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Making a housing estate a home | Cathy and John Wheatley [ANVIL 33:3]

The Wheatley family
The Wheatley family lives in Bournville, Weston-super-Mare. We run a youth and community project from our doorstep, meeting children and young people in the parks and on the streets of our estate. We are both graduates of the Centre for Youth Ministry. John works for Frontier Youth Trust and has an MA in Pioneer Leadership from Church Mission Society. Cathy works locally as a wellbeing and work coach. We’re part of the StreetSpace Community of Practice that supports pioneer youth work (www.fyt.org.uk).

We’re in the park. The sun is shining. Eighty young people, children and their families are lounging around on the grass. We’re shelter building. We’ve got sticks, tarpaulins, netting, and we’re creating a tepee. My group huddle inside – “We could live here!” exclaims one of the children.

We are writing to you from (usually-not-so) sunny Weston-super-Mare. We moved in 2010 to a local housing estate here to start a youth project. When we arrived we concentrated on meeting young people: doing street work, starting clubs, organising trips, opening our home.

The thing is, we were so engrossed in the ‘work’, that we didn’t really think about what it means to have a home to open in the first place. Our whole team moved from reasonably leafy and affluent parts of the world, putting down roots somewhere quite different. Bournville – that’s our estate, and home now – is a fairly typical 1960s-built council estate. It’s got about 1,500 homes, a row of shops, a wonderful community centre and some lovely parks. We feel very fortunate to have been called to an estate that has so much life. But the life we’ve found here is not like the life we left behind.

Base for youth work

We’ve kind of grown up on the estate. We arrived here as graduates in our early 20s; seven years on we’re different people. When we first came, having a home meant having a house. We didn’t do much to make it homely, we just used it as a base for reaching young people. Home is such an ephemeral idea – we didn’t feel at home on the estate but we no longer felt at home in our other previous haunts – like the church, or with our peers. Placing yourself on the margins can dislocate you from the mainstream, but it doesn’t mean you’ll naturally fit on the edge either. We found friends at Church Mission Society and with Frontier Youth Trust. The people there understood us. In many ways these places became our surrogate homes. But with time, as our work and relationships progressed in Bournville, we turned our attention to building a home where we can put down roots. 


Making a housing estate a home
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We’ve always had a reasonably open-door policy – young people are free to pop round whenever they feel. We get teenagers coming to borrow tools to fix their bikes, to get help filling in forms, to get a glass of water or use the toilet, or to simply say hello after too-long an absence. This culture that we allowed to establish has made us feel very welcome and needed. It can be very frustrating to have the door go, late at night in the cold, just to pump up someone’s tyre; but there is something affirming about having young people come to you for help. One of the things we’ve learnt, however, is that meeting needs creates a dependency culture. It’s not empowering, and it assumes people are problems to be fixed.

This is an interesting subject in relation to community work – and there is lots of helpful insights from the field of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). But for us, this revelation has had a massive impact on how we understand our concepts of home.

When we first moved here our home was a place from which we would run a project – this perspective accentuated our perception that we were different from residents and that we had something unique to offer. Our calling was about ‘going to’ the community. We talked lots about doing things with people but always out of the context that we had intentionally relocated. The challenge of our shift was to wrestle with the idea that we all have something unique to offer and that our calling is not ‘to’ but about ‘being and doing with’.

Finding a home

When you think of yourself as ‘going to’ somewhere you also think of where you are ‘from’ – of how you are different and what separates you. You have somewhere to return to, to escape – but when you think of somewhere as ‘home’, as a place to be and to do, there is no escape. In fact, why would you escape? Home is a place of belonging, of warmth, of growth. The shift from ‘mission to’ to ‘being/doing with’ has been significant in our understanding that everyone has an equal and important part to play in the life of the Bournville community and that it is not our role to rescue, fix or lead. But correspondingly it has also been very freeing to our ownership of the space, especially our ownership of our own home. We have unexpectedly discovered a freedom to build a home-space, and to be active participants and leaders in community life.

To put this new perspective into action I invited a group of young people whom I had known for a while to come round for pizza. I apologised for how we had worked in the past and asked what could we do together? Now we’re starting micro-businesses and raising money to go on a foreign holiday. This has been a phenomenal experience, and I think the young people have learnt more with us in the last six months than we had done in the previous six years – and we’ve all grown, ourselves included.

The unexpected challenge has been to accept the rough with the smooth. One of our recent endeavours has been car-booting. We decided this could be a family adventure, so we took our one year old daughter Samantha with us along with the teenagers. There were some really special moments – for example where one young man sat down with Samantha and played tea-sets while we waited for our goods to sell. Later in that same day, however, that same young man rudely shouted in Samantha’s face that she couldn’t have any of his chocolate bar.

A subtle but vital shift

When we were doing mission to another place our home was simply a base – a place from which we could run our project. We were very incarnational, very relational, very cross-cultural but our self-understanding of our difference made accepting the challenges of life here much easier. They were part of our missional task to ‘resolve’. But they were abstract because our home wasn’t really home. As we’ve changed perspective to understand ourselves as simply part of this community, then the challenges of it have seemed harsher – and our responsibility to address them has become personal. They are no longer a ‘project task’ but a personal one as residents and community members.

We arrived in Bournville thinking we were agents of the Landlord. Turns out we’re owner-occupiers! (Or co-owner-occupiers to be exact.) We’ve gone from thinking we should do everything, to contemplating doing nothing, to realising we need to play our part. If we’re not talking about a mission project but about our home – then those relocating to housing estates must consider this tension: home is somewhere that needs to be firstly habitable and ideally nurturing. We must think fondly of it and speak well of it. For this to be the case, we must protect ourselves from anything damaging and act to address it. But our energies and focus are not redevelopment, nor gentrification – they are pro-active care and tending for the place we call home.

The day-to-day work on the ground might be very similar – but the heart and relationships are very different. At one of the best talks I have ever heard at Greenbelt, the speakers asked, does God love my child more than he loves other children? His answer was an emphatic no. God wants the best for all children and if things aren’t good enough for my children, they’re not good enough for any child. The same must be true of our communities and our homes. If the places we call home aren’t good enough for us, we must be putting in the work to make them habitable and nurturing. But they must, first and foremost, be our homes.

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