A different kind of graduation ceremony took place this summer in Frome, a small Somerset Market Town that prides itself for its independent politics, small businesses and community initiatives. It was a rainy evening in Frome’s new Roundhouse Garden. 70 diverse members from the local community found cover underneath the round, wooden shelter sat within the public garden of small fruit tree saplings and other edible plants: mint, raspberries, wine, hops, rhubarb, and cobnuts. The people were there to celebrate the 12 young adults who had just completed Edventure, an 8-month training programme in community enterprise.
The Mayor of Frome presented the 18-35 year old young adults with a certificate from Frome Town Council, thanking them for the difference they had made to Frome. The certificate named the team challenges they had completed as part of their training to gain community enterprise skills in a practical, hands on way: They had sat up the Roundhouse Garden on a previously overgrown piece of land near the town centre, made ethical products to sell at the local market, completed a research assignment for the local NHS Medical Practise to promote wellbeing in Frome, arranged a mass sleepover at the local cinema for young people raising money for charity, and run a community dining event for the people in Frome who are most in need – all during the initial 2-month intensive, hands-on training. During the following 6-month the young adults had set up ¸their own initiatives and enterprises, being supported by members of the local community and each other.
The celebration in the Roundhouse Garden marked the end of the Edventure programme, which exists to tackle two major issues. First, 40% of young people in the UK are either unemployed, underemployed or working in a job that does not fulfill their potential, according to a report by the Local Government Agency in 2013. In addition, the challenge is that many opportunities for young adults encourage them to ‘fit into’ an economic system that is changing, ecologically unsustainable and unjust; that much of education does not prepare young people with the transferable skills needed in today’s and tomorrow’s world; and that prolonged youth unemployment leaves devastating ‘scarring effects’ on the generation that society depends on for its future.
At the same time, we are facing unprecedented social, environmental and economic challenges – both on the local and global level. Many effective local solutions have already been developed – from initiatives and businesses that tackle local food waste, enable better conditions for local food producers, reduce resource consumption through the booming sharing economy to initiatives that resolve conflict between communities and build localised energy systems. The challenge is to mobilise the energy and build the capacity to implement and develop these solutions further on a larger scale.
What has inspired Edventure is the question: how can we support young adults (and ourselves) to create meaningful and viable livelihoods that enable them to tackle the challenges of our times, and apply their energy and creativity towards building more resilient and sustainable communities? Alongside this question, Edventure is guided by three principles.
The first principle:
is that Edventure is run by and for the local community. Local people come together, share their skills and resources to support the next generation of local entrepreneurs and changemakers. They create a network of mentors and coaches that provide challenges and support to give a group of people the opportunity to take risks, push their boundaries and make their ideas happen; to get the experience of creating tangible change that addresses local and global problems; and find meaningful ways of making a living.
In most ancient and current native cultures from around the world, members of a local community would create experiences that challenged their young people, with an intention to welcome them as adults who fully participate in their community. Those experiences were often called Rites of Passage. Martin Prechtel who lived for many years in a Mayan mountain village at the lake Atitlán in Guatemala described how the villagers there would put on these resource intensive ceremonies for their young people not just because of them, but to ‘keep the village alive’. People in Frome give their support to the people on the Edventure programme less as a charitable act and more because they desire to build a healthy, resilient and sustainable local town. They see how the challenges the group of young adults take on and their individual enterprises transform their town for the better.
The second principle:
is that we learn learn by doing, by taking on meaningful challenges for the local community. The word ‘Edventure’ is short for educational venture, a training enterprise and a journey that takes participants on an adventure to discover new opportunities. The first challenge we gave to a group of participants was to set up a new community workspace, with the intention to enable young adults to access resources and workspace to make their ideas happen, enable skill sharing and bring diverse people from the local community together. We gave them a £500 budget, a disused warehouse, a group of mentors and a time-frame of two month to start-up a financially viable enterprise. We then introduced them to tools such as Design Thinking and the business canvas, facilitated a process of community engagement and helped them to organise themselves in teams. To create a logo for the enterprise they had to learn the basics about branding from a local designer. To physically build the workspace, they had to ask for advice from an architect, learn how to use lime-wash from a traditional builder and learn skills from a carpenter to transform old wooden pallets into furniture. To resolve conflicts within their team, they had to find frameworks for communicating effectively and facilitate differences in opinion. When the group was stuck, they had to learn about when to ask for professional guidance, and when to give it another go after reflecting what went wrong. To work effectively in a team, they had to first discover and then play to their strength. They also had to meet their blind-spots, limiting beliefs and discover what motivates them, especially when things did not go to plan. Because 2-month is a very short time-frame, they also had to learn how to scale down their initial ideas, and find fast and achievable ways in which to prototype their concept. Through all of these challenges, the participants gained transferable skills, experience, clarity and networks which support them to start their own initiative, project and business.
Our approach to learning, however, is not only about helping people gain skills or to make a difference in the local community. Its purpose is also to generate the money to finance the programme at the same time – making it free to participate. The challenges the participants take on pays for their training. For example, the training programme focused on setting up a community workspace was paid for by money we invested. The profit it made in the following years payed it back, and it continuously enables Edventure to have free offices and training rooms. Frome Town Council would pay us like a consultancy to conduct a research assignment to promote health and wellbeing locally. Not only did the council benefit from a fresh and creative approach by our participants to engage the local community, we could use the money to pay for their training. The Roundhouse Garden which was designed and built by a team of participants was financed by a grand from Awards for All and Comic Relief. The funders benefitted not only from financing a new community asset in a cost effective way, but also the training of unemployed young adults at the same time – meeting another of their objectives.
‘Making education free by making it real’ was central to our vision when we started Edventure as a group of 23-27 year olds. We had too often come up against inspiring training programmes that were unaffordable for us, and only accessible to a few. We wanted people from all backgrounds to work and learn together. We felt that working and living with people from different backgrounds is a key challenge of this century, and the ability to do so is an important quality for leadership and skill for community entrepreneurs. Diversity has become our third principle.
The third principle:
Diversity is not only visible in the backgrounds and ages of our participants, but also in what they move onto after the programme finishes. At the ‘graduation ceremony’ in the Roundhouse Garden, surrounded by local people who had been part of their 8-month journey in different ways – as their coaches or mentors, as attendees of their events or partners in their projects, the 12 people told the stories of their 8-month journey. Kylie described how she had gained confidence and connections from being part of the team challenges in the first 2 month of the programme, which had enabled her to start Wild Things – a company focused on making food and cosmetic products from foraged and ethical ingredients – during the following 6-month of start-up support. She talked about the challenge of bringing up her children whilst starting her own business, and one of her key learnings: a supportive local community had been the key to her success. Will described how he had been just working to earn money to survive, and how he had this itching feeling of wanting to do something that is meaningful for him, and very scared about doing something that he cared about. He described Edventure as the holding space for him to transition towards something he cared about, and earning a living through doing those things. Will got a job with the local Medical Practice leading on from the research assignment we had completed for them. Oli was one of the youngest participants, and had joined the programme strait after his A-levels. He described how he did not simply want to follow the system to university. He experimented with blogging and social media to see whether higher education really was the direction he wanted to go into, which he did just after the programme. The presentations ended with Richard, who was 15 years older than Oli and who had been long-term unemployed. He was referred to Edventure by the Job Centre and had set himself up as a freelance builder and maker of bespoke furniture during the programme. He summarised his experience by saying ‘Push yourself to take the risk you would not normally take. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from it. Thank you to everyone who has supported us’.