The importance of a ‘puzzle’

This is the story of why cooking is such an important part of Local Welcome. It’s about making mistakes, setting expectations, and making it easy for people to chat.

Finding a reason to get together

Local Welcome is based on the idea that social connections on a really small scale are the first steps to building a real community. Ultimately, we are building some digital tools that help people do that. But first we wanted to understand what might be useful, and what kind of event is a good thing to aim for. So we arranged a few events before building anything, to get some sense of what the format could be, what people might need, and what problems we might not know about if we started with code first.

Our first events were a bit awkward

During our first few events, we were purposefully vague about what the events were for. But this vagueness often led to awkwardness and badly set expectations. At one of the first events I attended the first 10 minutes were spent with all of us — volunteers and refugees alike — standing around awkwardly, looking for some sort of leadership.

That created a vacuum, which some of our Syrian attendees would, understandably, fill by looking for help with the problems preoccupying them. I was introduced to one person who immediately, through a translator, started asking me for help with a heartbreaking immigration issue he was having with the Home Office. All I could do was listen and offer condolences. I wasn’t in a position to offer help or advice, and even if I did I’m not entirely sure it would have been legal to. It was frustrating and upsetting for both of us.

Working with a community organiser

At these meetings, we had the support of an experienced community organiser who was able to corral us into a productive meeting. But that doesn’t scale; developing those skills takes a long time, and what we’re hoping to develop are tools that enable these connections on a much smaller scale and much less management.

It was clear to us that we needed to rethink how we approached these meetings.

Changing the power balance

Following these events, we spent a long and intense Monday going back to basics. We talked at length about what we wanted to achieve from these meetings and what was blocking us from doing that. We discussed what other people were doing, how we wanted to be different, and how to manage expectations and power dynamics.

One story kept coming back in our discussions: Syrian refugees helping to build flood defences in Manchester. That story isn’t just interesting because they did great work, or because of the political message. It’s interesting because everyone had something to do, together.

That resonated in a big way. It could help balance power between the volunteers and the refugees, minimise awkwardness, set expectations of the event, and help refugees feel like they aren’t just case numbers for Local Welcome.

(Although, obviously, we didn’t want to have to rely on a major city flooding to get there.)

Creating ‘the puzzle’

We spent the next few days trying to think of what we called “the puzzle”. We needed something that refugees and volunteers could work on together, so that they knew what to expect from an event, and were able to build relationships and community on an equal footing. We were pretty close to giving attendees an actual puzzle before Ben realised that cooking would be perfect.

Working on something together

At the first event we tried this out, there was an immediate, dramatic improvement. We cooked drop scones, and got to know one another. There was very little awkwardness, and we were able to get on by ourselves and build a sense of connection.

When I asked the refugee I was paired up with what his highlight of his week was, he said, beaming, that it was cooking together. It was only as we sat down to eat our creation that he opened up about some of the troubles he was facing. But he wasn’t asking for me to solve them for him, as if I were his case worker. He was opening up as he would to a friend. I felt that if there had been an opportunity to help I would have offered. But even though there wasn’t (I live many miles away) I don’t think either of us left feeling frustrated that it was a waste of time.

At a later event that followed a similar pattern, one attendee told us: “this is the first time that I haven’t felt like a refugee since I got here”.

We learnt a lot from the first ‘puzzle’

The ‘puzzle’ wasn’t quite cracked — we’ll write about how we tweaked and fixed the structure in the future — but just by introducing it we found out something really important about what Local Welcome could be.

Code, Digital Transformation & Politics. Previously @uklabour Digital, Corbyn leadership campaign, @justice_digital, @gdsteam, @berglondon, @rewiredstate.