“My welcome was like a big warm hug.”

Lisa from Forever Manchester has been working in the Ardwick ward for over two years now. Her community building work will continue until December but, as this blog is drawing to a close, here’s a review of what she’s been up to.

We’re in the meeting room at Forever Manchester’s city centre offices and I start by asking Lisa what she was doing before working in Ardwick.

“We were in Eccles, Salford, for a couple of years,” she says, “where we were fine tuning our asset-based community development approach. We were making improvements, seeing what more we could learn.”

Asset-based community development is the bedrock of Forever Manchester’s commitment to communities. The idea is a simple one. Rather than focussing on what an area or neighbourhood doesn’t have, you find its strengths – its assets – and build on these instead.

As the community builder, Lisa’s job is not only to link together what’s already there but, as we will hear, to dig deep and cultivate the sometimes hidden talents that need a little support before they can flourish.

Unlike the satellite town of Eccles, Lisa’s new role in the Ardwick ward would take her closer to the city centre. “We hadn’t work that close to the centre before,” she says, “and the ward of Ardwick actually takes in most of Longsight, parts of Rusholme, West Gorton and obviously Ardwick itself, all with their own identities.

“But, despite the geographic differences, every community we work in is essentially the same. You will always find passionate people who want to share their skills and do good for their neighbourhoods.”

Lisa tells me the asset-based community development approach starts by walking the streets. “The first step is to find all the good stuff in the area. So we ‘asset map’ everything: the community buildings, the green spaces, the community groups, the services… and the people.

“I was born and bred in the area, and still live very close but, with all the recent regeneration, it’s a completely different landscape from the one I remember from knocking about as a kid.

“On my very first day of introducing myself to people, I walked into the offices of S4B, the housing provider for the area. Well, I have never had a welcome like it. On hearing me at reception, their community engagement coordinator Sharon Thomas came flying down the office to meet me.

“Within a couple of hours she had set up an impromptu gathering of people for me to meet, including Mo from Brunswick Church, a stalwart of the community in that part of town. They understood immediately what I was doing and have been incredibly supportive ever since. That welcome, that openness, was really encouraging.”

Lisa was quickly introduced to lots of grassroots groups. “I was meeting the sort of organisations and groups that Forever Manchester is really proud to support. Yes, there are lots of services in every area doing good work but they have specific parameters into which the community has to fit before support is given. We help those who don’t fit the parameters.

“Too often,” says Lisa, “skills and talents are not recognised or celebrated and that is where we come in. We lift everything up.”

Within months of getting to know people – having conversations at the local groups, at the school gates, on the streets – Covid struck.

“We’re community builders,” says Lisa. “Lockdown is not what we do.”

To be continued…