Neighbourhood Houses – The Heart Of Our Community

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Chelsea Heights Community Centre captures the essence of neighbourhood houses!

On Monday, under the auspices of Longbeach Place where I teach, I did a creative writing workshop at the Kingston Arts Centre as part of a month-long promotion of community houses in the City of Kingston. This was open to the public for free.

Nine community/neighbourhood houses in the City of Kingston were given display space in the galleries to promote activities under the theme  ‘the heart of the community‘.

The promotion also coincided with Volunteer Week. The Council is always keen to encourage people to volunteer and neighbourhood houses are a great place to start a fulfilling journey!

If you are keen to help others, want to share or learn a skill, meet people and help curb your own or their isolation,  contribute to the wellbeing and social capital of the community, then there is no better place to start than a neighbourhood house!

What is a Neighbourhood House?

A Neighbourhood House is a not-for-profit local organisation set up to provide social, educational, and recreational activities for a community, in a welcoming, supportive, non-judgemental environment.

Managed by a volunteer committee and some paid administrative staff, it operates with the assistance of volunteers. There is a wealth of accredited and non-accredited courses provided by teachers like myself, but also niche groups set up such as Longbeach Place’s Yarn Art & Craft Storybook Trail, or groups for carers to have time-out, family history buffs, knitting and art enthusiasts… the list is endless.

Neighbourhood Houses have space to host morning teas, conferences, annual general meetings – regular meetings for almost any community group you can imagine. My Mordialloc Writers’ Group met at a neighbourhood house for over 20 years.

Some of the houses are Registered Training Organisations and many are Learn Locals like Longbeach Place, offering VET courses.

Neighbourhood Houses receive some funding from State and Local Governments and donations or partnerships with private enterprises and philanthropists.

Longbeach display Arts Centre

Each paper heart on the display board celebrating Longbeach Place was written by a student. In a word or phrase, they described what the neighbourhood house meant to them:

The contributions from the other houses who also used hearts, echoed the recurring sentiments of a safe, friendly environment, nurturing learning and creativity with lots of fun and educational activities.

When Did Neighbourhood Houses Start?

The Neighbourhood House movement began in Victoria in 1973 with the aim of offering people a supportive, non-threatening environment to share skills and mix socially within local communities.

Neighbourhood Houses represent and serve their community. They are accessible drop-in centres that care about social wellbeing, personal and community growth. They often attract and welcome those who feel isolated, neglected, lonely and forgotten or those who have just arrived and want to “fit in”… they provide a learning environment like no other.

The people who attend usually live, study or work within the local area, and courses and activities offered are dictated by the local community and their needs.

This makes each place unique and some develop particular strengths.

Many Houses started with specific groups in mind depending on their locality.

The 1970s – A Time Of Social Change

It was the 70s and the Women’s Liberation Movement was growing. Most community houses grew from women’s involvement and demands. They saw the need for programmes for people with disability, victims of domestic violence, new migrants and multicultural groups,  and Aboriginal/ Torres Strait Islanders, women who needed confidence in returning to study or retraining.

Women wanted childcare and playgroups for ‘stay-at-home mums’ and a place for all people to be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender or ability. They may have left the workforce to have children but still wanted to share their skills or learn new ones as they adapted to motherhood and parenting.

1972 was a watershed in Australian political history – the Federal Labor Government of Gough Whitlam had a strong commitment to community programmes, to women and to children. State Governments followed their lead – times and our culture a’changing.

Federal money released for the first time to fund programs that actively encouraged women back to study and into the workforce by making higher education and training courses free. There were funds for women’s refuges, programs to assist families, and for childcare.

Many women ‘went back to school’ via courses at neighbourhood houses first and gained the confidence and qualifications to enter tertiary studies. Older women whose families were almost grown up returned to study and used the neighbourhood houses to fill gaps in their education but also to develop courses and activities to help others.

Wellbeing And Creativity

Neighbourhood houses help manage social change and prevent social isolation.

The last few years the Men’s Shed Movement has grown out of community houses. The benefits of men having somewhere to go to cope with adjusting to being alone, coping with health issues, retrenchments, early retirement and adjusting to years of extra life expectancy are universally accepted now.

People often discover and develop creative talents in arts and crafts suppressed at school or never given a chance to grow. Creative courses in neighbourhood houses are often the first step for people, at last, being able to show their artistic or writing talents.

Neighbourhood Houses Victoria

Neighbourhood Houses Victoria (NHV) was established in the early 1970s as the peak body for Victorian Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres.

  • It currently has a membership of over 380 organisations – 90% of the 390 Houses and Centres in the state.
  • The mission of the organisation is to support and develop the movement of Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres as individual organisations and as a collective.
  • This past year they spearheaded a campaign to have the State Government boost funding for the sector.
neighbourhood house poster
And the Andrews Labor Government did deliver by boosting investment in the neighbourhood house network by $21.8 million over the next four years.
I received a letter from Minister for Families and Children Jenny Mikakos MP in response to a postcard I sent as part of the campaign where she confirmed:

The Andrews Labor Government is backing our neighbourhood houses as we want to ensure more Victorians have access to the vital employment, training and volunteering services that many neighbourhood houses provide in our local communities across Victoria.

 Well done to everyone who campaigned for such a great result.

It is always a relief to have guaranteed funding so that courses can be planned – and with rapidly changing and increasing demographics neighbourhood house managers and committees are kept on their toes!

Writing Creatively At Kingston Arts Centre

I transplanted my usual Monday Class at Longbeach to Moorabbin along with an open invitation to the public.

At one stage, when five of the regulars sent apologies and I was struck by a dreaded winter bug I toyed with following the line of the old song, “let’s call the whole thing off…”

I had no idea what awaited me on Monday but how thrilling to greet three regular students plus some past students and friends – and a lady who said,

“I’ve never written creatively before.”

The two hours disappeared fast along with the chocolate biscuits I brought and the tea and coffee the Arts Centre provided!  Yet, we were too busy to have a designated break.

After brief introductions, we did some productive brainstorming and then with heads down the writing began.  After each exercise people shared completed sentences, paragraphs, even vignettes to the prompts. Fascinating and vastly different pieces of writing.

I targeted “the senses.” These are often neglected but improve our writing when included. The variety of responses rich and rewarding.

I love writing workshops!

At the conclusion of the exercise on the sense of smell, one participant concluded, ‘I realise I have a limited vocabulary when it comes to describing smells.’

She continued to suggest others do what she does, “when reading I write unusual and interesting words I discover in a notebook.  It helps improve my writing. Now,  I’ll watch out for how other writers describe smells.’

This is a perfect example of the wonderful feedback and help fellow writers give each other and how writing exercises and sharing in class can improve our writing.

A Personal Story

A few weeks ago, one of my past students from my 2016 class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House emailed me. English was not her first language and she needed help with a private matter.

It was great to catch up for a coffee and fortunately, I was able to help her. She is an educated, enterprising woman who had been a journalist in Japan but like many who write facts for a living, she wanted to explore creative writing.

She lacked confidence in her own ability and struggled with the nuances of English. In the class, I encouraged her to express herself through poetry.

Her perceptions about adjusting to life in Melbourne and being able to express her feelings about other aspects of her life was a great healing journey but also led to valuable discussions in class.

She blossomed but I’ll let her tell you in her own words what attending a class at a community house meant:

My Writing Class
Naoko

I’ve never really liked classes
I’m often less enthusiastic
preferring to study on my own
I was not a good student in writing class

Yet there are good memories
reminiscent of days visiting relatives –
a bit awkward but feeling secure

In class I remembered the joy of writing
I was accepted for who I was
I made an inspiring Turkish friend
I learned authenticity is the essence of writing
I got to know each classmate’s story
From warm words of condolence
I was encouraged to keep my head high
No matter what I faced

I will take home these great gifts I received
From my writing class at Mordialloc beach

And looking at the past I regret
that I have missed the beauties of life
from being arrogant in classes

I only loved my Mum when I was a kid
And growing up into adulthood
I tended to only love one person at a time
I regret now that I may have missed
the beauties of other people
by being narrow-minded on some occasions

I will take home great gifts about life
received from my writing teacher at Mordialloc beach.

When she left for an extended trip to Japan, Naoko gifted me her poem and a beautiful watercolour she had painted. Gifts I will treasure along with her work published in the class anthology.

The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voice, imagine them in class… memories I value. Another of my students who has been attending my classes for a long time said exactly the same thing – she reads the anthologies and remembers.

Write your stories – leave a legacy – leave an impression for someone to remember!

Writing In the 21st Century

We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books – all read on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.

If writers want to reach readers our methods must change – how you adapt is your choice. For many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.

There is room for both traditional and digital publishing and whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing.

Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published. More importantly, they can keep you motivated.

Writing courses proliferate online and in bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are worth a look.  We throw in ambience, friendship and sharing of stories and ideas.  We learn from each other and the weekly sessions eliminate the isolation and loneliness many writers suffer.

Community houses provide computer classes too – an introduction and welcome to the digital age that is usually self-paced – again the ambience and friendship are free!

The two places I work have several courses and I can vouch for their excellence at Godfrey Street and Longbeach Place.

And if you want or see a need for a specialised course, put in a suggestion or offer to run it – that’s the beauty of neighbourhood houses! The community owns it and the community is you!

What are you waiting for?

Student, teacher, volunteer, participant – whatever your label there is a place for you in a neighbourhood house – drop in soon!

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Did You Know 35% of 15-Year-Olds Are NOT Digitally Literate or Proficient in Technology?

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As mentioned in a previous blog, I attended a conference on Adult Education in the community sector where I’ve worked for two decades. This was a great opportunity to consider how learning has changed and what it will look like into the future.

The Foundation For Young Australians was represented by Shona McPherson who is passionate about redefining the role of young people in our society, as well as her belief that the not-for-profit sector can drive social innovation in Australia.

The Foundation has produced detailed reports and these can be downloaded or read on their website. The shocking statistic in the title for this blog is one of them.

Before saying, “Oh, that can’t be true,” it is worthwhile reading the research.

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Teenagers may be big on using Facebook, gaming, and texting but that is not necessarily literacy.

  • Can they use more than Google’s search engine to find information and when they find it can they verify its provenance?
  • Can they format a document?
  • Can they write and send a coherent email?
  • Do they know the difference between various types of files?
  • Do they understand about security on the Internet?

In 2018, we have more than one generation of digital natives, but not necessarily literate ones yet 90% of jobs will require digital literacy

Digital literacy involves:

  • basic skills
  • getting online
  • communication knowhow
  • navigate online
  • create documents

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What Does Being Literate Mean?

Shona focused on digital literacy and building a different mindset for the future but another speaker, Sally Thompson, the Deputy Director of the Future Social Service Institute, who is an education analyst and leader with a background in adult literacy, challenged us to think about how we view literacy and what it will mean for future adult learning needs.

What do adults use literacy for and how do they learn?

Why do they learn?

  • How do we apply reading and writing in everyday life? 
  • In this world of globalisation, many people speak read and write variations of English.
  • It is also a digital world.
  • The main game for us in the community education sector is building a network so people can live meaningful lives.
  • This is complex.

A project by the Australian National University mapped literacy in an Aboriginal community where indigenous language has been retained.

What is reading and writing to them and what did they use their literacy skills for?

Researchers discovered the church, community radio, and other shared hubs for community life were where text was generated.

  • making of culture was the aim,
  • also interacting with other groups
  • and there was extensive use of literacy mediators.

For example, in the Aboriginal community, there were a lot of fly-in/fly-out service providers. When people encountered new texts they didn’t try and master all of it but sought help from the Christian pastor, retail workers in the shops (mainly young women) and those permanent workers or volunteers at community hubs like the radio station.

We all use literacy mediators!

If you have a new mobile phone you don’t read the manual you find a teenager.

If you buy furniture or any other item that needs assembling (think Ikea) you may call a friend or check Youtube.

If you want to understand the prospectus of a tertiary institution, health information, public transport timetables, and numerous other pieces of information that may be delivered in an unfamiliar or detailed format, you ask a friend, a family member, an employee, a receptionist… even a passing member of the public who looks as if they are knowledgeable or confident!

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Globalisation has made literacy a patchwork.

It takes a village to be literate in the modern globalised world.

The image we have of someone illiterate is confirmation bias. We think poor, disadvantaged, miserable but research has proven this is NOT TRUE!

  • Researchers discovered the majority of those traditionally regarded as miserable actually live fulfilled meaningful lives by relying on networks to navigate texts.
  • They don’t see themselves as dependent nor do they usually employ someone to read and write for them.  If they do, a lot of trust is required.

However, Sally said the cliches still exist.

If you have no mates you’re in trouble, if low literacy and no friends you are in diabolical trouble.

In the community sector, we often deal with the cliches (those in diabolical trouble, friendless and illiterate, or with poor literacy skills.)

We work incredibly hard in the adult education sector to ensure people can return to education or continue lifelong learning.

However, regardless of our position, we are all literacy mediators especially administration staff who are the first responders to people coming in and needing brochures/leaflets interpreted.

Similar scenarios occur in medical facilities, retail establishments and many government or banking offices. 

There are numerous social interactions and explanations where staff are entrusted to help people or where people help others understand a map, a guidebook, operating instructions etc.

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The research into various communities showed that:

Tradesmen’s wives, parish secretaries, administration and reception staff – these people often have bi-cultural experience or knowledge.

The work they do is invisible. Comfortable in their environment, available, non-judgemental, and not in a position of authority, they will share their literacy skills.

Reflect on the number of times you have asked someone to decipher instructions, explain a form to be filled in, even translate a menu!

Literacy today is a complex issue. 

Especially financial literacy.

There are lots of mediators necessary because who can say they understand superannuation and the taxation system?

Not many as the current Royal Commission into the banks is revealing.

And as more and more services go online digital literacy is necessary to pay bills, pay for goods, issue accounts and quotes.

Sally suggests that there is a policy disconnect because the government thinks you can only teach and examine levels of literacy in a particular way and so there is a political origin of the tests we use to judge skills.

Isle of Arran 2017

How do you measure literacy?

The current tests are too narrow because we are dealing with human beings, not problems to be solved. A competency-based assessment doesn’t necessarily help.

  • We are not prepared for the modern globalised world.
  • We need to make what is needed visible and encourage the government to change its attitude to funding and other measures because technology is here to stay and in every aspect of our lives.

A conference member told a story of her 17-year-old son who wanted her to play a game on his iPad. She couldn’t understand the technology, or ‘language’  used nor the rules. He became so frustrated with trying to explain that he gave up playing with her.

When getting into the city building where the conference was held we confronted technology.

A keycard with your unique code had to be collected from a central reception area, the card was swiped to go further into the foyer and gain access to a lift to our particular building and floor.

The card had to be held in a way that the barcode was read, not swiped or tapped, which was the first instinct for most people and caused a bit of confusion.

To leave the building was a similar process – a bit like tapping on and off a Myki for the trains and trams (and this was a new experience for country members).

The use of barcodes and scanning is increasing.

I remember when I volunteered at MIFF (Melbourne International Film Festival) a few years ago only a few patrons downloaded movie tickets onto their mobile phones and the scanners we had were unreliable and didn’t always work.

Today, most people print off tickets or download them onto their phones. If you don’t, you suffer long queues at venues where less staff are employed to deal with the “digital dinosaurs”.

However, navigating websites for information or to buy products can be a nightmare because of poorly worded instructions.

Southland Shopping Centre has introduced paid parking since the train station has opened. Shoppers get the first 3 hours free and movie-goers get an extra hour if they ‘scan the barcode on their ticket’.

What is not clearly understood is that you must take your downloaded ticket to the box office and exchange it for a barcode because just scanning your printed ticket won’t give you that extra hour free. It would be helpful if these instructions were on the website or added to the ticket.

To “get out the carpark free” you have to scan the collected barcode, key in your car number plate and wait for a confirmation.

When I went with my daughters to see the latest Marvel movie (fantastic by the way!) there were a lot of confused customers, a queue at the ticket machine, and most people had to try several times to get the instruction sequence right.

Digitalisation is increasing but so are frustration levels and those not competent with new technology will be increasingly isolated.

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What does it mean to be smart?

Shona  McPherson asked the conference who was the smartest person at school and why did we think they were smart.

A quick discussion around the tables revealed we judged people’s smartness in different ways but usually who got the highest marks in a test or performed better at a sport.

On reflection, we know this is a bad perception, but we still look at who gets the highest TER at VCE.

We carry these perceptions into adult life and yet it should be challenged – employers are usually not interested in high school scores.

But, we still think in numbers when we judge success. In workplaces, it is the ones who have the best sales figures or best results who are considered the smartest.

 A truck driver may not think he is good at maths and may not be able to write well and yet he can look at a truck and know exactly how many pallets it will take, its capacity and weight and fill out relevant forms.

For us, it’s about working out the student needs and directing energy to what they don’t know, not what they already know, and giving them the confidence to see what skills they already have and to build or adapt them to the digital future.

The perception that high test scores are the indicator of smartness is now outdated in workplaces and should be challenged. Other skills are more important and not necessarily quantified by numbers

  • financial literacy, personal initiative, enterprise skills, computer coding, communicating via email etc
  • the practical application should be building those skills in schools, looking at the VCAL system to improve outcomes and adapting to digital workplaces
  • intergenerational learning – using young people skills for older learners

Accreditation will be different – individual and acquired skills will be judged holistically.

Watching 3 TED Talks you have completed learning but how do you measure it? The motivation for learning must be the number one priority but how do you provide the carrot to excite students?

And talking about TED talks these ones by Sir Ken Robinson are worth watching:

What will learning look like in the future?

  • On-demand learning, e-Learning, just in time, and m-learning (mobile learning).
  • It will be modern and contemporary, MOOC, in-bundling and less sitting in classrooms
  • Learning will be done when you want to do it.
  • It is the era of the individual – what do I need? How do I get it?
  • Less structure, more independence and embracing technology.
  • Increasingly there is the attitude ‘get on board or get out of the way.’
  • Don’t reject it because it’s everywhere like SMART phones!
  • Learning is not just face-to-face anymore but we are still connected whether through videos, podcasts, webinars, Skype, Messenger, closed Facebook groups…

Our city is changing rapidly and so must we – I was struck by how isolated Bunjil, the Great Eagle sculpture looked – almost swamped by high-rise and high-tech – and yet Aboriginal culture survives, has adapted, adopted, and influenced…

People look insignificant from the top floors of the buildings too. The future, like our city, will look different but that doesn’t have to be negative.

Teachers in the Sector have been Called to Action

  1. Challenge what you think you know
  2. More important work out what you don’t know
  3. Make a plan for the future
  4. Planning meets opportunity = luck
  5. Ask questions of mentors and others in your professional network

Lifelong learning will look different

  • Risk being foolish and making mistakes with technology.
  • Learning programs must be co-designed – sharing technical knowledge and talent.

Skills are transferable

  • behaviour management
  • confidence building
  • navigating your way around work

Don’t be a Digital Dinosaur!

How Do Writers Benefit?

Mastering digital technology has empowered writers to publish their work and keep all the income for themselves. Some writers have embraced this control and thrived, but many more still struggle striving for elusive success.

Not every writer wants to, as the latest buzzword insists “monetize” their creativity, some just want to publish their poetry, short stories, family history or novel for the joy of writing and sharing.  Even so, skills and quality control are needed.

There are many steps in the process of writing and publishing – each one important:

  • good editing
  • design formatting
  • ISBN
  • quality covers
  • copyright
  • launching – real and/or virtual
  • publicity and marketing – blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube…
  • financial matters such as how will people pay, downloading, invoicing and taxation responsibilities

At every step, you will encounter technology – be prepared and learn – and I can think of no better place to upgrade skills and confidence than at your local neighbourhood house.

The following are just a selection of what is on offer at Godfrey Street in Bentleigh (9557 9037), but similar classes will be found at Longbeach Place in Chelsea (9776 1386) and other community houses around the Victoria.

Understanding and mastering the new technology in a sensible, ordered way will assuage fear and frustration, limit mistakes, and save valuable writing time!

And you never know – you may be more digitally literate than you think. 

A fun lesson is writing a poem, short story, even a novel in bite-sized sentences of no more than 140 characters – the standard number for a Tweet – good luck!

Penultimate by M C Neil
The writing class complained
Digital tools are not for them
Pen and ink and even type
Will outlast this Twitter hype!

Nevertheless, they wrote some great poems and flash fiction.