Simon Kempthorne had never heard of an Organisation Workshop when it was suggested to him by the job centre in Hastings. Kempthorne had quit his job in catering nine months earlier, desperate to get out of a profession that left him feeling run down and depressed. Though he had been working sporadically since, he found the time between jobs a drain on his mental health. The workshop sounded like a chance to try something different.
“I thought, what have I got to lose?” he remembers. “I was just sitting at home. I could go for weeks without anything to get out of bed for.”
That’s how he found himself at the derelict Observer building in May alongside 59 strangers, most recruited from the job centre. At one time 500 workers would pass through the doors of the building to go to work on the daily Hastings Observer newspaper. The concrete floors were reinforced with steel to hold the hot metal press and offset litho printing equipment. From the top of the building, workers could see Hastings Castle overlooking the ocean.
The building had been boarded up for years. The 60 recruits were there to take place in a social experiment that would be the first step in bringing it back to life. They were handed three contracts: to build 12 workpods on the site, to document the process, and to cater for the group over the month-long exercise. They were shown tools, materials and the expertise necessary to carry out the work safely, such as health and safety assessments and food handling certificates. Then they were left to themselves.
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“A lot of people looked very confused,” Kempthorne remembers. By the end of the first week, half of the people had abandoned the project. But those that remained began to make headway on the tasks. “We were in a building site with not much knowledge about what was to happen, but it became clearer. We were in control of our own destiny.”
The Organisation Workshop model is based on the work of Clodomir Santos de Morais, a Brazilian sociologist. In 1954, de Morais observed the way a large group of activists self-organised around a specific goal in his native Recife. He subsequently developed a method of gathering large groups of unemployed or underemployed people to work on an enterprise of some kind, without telling them how to achieve the task. The idea was for people to learn how to organise and execute the work themselves and to take these skills with them at the close of the workshop.
Since the sixties, hundreds of thousands of people across the world have participated in Organisation Workshops. The model was used throughout Honduras as part of an agricultural reform programme between 1973 and 1976, in which 27,000 Hondurans participated, leading to the creation of 1,053 new enterprises including palm oil processing plants that are still in operation.
In 2015, Organisation Workshop was first used in the UK by the residents of the Marsh Farm estate in Luton. They recruited 45 people, many of whom had been unemployed for a long period, and gave them the task of turning a derelict field into a community resource within 12 weeks.
After ten weeks, most of the participants transferred from the farm site to Marsh House, a previously derelict building, where they worked on renovating the building a planning community enterprises. By the summer, 44 per cent of participants had gone on to find jobs, including new enterprises such as bee-keeping, a community farm, a building co-operative and a catering business.
James Leathers is the executive director of Heart of Hastings, a community land trust that is working with the new owners of the Observer building. He says the success of Marsh Farm convinced residents in Hastings that they should try to use the workshop method on their own project. “We wanted to use this opportunity to include the people that developers so often overlook at the very rebirth of the Observer building,” he says.
Decades of neglect had left the Observer building in a sorry state, with waterlogged floors and a broken roof. Twelve owners had tried to take it on since the Observer newspaper had relocated in 1982. While some did essential maintenance, like removing asbestos, most just waited for property prices to rise and then sold on the building.
In 2017, Hastings Borough Council gave the green light for an artist studio or the lower ground floor, a residents’ gym on the mezzanine and a restaurant and shop, plus 50 private flats and a private roof terrace. But no sooner had the buyer completed some essential work on the internal structure, the building was put back on sale for £1.5 million.
That was the moment that White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures came in. White Rock is a developer with a difference. Since 2014, it has transformed Rock House, an empty office building next door, into mixed-use block containing 43 businesses, 88 individual tenants paying capped rents, so that tenants cannot be priced out as the area changes.
In February, White Rock announced that it has exchanged contracts to purchase the Observer building for £1.15 million, with a ten year plan to turn it into work pods, artist studios, a construction workshop and a roof garden.
The Organisation Workshop, which was part-funded by Power to Change, a lottery-funded charity working with community businesses, is the first step on that long road. Leathers says: “You can make the case that gentrification does the profitable stuff first and puts whatever energy is left into the social bit,” he says. “We are turning that on its head from the start. Now 60 people are connected to that building who had little or no connection to it before.”
Kempthorne says the workshop gave him a reason to get up in the morning. “It was lovely to have that feeling of looking forward to the day and to seeing all the people I had made friends with,” he says. “The system we’re in devalues you and makes you feel like you are not in control. Here, it was up to us to make it happen and we figured it out. No one was made to feel useless.”
Since the programme ended, some of the participants have been working towards starting a permanent business. “We have a lot of work to do,” Kempthorne says. “Setting up the enterprise, developing a code of conduct. We need to get the bureaucracy out the way so we can get our hands dirty again.”