The heart of the house is the kitchen
At the Taita Great Start House, home to the Early Years Service Hub, the boardroom table has been replaced with a kitchen table. This is both a symbol of the way the house operates and of how the house has evolved as a center of community.
Great ideas and spontaneous collaborations can arise naturally when a group of people gather in an informal and relaxed setting, where the exchange of wisdom, ideas and dreams seems as natural as the sharing of food. The kitchen table is a natural location for conversations, and plays host to many community consultations, initiated by different interest groups or organisations in the community. “Working collaboratively is more than just a mind-set,” says Hub co-ordinator Karen Clifford. “It requires a new set of skills. If organisations and individuals are not confident with these skills, then the old way of working remains their comfort zone.”
The Taita Hub was set up five years ago and Karen says it was really about 18 months in before the barriers began to blur and the real collaboration started. Just as the organisations now involved in the hub had their own ways of doing things, Karen says this was mirrored by different groups within the community which the house serves.
“Some groups just didn’t choose to come together initially. We were dealing with cultural differences, generation gaps, perceptions and history. For example one helper, confessed to me how anxious she had been about serving afternoon tea – had she cut the sandwiches the right way? It might sound like a small thing but it really summed up the environment.”
To encourage collaboration, the Taita Hub set out to create a neutral, community-owned space, ‘lightly held’ by Barnardos. This included explicitly recognising that young children (0-6) and their parents were part of a wider community and that services for them should be approached in a ‘whole community’ construct.
“We deliberately have no reception area,” Karen says. “When you come into the house you go straight into the kitchen. You are more likely to be welcomed by a family than an agency. And while you will probably be offered food, you may also find yourself with a job to do. We don’t have clients here, we have helpers and co-creators – people who just want to get involved. Sometimes it is as much about how you offer the service as the service itself.”
Recognising that crossing the Hub’s threshold can be a big step for families, the house has ‘soft doors’ like a toy library and play sessions that draw people in and start to build that feeling of belonging.
“The kaupapa of the house is an evolutionary thing. We can’t always predict where an idea will take us, but it’s all about helping locally driven initiatives to flourish.”
One example, Karen says, is the way the community garden has grown. “What started with ‘adopt a plot’ now includes a large kitchen garden that provides food for the house. Now we’re looking at upgrading the kitchen to commercial standards and running a catering business from the house. It would use the produce from the garden, and draw on the skills developed in the kitchen. The revenue from this would then flow back into the house. This is an exciting possibility which will evolve in its own way if the time is right.”
The hub reaches out to all new mothers through its Little Star’s Baby Packs for every new-born. The baby packs are often presented via a neighbour or neighbours. “That way, neighbours know there’s a new baby in their street,” Karen says. “Involving your neighbours in your life can be a great source of support.”
Such outreach activities are designed to help people feel part of the community, Karen says. “It’s about growing a caring, connected community.” And sharing that caring around the kitchen table. As Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers say: It is a simpler way.
To grow everyday places of community coming together – growing leadership, moving beyond a service delivery model and making it easy for families to engage with Great Start and one another.
- Taking a lead can be about changing an environment and allowing others to lead from a different space. Offering a kitchen table instead of a boardroom table makes a lot of sense in a family centred Hub where it has enabled much sharing of information and skill as people genuinely work together to make the things they want happen.
- Good things take time, and strategy. Working together has its own culture in every place and this takes time to develop. Even getting people together can take time, and it needs some careful enabling, such as having a variety of ways people can become involved. Ensuring there are some ‘soft doorways in’ is critical to the evolutionary process of working together.
- There are no recipes for working together because the ingredients are different in different places and at different times. Not everything will work out as planned, or in the timeframe hoped for but each time this happens, understandings about what does work in this place and at this time grow deeper.
- People from different backgrounds now working together – creating different places to connect – the kitchen table approach is simple and is growing in different communities across Aotearoa New Zealand.
Wheatley, M. J and Kellner-Rogers, M. (1996). A Simpler Way. Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc, San Francisco.
Story by Karen Clifford and Susan Warwood.
Footnote or PS to this story:
Since this was written there have been considerable changes in staff at Great Start and as a consequence some initiatives have had to go ‘on hold’ or to be ‘let go’ of. The dream of having a catering business operating from the house is one the initiatives that has been let go of for now. It is still there as a future possibility. This is not necessarily a negative issue as letting go of this and several other initiatives has opened up spaces and possibilities for other groups and individuals. An example of this is the way in which the Periodic Detention workers have engaged with Great Start this year.
This links to the ecocycle theories around letting go and new cycles beginning.