They will only do work they love, are choosy about who they’ll work with, don’t want to grow any bigger, are gloriously opinionated, and what’s more ‘won’t work Monday mornings and are always out walking on Fridays!’ Meet ‘a sense of place’.
‘We had this theory’ says Ronnie Hughes, one of the two of them ‘That if we could find the things we loved to do, then they’d be the things we were best at. The things we could enjoy making our living from. Where work wouldn’t feel like we were really working at all. We thought that all sounded great, but were sceptical about whether it could work. Well that was seventeen years ago, seventeen years since the two of us set up a sense of place and left our jobs to test out our theory.’
And so ‘a sense of place’ was born. ‘A small, mobile, creative enterprise that works with communities, people and organisations who are, broadly, creating better places for people to live in and work in,’ as Ronnie describes it. “Sometimes we help people to change what’s already there, and sometimes we really love helping people to set up their own organisations and go off and do something completely new.”
“And the things we’ve most loved doing have changed over the years’ says Sarah Horton, the other one of them. ‘We’ve always been about creativity and people making the best use of their own senses and knowledge to change the places where they live or what their enterprises make or do. But how we do that has changed constantly, depending on what we’re interested in at the time, as much as what our potential customers want.”
And the things they’ve loved doing over all these years can now be tracked on their website, which they turned into a blog early this year (“Because we thought having a static website was boring”). Ronnie’s now five episodes into writing their history, and already their early experiences working with groups of individuals interested in changing their own lives has changed to literally much bigger canvases, where they’re creating large communal collaged-artworks about past stories and possible futures with all kinds of companies and communities. In the most recent episode they’ve just coincided with the beginnings of what will become the social enterprise movement of today, and are working with the Furniture Resource Centre here in Liverpool and the Big Issue in Manchester.
Future episodes, and we know because SevenStreets has asked them, will see them move into making films, as a more portable way of telling your stories and sharing your ideas. And much deeper into social enterprise. These days, for example, they’re into their third year of working with social enterprise bus company HCT, working all round the country. Their work demonstrating how social enterprise can be a great way of being a ‘real enterprise’ but also making sure you do some good in the world, ‘rather than feed all your profits to the greedy shareholders they don’t have’ as Ronnie says.
They have also become increasingly choosy about who they’ll work with. One of the things they do is imagine that it’s the morning when they’re due to go and do work someone’s been talking to them about. And if they can’t imagine leaping out of bed with the excitement of both the work and the people they’d be working with, then it’s off, they’ll say no. They say they do have other, more systematic ways of judging work too, ‘Like the value of the work, as in how much it’s going to be good for the place or the people it’s about,’ explains Sarah, ‘But it absolutely has to pass the ‘Morning Test.’
So as they say openly on their site, they ‘won’t work with dull corporates or desk-dwelling drones waiting for their pensions. Life’s too short to waste it being bored.’ As I said earlier, they’re opinionated.
And they effectively work part time. Which brings me to the Friday Walks, one of the most followed features of their blog. Every Friday morning they turn off their phones, pack their lunches and set off for a walk. Often exploring the coastline of the Wirral ( ‘A surprising number of Liverpool people have never been there’), occasionally as far away as Anglesey, and sometimes one of their ‘Urban walks’ within Liverpool. There’s ‘The Docker’s Steps’ and ‘Lost Liverpool’ (both fully illustrated on their blog). ‘And’ Ronnie explains, ‘The other week when the Hillsborough Report came out, there was ‘Everton and Liverpool.’ This one SevenStreets itself described at the time as ‘a pilgrimage’. Their walk circling the hills and valleys and empty streets around Everton and Anfield, eventually arriving at the Shankly Gates and the Hillsborough memorial:
‘While we are here others come and go silently, many leaving flowers, most in tears. This has been an emotional week for all of us in Liverpool.’
Talking of Liverpool, they’re involved at the moment with the people living in the four remaining original streets of Granby. Trying to get all the empty homes brought back into use, rather than being demolished. Making films, running public meetings, photographing street markets, talking to potential developers. And writing about it all on their blog. All in an unusual day’s work for a sense of place.’
Originally published on 7th February 2012 on SevenStreets.