A couple of weeks ago Wesley’s Chapel and Leysian Mission put on an employability conference called Employing Mind, Body and Spirit. This blog post seeks to reflect on the conference and the way it was put together. I’m doing this as much as anything because I’ve been reading #newpower: Why outsiders are winning, institutions are failing, and how the rest of us can keep up in the age of mass participation by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans. The book has helped me answer some of the questions in my own mind about what underlying approach was being taken in the planning of the conference and what might be taken forward from it. It's also helped me understand that as others might find some of our approach useful to adapt for their contexts it's worth sharing.
I start the story over a year before the conference. A Methodist Superintendent and her newly appointed lay worker are sitting in an office and the new employee is told by the minister, “I want you to take risks in this job, and to know it’s ok if you fail.”
As the new financial year approaches a few months later the lay worker puts together what she feels is a somewhat outrageous budget, including the proposal of an employability conference.
The trustees of the church come back and say, the other staff need to ask hard questions about the budget, but if the answers are satisfactory, it will be given. Trust is developed at this point, in various directions, at the same time of accountability being firmly in place.
Then the staff discuss the proposal about the conference, which they know will be something a bit different. The church haven’t done this type of thing before, but they’re willing to give it a try. The lay worker is encouraged to look for partners in this venture to help increase accountability.
Nine months before the event, in collaboration with other team members, the lay worker starts planning and approaching speakers. She’s got the topics planned in her mind, but getting the right speakers is going to be key. At this point she isn’t thinking about representation too much, but she is thinking she wants the right people rather than the big names.
Amongst those approached are the new Connexional EDI officer, she wants to make sure that professional networks and EDI issues are covered and so he seems an obvious bloke to approach. Only over an initial coffee to discuss does she discover that this guy helped set up the first Black Police Officers Association in the Met. Bonus. The District team are also approached as she knows the District Children and Youth Worker previously worked for the careers service. The local church are approached too. The partner in a law firm agrees to be part of the panel and later so does a Health Education expert in the NHS. This has involved looking beyond what people do in the church and thinking about what they do in the wider world. Taking a holistic approach.
But this isn’t just a Methodist event, it’s important to the church it’s a community event. To this end other participants include somebody who works in a local uni, who the church has partnered with via the chaplaincy there. Somebody else is director of a film festival, who the lay worker met at a community event and then had coffee with. The young adults group at the church had gone along to the film festival as one of their events. The networking aspect, inviting community partners into our space as experts in their areas was important too.
The lay worker was talked through putting a funding application together, for the Methodist District in this case. Her skills were being developed through this event too.
Then as the event got nearer we thought out how to publicise the event. We knew that we needed to make it professional and that we had people in the church with the skills. These were young adults doing some free lancing alongside the day jobs. They initially agreed to do the work for nothing, but were persuaded to put in the invoices for their work. We said if they didn’t want to take the money they could gift aid it back but the important thing was too many young artists (and older ones) are getting ripped off. The idea of we’ll show your work if you give it to us for free is all too common in the gig economy & young artists are being failed by it. It was important to us that we paid for the work being produced.
The programme for the event was the point at which it became clear that the conference was truly diverse. This wasn’t something we’d intentionally aimed at, we’d looked around our networks and found the right people with the right skills and it happened that this approach turned up a roughly even mix of genders, and ethnic backgrounds. For this to work though, we need to have external as well as internal networks which are diverse in the first place.
Then there was the sound and vision. The church had previously worked with a company who knew the space. We approached them and they gave us both a good service and a discount.
The event was for the local communities (that is the geographical community, the community networked into the Chapel and the worshipping congregation). This gave us a wide spread to get the word out too in a range of ways, including adverts in the local press. That got us a lot of Eventbrite bookings, but as with a lot of free events a lot of those bookings didn’t turn into people on the day. This gave an advantage though the quality of relationship building going on was much higher.
This relationship building and networking was going on between people at all sorts of levels. Including amongst the young people, who had come down from a local youth centre the church has built a relationship with, who were providing the lunch time entertainment.
Having read the book on #newpower I worked out that a lot of what had been going on with this event was taking this kind of approach. It wasn’t about getting in lots of big names from top companies, although the 6th biggest law firm in the country was represented. It was about getting in the right people to support a holistic approach to young people finding work and thriving in it.
At the event we were all collaborators. It wasn’t an explicitly Christian event, but through talking about every day lives there was testimony in there.
There are things we’ve learnt from this and things we’ll do differently next time. The key thing though is this event was a well planned risk, which had accountability built in. It was based on working with partners, for the good of the local community and those within it. Something that church has been doing in that part of London for 260 years. It might have been a slightly new approach but the basics were very old and very Methodist.