In the latter part of this year we’re privileged to be working on some video content for USE-IT!, a project working on solutions to social and economic problems in Smethwick and West Birmingham.
The project is made up of local residents, community organisations, developers and institutions, and it aims to make sure that investments in the area benefit local people.
We’ve been working hard on the upcoming films with Jennie Sandford, the Brokerage and Communications Manager for USE-IT!. I caught up with Jennie to ask her more about the project, so we can spread the word about the great work they’ve been doing.
SW: What kinds of people does the project help?
JS: We’re building and strengthening the links between ‘micro assets’ (people, neighbourhood groups, etc.) in disadvantaged areas and ‘macros assets’ (capital and infrastructure projects and developments). We encourage and empower local people to unlock the opportunities around them by specifically working with those who wish to use their existing skills, or learn new ones, to help and support their communities.
There are several strands of activity within the project: We’re working with skilled medical professionals with overseas qualifications; existing or aspiring social entrepreneurs; community groups interested in forming community led businesses or economic development plans; and local people who would like to be trained in Community Research.
How has the project helped people? Can you give a couple of examples?
Our skills matching programme has identified around 200 people with overseas medical qualifications, and has funded language lessons, training and coaching, as well as support in the accreditation of their qualifications so they can take up vacant positions in the NHS. More than 20 residents have now been employed locally and others are continuing to make progress.
We were able to connect residents in the Ladywood area of Summerfield and local volunteers from the City Hospital Greenhouse Project with the owners of a disused playing field next to Edgbaston Reservoir. Birmingham Settlement, the owners and caretakers of the field are keen to create a ‘green’ project that benefits local residents and supports learning and new experiences. In 2018 a pop-up event took place over a sunny Spring bank holiday, attracting 250 locals to eat, make and play. Since then, there've been two more events, Eat, Make, Play has been established as a community enterprise, and The Greenhouse Project has started growing on the site.
Have the positives from the project gone beyond those directly involved? What have these wider benefits been?
We’ve engaged and trained 60 Community Researchers who have conducted research in their own communities on a wide range of topics. One piece of research commissioned and undertaken around childhood obesity led to Birmingham City Council winning £300k of Government funding to test and refine new ideas for addressing childhood obesity and health inequalities in deprived areas, where obesity rates are highest. This could lead to new initiatives being rolled out city wide and potentially nationwide.
The Black Country Partnerships has started rolling out a Skills Matching programme based on USE-IT! called HOP (Health Overseas Professionals) beyond Sandwell and West Birmingham, into Wolverhampton, Dudley and Walsall. There’s talk from NHS bosses and local MPs about extending this even further, maybe even nationwide.
What have been the highlights for you?
Meeting people who are passionate about where they live and who are trying, in various ways, to improve their lives and the lives of people around them. There are so many amazingly talented, knowledgeable individuals who we’ve met, sometimes people who have had to face really difficult challenges, and often it’s just a little support or even an introduction that can lead to them unlocking their own potential and making a real difference.
I’m enthused by how we’ve helped raise the profile of social enterprise and community business in the city. Birmingham was officially named ‘A Social Enterprise City’ last year. Social enterprises reinvest the money they make back into their business or the local community. This allows them to tackle social problems, improve people's life chances, support communities and help the environment. So when a social enterprise profits society profits. Our community of social enterprises in Brum is showing everyone what the future of business can look like.
Are there any social enterprises or other projects that have come out of USE-IT! That we should look out for?
For sure. Warm Earth won the latest USE-IT! Challenge, where existing social enterprises could apply for £3000 worth of funding to develop a new product or service and take it to market. Their idea is for a 'warm bed' that allows people to grow vegetables throughout the year: With support from Cooperative Futures and STEAMhouse in Birmingham the social enterprise will be developing and testing this new product and hopefully bringing it to market soon!
A favourite of mine is Feed My Creative, a ‘Creative Arts Studio’ run by Janet Gray who aims to bring out the creativity in young people and adults. It is a business that focuses on sustainability, by showing people how they can reuse clothing and furniture to reduce waste. Feed My Creative is a member of the newly established USE-IT! Soho Social Enterprise Network and Janet has showcased her business at a number of events and market opportunities that we’ve organised.
What do you think the legacy of the project will be?
Well, we’re entering that stage now where we’re trying to nail down what the legacy of USE-IT! looks like. We’re starting a process of evaluation and having discussions across the partnership and with participants to work it all out. We’ll have hopefully increased resilience in the neighborhoods where we’ve worked, empowered people to make a difference, and built bridges between large organisations and the grass roots.
But I suppose the real legacy will be proven by how much of what we’ve tested is taken up by policy and decision makers. Our legacy needs to be about demonstrating that our successes can be modeled and replicated.
Why did you choose Ember to produce your film?
We considered the overall profile of the company, its services and key personnel. We were impressed with the quality of Ember’s work and their ability to produce a highly watchable video about a complex subject! Using a local company was important to us, as was choosing a business with strong values and social responsibility. Last but not least, price was key, and we were happy that the Ember quote offered real value for money.
What are your three favourite things about Birmingham?
The people, particularly our self-deprecating nature and much-maligned accent.
The trees and greenery, canals and parkland. Always a joy.
The food scene, which has improved so much since my youth.
Thanks to Jennie for her time. If you’d like to find out more about USE-IT!, you can follow them on social media:
Or check out the USE-IT! web page
The project is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund through the Urban Innovative Actions Initiative.