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Volunteer boosts Brighton connections

Jane Harrison has found her niche boosting community involvement in South Brighton. Jennifer Eder finds out how she does it.

Jane Harrison is in her element at the clothing swap in South Brighton, Christchurch. PHOTOS: Jennifer Eder

Where South Brighton was once stripped of events and community connections, one woman has found her calling. Jane Harrison has excelled in pulling people together with mutual interests.

Once a month people lay garments and accessories they don’t want any more across tables and chairs, then hover around each other’s collections, seeking out new treasures. And the South Brighton Community Centre is transformed from a white-walled meeting space into a hive of colour and chatter.

Shirley Arps wears the necklace she discovered earlier as she spins yarns with customers.

Arps lived in North Beach before the quakes, and although she now lives in Parklands, she loves coming back for events like this one.

“It’s great. Good to have that community spirit.”

Clothing swap organiser Harrison, too, moved from North Beach in 2011, though it was not because her house was damaged. She craved community spirit.

“A lot of people left. Homes were abandoned and it felt isolated.”

Accessories like these tempt other stall owners to swap items.

Harrison moved to South Brighton to be near friends. She quickly became acquainted with the issues facing this end of the beach suburb.

“People were stuck in battles. There was so much negative stuff … whereas I’m more into positive stuff,”  she says.

Harrison had been at a loose end since the 2011 earthquakes closed secondary school Unlimited, where she ran a mentoring programme between students and professionals in their dream careers.

A friend from the South Brighton Residents’ Association, which re-assembled in response to the quakes, asked Harrison to organise a Christmas event for the neighbourhood.

“I thought I was just organising a Christmas picnic! But once I realised the needs of the community, I had to get involved.”

A plethora of groups sprang up in the greater Brighton area following the quakes, all claiming to represent the same beach residents.

“It was an interesting, chaotic sort of phase. Now, groups are more settled, and know their roles,” Harrison says.

Community liaison

The Residents’ Association found its purpose as a translator of council jargon for bewildered residents. She says council and the community board would hold “big meetings, with 300 people … where only the loudest, most upset people get heard.”

She says the council and the community board had to learn how to communicate with residents on a large scale, and the South Brighton Residents’ Association was able to advise them on the best way to do it. This included drop-in sessions with experts.

“It’s an ongoing conversation with the city council and the community board. They come to us for advice because they rely on groups like us, who understand the needs and feelings of the local community.”

Harrison says dealing with negative issues made her feel “burnt out.” She left South Brighton Residents’ Association, and helped to found Te Waka Aroha, an organisation to help South Brighton residents create their own projects.

“We just provide a space to do it in. We want to celebrate the strengths, creativity and vitality of a community, instead of focussing on land zoning and housing issues – which is important, but we feel that both need to be happening.”

Coordinators talk with people to find out what they’d like to do and support them in finding a venue or acquiring instructors or materials.

“It’s about people doing things for themselves and learning their own leadership skills. And that makes it sustainable,” Harrison says.

“We started in May. We got all this energy in winter, so I’m excited to see what we’ll be able to do in the summer! … [The clothing swap] is growing into this thing that’s not what we first thought it’d be. It’s such a social thing. This is the first one with wine!”

There are also plans for a craft market day, a produce day, and a monthly car boot sale at the community centre.

“We’d like to set up health talks once a month … at a local clinic. You’ve got to be networking. We’ve got a public health nurse involved already.”

Harrison is working on a series of Neighbourhood BBQs planned for October.

“The community garden, the local butcher and the local supermarket will all contribute … We’re hoping to identify vulnerable or isolated people who need extra support, so we can take away information about their needs … to develop more projects. We also get to identify key people – leaders – who put their hand up to help organise the events.”

Inspiration drawn from Lyttelton projects

Harrison learns about new ways to coordinate groups with the University of Canterbury’s ‘Link’ programme. Margaret Jeffries from Project Lyttelton is her mentor.

Jeffries advises that an effective group ‘breathes’, which Harrison says allows members to “move in and out of the group and do things, then come back to the group and talk about what they’ve learned. It breeds new ideas as we share them”.

Harrison hopes to adopt Project Lyttelton’s Learning Exchange programme.

“We’ll be asking people in the community to offer a two-hour workshop. It could be on gardening, cooking, whatever – to offer to others in the community.”

Clothes for sale are deliberately cheap: the event is not for profit, but for socialising.

The workshops would be run by volunteers for free.

“We want to do events for young people, maybe even have some kids taking Learning Exchange classes – wouldn’t that be great! … Schools are fabulous community resource,” Harrison says.

Programmes like the Learning Exchange operate without cost, which Harrison says avoids the bureaucracy that hampers traditional community groups.

“It has no committee, no board, no treasurer. Dealing with money requires more accountability and paperwork.”

“I’m very interested in ways of developing new models … the researcher in me is sitting back and watching … Sometimes it feels like you’re not doing much, but it’s actually just a different role to running around in the superwoman role, trying to organise everything. People get burnt out like that.”

Harrison says lots of community leaders she had talked to were buckling under the pressure of holding their neighbourhood together while it was fraying at the seams, post-quake. Her involvement was accidental, and effective.

“We used to have a coffee morning in a church across from the school and the kindy, so you get all types of people, on the side of the road. We organised for the mobile library to come down. We had people saying, ‘you really saved my life, this morning’ – just hearing one of those stories reminds you why you’re doing it. The guy digging up the road came to talk, and suddenly he’s a human being, with local connections.”

Harrison takes time to talk to stall owners as she peruses the clothes.

Joanne Reed has been attending the clothing swaps since the first one. She chats over a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

“It’s good for the community, meeting people. I can’t wait to see how it goes when it warms up a bit.”