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Social innovation in a different time

As announced in our last blog, The Dragonfly Collective is dedicating December to blogs showcasing real-life practical examples of tangible social innovations that we’ve been involved with. Our next example is from a time when the words ‘social innovation’ were not yet in common use. 

Imagine a time before the words ‘social innovation’, ‘social enterprise’ and ‘social entrepreneurship’ were headlining conferences and social policy discourse. Image late 1989 in an inner city public housing estate in Sydney where a very small ‘charity’ supported from a distance by a faith-based denomination was in operation. Imagine this public housing estate sits in a valley down the hill from a major location for the sex industry, and has homeless people living under the railway overpass as well in the local hostel for homeless men.

Imagine starting a discussion with locals in their underutilised local primary school in order to get some insight into how a community embedded in various levels of disadvantage and dysfunction might see a way to address some of the local concerns (and you can guess what they were – the perennial issues of drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, violence, safety and unemployment).

So the local school provides a school room from which you can work and communicate (starting with nothing but a phone and a paper clip). And the word starts to spread that this small group of ‘do-gooders’ (better a do-gooder than a do-badder I say) are working in unfamiliar territory and need some assistance. So what happens?

Good folks started to make donations. Not money, but used clothes and furniture. The items start to arrive by the truck load. A room was filled with bags and bags of the stuff. Nobody knew how to stem the tide.

From time to time clothes were distributed to homeless people along with food vouchers and other forms of charity. But the used clothes kept on coming. Eventually the space available was full and a big ‘sorting out’ began outside the building donated by the school.

Two local women – local gate-keepers in the community who knew everything about everything – observed the proceedings and enquired what the bloody hell all that stuff we were sorting was for and how we were going to use it. They began to help, and after a couple of minutes they made a statement that now appears almost expected, but it wasn’t then: “don’t give this stuff away, people who live here are sick of charity . . . get some space and set up a really nice shop – we’ll volunteer to run it – and offer people the dignity to buy clothes and other stuff for a price they can afford”.

“Don’t give stuff away, people who live here are sick of charity . . . get some space and set up a really nice shop and offer people the dignity to buy clothes and other stuff for a price they can afford.”

They took us up the street to a disused building where there was a ground level shop. They knew it was owned by a Government department and so began a series of negotiations that eventually saw a locally run op-shop open up that is still trading to this day.

From that window into the local community grew a plethora of community based initiatives addressing local issues and offering opportunities for people to co-create (except that term wasn’t used then) pathways out of poverty and disadvantage. ‘Outsiders’ collaborating with ‘insiders’ – but only after establishing trust and credibility. Eventually the ‘enterprise’ (it wasn’t called that then either), was staffed by Indigenous locals, people who wanted to leave the sex industry and the local long-term unemployed. A small cleaning business was added. A safe space specifically for women in the sex industry was established. A café and fruit and vegetable cooperative commenced with a focus on nutrition. An Indigenous worker developed opportunities for urban Indigenous people. Volunteers worked with locals. And it’s still happening even after many years of change and challenge.

And so from nothing, through co-creation made possible by establishing trust and understanding in a local neighbourhood, a community was provided the opportunity to transform itself. And it continues to transform itself to this day. If you want to check it out, visit the Hope Street website.

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