Social entrepreneurs in Fife: Tracey, Frankie, Alfie and Kathleen

FifeDartington It’s been a great and amazing couple of days, reaffirming why I love working in this field, and what it can achieve. Wednesday included a ‘webinar’ on using social media with Fellows dialling in from across the UK and Australia, which went well despite the expected digital glitches; and also a session with one of the new London programmes (see who are on the Block and Weekly programmes here; profiles are gradually being filled in!) on problem tree analysis….which is more interesting and practically useful than it might sound.

Today, I was invited to attend and speak at the SSE Fife graduation of their latest programme, under the banner Motivate to Innovate. Fife was our first SSE franchise, and BRAG, where it’s based, have been a trusted, committed, supportive and, at times, forgiving partner. What John, Dodie, Callum (in picture, left, with several of Fife programme) and, especially, Tracey have achieved over the years in Lochgelly, Fife, and now across other parts of Scotland, is incredibly impressive. They themselves have demonstrated so many of the characteristics the graduating students spoke about today: resilience, support, drive, persistence, commitment, determination, resourcefulness.

The social entrepreneurs graduating today were a typical SSE mix of projects, ages, genders and backgrounds; do check them out. They each spoke about the importance of the support of their peers, and of other networks they tapped into; of how this was a journey of confidence and self-awareness and belief as well as skills and knowledge; and of how hard it was, but also how rewarding. Or as Lorna, one of the new Fellows, put it, “It’s been tough; but worth it”. There were tears, laughter and a great deal of inspiration at the event today.

I also caught up with Frankie, SSE Fellow and Executive Director of Recycle Fife. He came in to support these newest Fellows, and told me that things are going well, with almost 40 staff now working at the organisation, and several potential new eco-developments coming up: he’s got countless great ideas, but he’s also proven he and the RF team can implement them. He also pointed out to me that their success is as much about the people they work with, train, and employ as it is the environmental benefits (around 1120 customers; diverts around 180 tonnes per month from landfill). He talked to me about a guy called Alfie who is now working in his first ever job, aged 48, at Recycle Fife; at first, they didn’t have the money to take him on, so he volunteered for 11 months, worked with the organisation on some of the things that had been a barrier in the past, and is now a few months into gainful employment. You can fill in the blanks on the change that brings in someone’s life.

I will finish by briefly mentioning Kathleen, one of the social entrepreneurs who graduated today. She outlined the challenges and traumas in her background, the things she had overcome, and the journey she and her kids had been on over the last 8 or 9 years. Having gone back through education, rebuilt her home life, retrained, and re-oriented herself, she is now committed to supporting and helping others: setting up an organisation that provides therapies for those going through similar experiences. I can’t really get across how powerful her presentation was, how impressive her journey is, or how the room was hanging on her every word; suffice to say that she had to ask for tissues half way through, and there were plenty of other less-than-dry eyes.

I come away inspired and humbled. As I said to the new Fellows, I’ve attended a few events recently where a mixture of management consultants, venture capitalists, MBA students and politicians have propounded their views on why social enterprise and social entrepreneurs are important, and setting forth their views on what all this stuff is about. I'm glad those conversations are happening. But today reaffirmed that, for me at least, it is at its heart about people. People like Tracey, Frankie, Alfie and Kathleen.

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The real deal social entrepreneurs in Yorkshire

Great to go and visit our Yorkshire and Humber SSE today, and not just because East Coast trains do free wi-fi (hooray)…but also much more importantly to get a catch-up on how the first programme is going up there, and to meet with three current students currently being supported.
What was great for me was that the relatively dry, formal points I had been making in the first part of the conversation were vividly brought to life by the real examples the social entrepreneurs brought up as they spoke. Here’s some examples of what I mean.

1) Formal version (me): “Social entrepreneurs build trusted relationships, form partnerships and gain practically useful contacts as a result of being together on the programme”

Real-world: John, who’s working on a project to build trust and improve relationships between neighbours, is now working with two other Y+H SSE students (Jay and Justine: there must be some sort of J cubed or 3J name in the offing) whose work complements his. Namely, a platform is built to get neighbours interacting (by John); recycled PCs (from Jay) enable people to get online more easily; and video stories (by Justine) provide content and evaluation material to demonstrate impact. As John put it, this makes it more of a package that has more value and is easier to sell.

2) Formal version (me again): “SSE gives them the time and space to reflect on what they are doing, in a trusted environment with like-minded people”

Real-world: Mani was talking about how his hip-hop empowerment work in schools had really taken off, and that he was massively busy in the day-to-day. He said that the SSE ‘forced’ him to take a step back, think about what he might have missed or forgotten, and bounce ideas / problems off other people. Otherwise he would have carried on going continuously at 100 mph.

3) Formal version (guess who): “The 18-20 students come from a diverse range of backgrounds, and bring a varied range of experiences, networks, information and skills to the group”

Real world: Chris, who’s just won a couple of awards (see here for more on him and Mani winning awards), and works on fuel poverty and eco-efficiency with housing associations was talking about how he came very much from a commercial business background. It was a chance meeting that led him into the world of social and ethical business, and he’d joined the SSE partly to get “a bit more of the social bit of social entrepreneur”. He added that he’d learned a great deal from people in the group, who he might otherwise never have met or taken time with.

Pleasure to see them and learn a great deal from them too.

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