by Sheenagh McNally
As Supporting Communities reaches its 40th Anniversary milestone, I find myself reflecting on my own 25 years with the organisation. When I joined NITAP (NI Tenants Action Project) all those years ago I was enthusiastic, full of energy and YOUNG! I had left a job working as a Housing Officer for a local authority in England, the job that gave me my first real taste of tenant participation and where I learned to appreciate the importance of valuing the voice of the customer.
Joining NITAP and returning home was a culture shock; I moved from a busy Neighbourhood Office surrounded by work colleagues to a community base where I was largely left to my own devices and had to quickly build up strong working relationships and bonds of trust with the community. Since then, I have had the privilege of working in many places; Suffolk, Old Warren, Knockmore, Downpatrick, Coalisland, Dungannon, Armagh, and later years, Craigavon.
There have been happy times and there have been sad times. I have met so many wonderful people on my journey, people who have dedicated their lives to improving conditions for their families and neighbours sometimes in very fraught and difficult situations. I watched a community that I worked in become decimated by serious anti-social behaviour, a place where we had spent considerable time building confidence and resilience of the community group only for every member of the committee to be systematically forced to leave an estate they loved.
Those were dark days, and yet amidst those dark times, I recall some of my most wonderful memories and people like Lillian Percival. I met Lilian in the mid-’90s when she was the chairperson of Burnside Action Group in Craigavon. She was a very dynamic woman who had seven sons and dedicated her life to rearing her boys and looking after her neighbours and her community. She left school at a young age, met her husband, and set up home in the Burnside area. She had no formal qualifications and yet she was one of the most articulate and humorous ladies I have ever met. Lillian was able to forge strong working relationships with all the statutory agencies through her infectious personality and evident commitment. Community work came naturally to her and with a little bit of encouragement and a lot of support, she graduated from the University of Ulster with a Diploma in Community Work, a proud day for her, her family and her group. She went on to win numerous awards for her work in the community.
But despite all the hard work and effort put into sustaining Lillian’s community, pressures elsewhere caused tenants to leave the estate and most of the homes were eventually demolished. This is an extreme example but something that was happening in many communities at that time. Undeterred by these difficulties, Lilian remained dedicated to her community work and was a stalwart Housing Community Network representative for tenants from all over the district and South Area until her untimely death in 2013.
Lillian was just one of the many exceptional people I have worked with over the past 25 years. I have had the privilege of meeting many people who have made and continue to make massive contributions to their communities - Bernie Burns in Drumellan, Pat Mallon in Taghnevan, Gordon Blevins in Portadown, and Sam Lockhart in Loughgilly - to name but a few. The thing that unites them all is their strong sense of community and social justice driving them to make a positive change where they live.
So, as I reflect on my career, I feel totally enriched by the people I have met along the way, the friendships I have forged and the wonderful work colleagues past and present I have had and continue to have the pleasure of working with. I think of Karen Brewster and Pat Bowen, colleagues who are sadly no longer with us but whose legacy continues in the work we do at Supporting Communities.
Now, as I enter a new stage of my career as the Head of Corporate Services for Supporting Communities, I find myself working closely with the housing association sector where I continue in my life-long role as a devoted advocate for tenants. Anyone who knows me knows I have a deep passion for meaningful tenant engagement, after all, who else is best placed to tell social landlords how they are really performing than those who are the direct beneficiary of their services?
Tenants will tell you what you need to know if you genuinely ask for their opinions, value their opinions, provide them with real feedback, and place them centre stage in every aspect of your organisation. Landlords should look at complaints as a gift, an opportunity to learn and improve. Tenants are the most valuable consultant you can get! A good friend of mine who heads up a large housing association in Scotland, speaking about his organisation says, “Everyone works for the customer – that’s our narrative”.
I totally believe that tenants hold the key to the success of their social housing providers and it’s imperative that landlords unlock their potential by engaging in a valuable and meaningful way. This is now copper-fastened by the introduction of Tenant Participation Strategy NI 2015 -2020, which requires all social landlords to demonstrate and report on how they do just that. While there are plenty of challenges ahead in the social housing sector, with challenges comes the potential for new opportunities and key to future success is a genuine partnership with tenants.
So, 25 years later, not so young, with a few more grey hairs and a few more pounds, I can genuinely say that my enthusiasm for Supporting Communities and tenant engagement is as strong as ever.
This post is the first in a series we are featuring this year to celebrate 40 Years of Supporting Communities. We invite you to share your memories and experiences with our organisation.
If you’d like to contribute a memory, an old photograph, or even write a guest blog for us about your Supporting Communities story, past or present, please get in touch with Healy King by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.