The Olympic and Paralympic Games is all about great team work – but can they inspire collective action for healthier, more cohesive communities?
Britain's national sense of community was put on trial in the summer of 2011, when images of rioters were broadcast around the world.
The Games have shown London in a very different light: a city celebrating the rich rewards of people coming together to strive in teams. Can it also help tackle the fact that large swathes of society, particularly the urban young, feel abandoned by the mainstream?
Long before the riots reared their head, London won the Olympic bid partly on the back of a promise to make things better for marginalised youth. The London 2012 Young Leaders Programme sets out to improve the leadership skills of youth right across the country. To date, 100 young people have organised community projects on everything from constructing low rope courses in Aberdeen and developing high street art projects in Surrey to landscaping roundabouts in Berkshire. The programme is backed by BP, The Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Foundation, and vInspired, along with LOCOG.
Young Leader Hally Nguyen – who was 16 when the project started two years ago – worked with the Newham team to put on a variety show one December night in East Ham's Trinity Centre. "There are lots of talented people in Newham", says Hally, "and I wanted to give them a chance to showcase their talents for their peers, parents, and friends." The show included primary school children doing Bollywood dances, Newham Council workers singing Adele songs, rappers, drummers, pop acts, Polish singers and rumba dancers. And there should be more to come. "I invited a councillor from Newham who really liked the concept", says Hally. "She's asked me to help her do more shows in the future, so this is going to be a long-term thing."
Giving young people a platform where they can express themselves without feeling patronised can be a powerful incentive for them to act. One such platform is Big Voice: a national film competition for 11-19 year-olds from all over the UK, mounted by BT as part of London 2012's Get Set education scheme. It brought together school children with college students and professional producers, and the 36 finalists included films on everything from beating bullying and homophobia to caring for the local environment and, in one case, how boys should take responsibility for teenage pregnancy.
Morpeth School in Bethnal Green used images of young athletes free-running through the backstreets of London, leaping from rooftops to walls, to give an edge to their request to keep the city, their own track, free of litter. They managed their own production budget and schedule, says Head Teacher Hugh Flannery: "They benefited from the whole process: decision-making, listening, prioritising, and skills for camera work. They now feel totally empowered knowing their small seed has grown into this." Moreover, Flannery adds, the project has inspired these students to be involved in Keep Britain Tidy, clearing waterways and picking up litter. After being shown at big screen events from Aberdeen to Woolwich, three films will be chosen by the judging panel for gold, silver and bronze medals, with a 'People's Choice' winner voted for via BT's Big Voice website.
As well as indirectly inspiring young people to care about their local environment, there have been projects that help them get out and enhance it. Transform is bringing together volunteers to turn 45 areas of derelict land in the Olympics host boroughs into fantastic new green spaces, and in the process they hope to encourage people to live more sustainably. Supported by a grant from DEFRA and waste company SITA, the project is a collaboration between Groundwork and The London Sustainability Exchange, and a key feature is the way local people decide on what – and how – to transform in their surroundings. "We didn't want it to be a process whereby the local councils identified the sites to be changed, we wanted it to be community led", said Ben Coles, Director of Communities and Local Partnerships at Groundwork. "All of the projects are bottom-up, with people coming out to have their say. In doing so they're building relationships, and the net result is a more cohesive and vibrant community."
One such project was the creation of new allotments at Woodberry Down in the north of Hackney – making up for the loss of the Manor Gardens site. The hard graft of clearing an overgrown space was finished thanks to the efforts of more than 140 volunteers, and now over 85 varieties of fruits and vegetables are growing there. "It has transformed my life", said Geraldine Forbes, who now has her own plot after helping to clear Woodberry Down. "Our community has changed dramatically. I can now say 'hello' to the people I've been living so close to, but had never seen or interacted with. I have made so many new friends. The children love it here."
Transform is just one part of LOCOG's Changing Places programme, which has been running since 2009. It has worked with nearly 12,000 local people who volunteer their time to make their local area that bit nicer, cleaner and more welcoming. Together, they have planted over 4,000 trees, cleared thousands of square metres of graffiti, and removed tonnes of rubbish from parks, rivers and canals across the city. It's all part of an effort to "use the Games to get local people involved, so they can see environmental benefits long into the future", says Matthew Watts, Changing Places Programme Manager.
The Olympic and Paralympic Games is, of course, primarily about sport. So, the charity StreetGames, which brings a range of sports onto the doorstep of disadvantaged communities, has been using the occasion to get young people enthused in getting active and keeping fit. With support from Sport England and Coca-Cola, StreetGames has been rolling out its Training Academy Coaching Course, to help create a 'doorstep workforce' to provide well-organised sporting opportunities for local people.
"Learning how to coach and get a qualification was brilliant", said one participant, Leon McCollin, from Cricklewood in north-west London. "I have my coaching badges for football, and I'm trying to get them for cricket, too. This is a very diverse area, and the project has definitely brought about better communication between … kids from different backgrounds. Football is something fun that everyone enjoys, and so it's really helped to break those barriers down and bring people together."
StreetGames is also keen to use sport as a springboard to help young people gain skills that will help them to bring valuable resources into their communities in the future. It has teamed up with Coca-Cola to offer 45 of its inspirational young participants, aged between 18 and 21, a paid work experience opportunity inside the Olympic Park.
Logistics company and Games sponsor UPS has also made efforts to give employment opportunities to local communities. It worked with the non-profit BeOnsite to give 50 unemployed people some new skills for their CVs – from basic carpentry to safety training and team leadership. It also asked its employees to recommend friends and family for temporary jobs (a common approach in some parts of the world, although contrary to open recruitment).
"Everyone wants to share something great with family and friends", explains Cindy Miller, UPS Managing Director UK, Ireland & Nordics. "People will say, 'My neighbour is a driver at UPS, so I've been offered this opportunity to set up the stage, or hand athletes their kit.'" A warming thought, but what's in it for UPS? "We're a big global brand", says Miller, "but we're also the village or town workers that shift business from place to place. The stronger a community, the more need there is for UPS to move information, products and funds back and forth. For us, communities are a basic building block. When businesses thrive in communities, everyone benefits."
Short-term opportunities offer a welcome boost, but if there's one thing that needs slow and steady nurture, it's the sense of shared goals that binds people together. There's little we can achieve alone, and so community resilience is vital to a sustainable future [see the Green Futures Special Edition, 'Shared Future']. The Games offers communities a chance to come together on the world's stage. The challenge is finding the resources to sustain this 'Olympic effect' once the buzz fades away. – Phil Harper
Photos: Big Voice / BT ; BT