to work out what the ‘things’ should be that should get piled up to make the world’s population comprehensible. Then it took an evening with kitchen scales, a bag of rice and a calculator to work out that my pile would weigh more than 100 tonnes. It took next to no time to work out that I wouldn’t be looking at that pile any time soon. It was time to scale down my ambitions.
Hunched back over the calculator I reckon that a tonne of rice will suffice to represent the population of the UK and that a tonne of rice should be easy to find, I pretty much live on Ladypool Road for heaven’s sake: Rice Central. The impresario in me suggests that the pulling power of a single pile of rice in a gallery will be limited; we need more piles. How about hiving off the prison population and prison officers, police officers and professional footballers; MPs and Female MPs; all the Prime Ministers we’ve ever had; all the Popes; everyone who has ever walked on the moon? How about setting up the population of London vs. the population of Birmingham? Surely this kind of thing would be worth seeing. If I’m interested in that surely others will be. There’s potential here.
The concept for the 4am Project began in Birmingham in 2008. After driving through the city at this time, I was struck by the deserted cityscape. Streets and roads normally teaming with people and cars were empty. The city was asleep and it felt like I had it all to myself. That felt very special.
I started going out on my own to take photographs of the city at 4am. I shared my photographs on my blog. People were really interested in what I was doing and so I began involving my online audience, asking them, “What part of Birmingham would you like to see next?”. It became a collaboration. They decided the location and I would venture out with my camera at 4am. Because there was such enthusiasm behind it in April 2010 the idea was extended and the 4am project was born.
The 4am Project is a ground breaking global interactive photography project whose aim is to encourage worldwide social collaboration to capture a view of the world at the often unseen time of 4am.
I couldn’t let my lack of experience in launching a global project stand in my way and I dived straight in and learnt what I needed to do very quickly. I had to learn how to maximise my use of social media, work with the press and organise events on a global scale. I couldn’t, nor did I want to, wait for permission, or funding, or sponsorship. I was keen to get the project off the ground and I couldn’t wait for the ‘perfect time’ as I knew that would never come.
Social media has played a crucial role in the project. By using the free tools available, the 4am Project became a collaboration of global solidarity and this in turn encourages the sharing of photographs that reflects the world we live in at an often unseen time.
Created in Birmingham is an arts and culture blog which, as the tagline says, aims to 'link up Birmingham's artistic and creative communities'. From the first post on 1 December 2006 and over the course of 3,000+ blog posts since, that's what a succession of editors and contributors have sought to do.
It was all the idea of Pete Ashton and Stef Lewandowski and it was borne out of two frustrations. The first frustration came from a sense that Birmingham's creative scene lacked visibility; the second from the way in which organisations would commit large budgets to static, brochure websites that would sit idle, missing the opportunities offered by the increasingly social web.
Their answer was to set up a blog using the cheap, readily available tools and services. Pete, a long-time blogger with a background in independent zine distribution, would run the site in return for a small stipend. The site would serve as a public document of Birmingham's creative scene and show the possibilities available to those who were prepared to think progressively about how an online presence should be managed. It has evolved over the years and gone through various iterations. These have been caused by different editors, the ever-changing online landscape, bursts of higher profile and any number of less obvious factors. Despite all of that, several things have remained consistent. In particular, the site's editorial voice has always been steered by the interests, circumstances and biases of the people who look after it - excellent and flawed as they may be. I like to think that's what makes the site come across as slightly more human.
Karen Cain had been to three social media surgeries. At each we had helped her use social media to support her voluntary work with the Central Birmingham Neighbourhood Forum. The evening she turned up at her fourth surgery I asked her - as I always do - “how can we help you?”. “No Nick,” she said, “this time I’d like to help someone else”.
It’s a story I’ve told often because it was the moment I realised we had stumbled across something absolutely to core to building community. It took me a long time to digest - but now I call it the loop of generosity.
A social media surgery is rigidly informal, intensely relaxed. To run one you find a free room where there is wi-fi and tea and coffee, you invite people who are good at using the web and people from local and community voluntary organisations who’d might benefit from being better at using the web.
The helper (or surgeon) sits next to the “patients” (as close to one to one as you can manage) and simply asks “what are you trying to achieve?”. Through talking and listening we figure out how to help them. Whether it’s setting up a blog, using Facebook or any of a myriad of other tools and techniques - we find a simple practical way that suits their aims and level of skills and confidence.
On the face of it the patients are getting something for nothing: free, generous help. But the surgeons are learning too: about their craft, their world, their community, even themselves.
I’ll wager it felt a lot less like being asked to help direct a process and a lot more like a cowboy exhorting you to leap onto a runaway steam train, unhook the carriages, and save the women and children. The brakes aren’t working, the lever on the points has snapped, there’s a tunnel coming up and you’re on the roof. Now imagine that train isn’t uncontrolled, there are drivers and they’re intent on stoking the boiler. And that train has over a million passengers.
That’s how I felt about a huge consultation exercise announced by Birmingham City Council in late 2008: The Big City Plan, the council told us, was to be about “the next twenty years” of the City Centre and by extension have a huge impact on the rest of the city. “Get this right or face years of problems” it seemed to say. So I wanted to help, I wanted to spread the word, to make sure that as many people as possible would contribute. I wanted to have a real conversation with people who understood the issues and chip in where I could be helpful. I’d been running a fairly well known blog about the city (Birmingham: It’s Not Shit) for eight years or so, I knew there was a knowledgable audience out there that would engage if they found it easy enough.
And then I saw the consultation documents. A glossy leaflet what seemed to say as little as it could, and a monolithic downloadable ‘Work in Progress’ PDF that talked of “sustainable delivery vehicles”. I liked the idea of a city buzzing with shop-bikes, rickshaws and sack trucks instead of lorries, but I wasn’t quite sure what was being proposed. I needed help before even starting to read it.
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FRIENDS OF COTTERIDGE PARK
By Emma Woolf
Cotteridge is a part of Birmingham probably best known for being near more famous areas like Bournville! Mention it to anyone but a local and you’re likely to get blank looks. Despite being a busy transport hub Cotteridge lacks many community facilities – no library, no youth club no sports or community centre. It does, however, have a park - 22 acres of land filled with green spaces, tennis courts and skate parks, an amphitheatre and outdoor learning spaces. But there very nearly wasn’t - and it wasn’t always this good.
In 1997 our park was threatened with decommissioning. The bandstand, community building, Bowling Green and toilets had been removed and the last remaining member of staff was facing redundancy.
Before that, like many communities, most of us who live here didn’t really know our neighbours except to nod to; but the day after we heard about the proposed changes the weather was good and the park was packed. Anger overcame natural reticence and we talked to people, asking them what they thought - everyone we spoke to was horrified. It isn’t until you are about to lose something that you realise how precious it is, and from that moment on we knew we had to stop the plans.
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SAHELI WOMEN'S GROUP
By Naseem Akhater
It all started in 1998, when I got a job as a nursery nurse next to the Balsall Heath Forum. I was asked to go along to a new meeting for local Asian women. BHF had set up plenty of residents group but Asian women weren't getting involved. I was told BHF was a 'capacity building organisation ... developing social capital'. 'Hmm ...' I thought, 'what does that mean?'. Fourteen years later, I think I know.
After attending a few of those first meetings and making new friends, we discovered that we all agreed on one thing. That as women we had nowhere we could call our own. Men got together in loads of places - clubs, mosques, work. We decided we wanted a local women's centre and it's been a long journey but we've made it.