From no hope to tears of joy: How connecting a community transformed the lives of its young people

In a guest blog reflecting on the wider Qa Research theme of preventative programmes for health and wellbeing, Dr Robin Durie reveals how his team at Exeter University designed a new initiative that revitalised a struggling community

In 2003/4, members of the Health Complexity Group based at the University of Exeter began designing a learning programme that would become Connecting Communities [C2].

The principles informing the design of the programme drew from primary empirical research on transformative processes of change that took place in a number of communities in the South-West of England.

They were informed by an understanding of the underlying dynamics of change processes derived from complexity theory.

Two key challenges

There were two key challenges that we faced in thinking about the design of C2:

1. Standard interventions didn’t work
Our research showed that standard interventions in our most economically disadvantaged communities made little or no difference to the lived reality of residents – and frequently made things worse.

Our intuition was that many of these interventions were designed by “experts” with little or no informed knowledge of the local communities for which they were designed.

Often the aim of the interventions would be to carry on doing what was already being done – but to do it “better”, that is more efficiently, or at greater scale. We wanted to design a programme that worked to create conditions locally that enabled residents, but in particular, service providers, to “do things differently”.

2. Can a local initiative work elsewhere?
We had seen how dramatic processes of change could occur in communities. The next step was to find out whether there were principles of working that allowed these processes to be translated to other communities.

Local conditions are never replicated from neighbourhood to neighbourhood – so does this mean that what works in one community cannot be translated to another?

Exploring new possibilities

We drew a fundamental insight from complexity theory. When communities are understood as complex “systems”, it is the relations between the members of the system that are decisive in determining its behaviours.

So our aim with C2 was to bring participants in the programme to a point where they would be able to explore new relationships, or change the nature of existing ones.

The first group to undertake C2 were a Neighbourhood Police Team, led by Sgt David Aynsley, based in Camborne, in West Cornwall.

At that time, youth anti-social behaviour, often fuelled by drug- and alcohol-dependence, had become a chronic problem in the town.

David’s story is below.

Dance group

‘There were tears of joy everywhere’

It all started in 2003. No matter how effective the Camborne Police Neighbourhood Team were, the young people continued to misbehave and the police continued to punish them. The consensus was to arrest more children.

That was the lightbulb moment when I realised that we had to change our approach and do things differently.

Through working with Health Complexity Group C2 programme, and the local Health Promotion Service, things began to change.

Young people and police officers came together, establishing dialogue through sport and education. This approach provided the building blocks for positive relationships and values, improving our collective confidence in being together.

Free dance workshop

This new found confidence created the idea that we could run a free dance workshop in the town accessible to all children.

With the help of Danny Price, (choreographer to the stars) local business people, schools and residents we put on the first free dance workshop. 120 children turned up and danced all day. We did it the next day and put on a show for parents. There were tears of joy everywhere.

Some young people quickly emerged as leaders and were trained as dance leaders. We became a registered charity and listed at Companies House at the same time as the police withdrew resources.

The group called themselves the TR14ers – a “codename” based on the postcode for their local area. Previously, the young people had been ashamed to admit where they came from, because of the stigma attached to the economic disadvantage suffered by the local area.

The ripple effect that emanated from the TR14ers caused outcomes that impacted across the town.

A hopeful future

The children had begun to see their condition as transient and passing and looked to the future with hope. Within the group, when they reach the age of 16, they become Company Directors and Trustees of the charity, and continue to provide free weekly dance workshops to younger children.

As one young company director of the TR14ers who was about to move on to greater things said before she left:

“Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me through the years. I honestly don’t know what I would’ve turned out like or who I would be without TR14ers. Thank you xxx.”

For my part, I honestly don’t know what the police would have done without young people like her.

Looking forwards, our ambition is to own our own dance studio: a home for the TR14ers.

Retired Sgt David Aynsley

Remarkable outcomes

The outcomes that have followed from the TR14ers have been striking. So far 1,500 young people have taken part in the workshops – up to 60 people aged five to 24 each week.

As a result:

The TR14ers are now peer-led and self-organising. They have been awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service and the TR14ers Community Dance Charity is supported by BBC Children in Need for the next three years.

They are using this funding to reach out to other youth groups from low-income communities, to develop qualifications around leadership and participation, and to develop nutrition skills.

But it is the way that the young people talk about the impact of the TR14ers on their own lives that is most telling:

As soon as you get in here, you’ve got that buzz, and you just want to keep going and going, so it’s really good … I love it … This is the best thing that’s ever happened in Camborne.

Before, I wouldn’t even speak to a police officer at all, but some of them, they just have you in stitches. You get to know them, not personally, but kind of personally … you can sit down and talk to them, and see how they are.

There was nothing, honestly, nothing to do in Camborne, well, apart from go around town. I love it here, it’s not even in words how much you can say how much I love it.

Interview from BBC Radio Cornwall


Dr Robin Durie is Senior Lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter