I’m writing this on my way home from the WEA East Midlands AGM. That was my fourth AGM in a month and, again, an enjoyable and thought provoking day. I’ve been to Eastern, North East and North West as well on my journeys but had to miss another six which clashed.
Overall, it’s really striking how different the character of each region is – and yet how much in common they have about the purpose and value of the WEA. Inevitably, there were questions in different places about how decisions are made on minimum class size, concessionary fees, the complexity of procedures and paperwork, the need to improve publicity and find new tutors. I think these issues may always have been raised in WEA AGMs but I’ve met almost 240 people in the last four weeks who are prepared to come to a Saturday meeting because they want the Association to succeed – and I’ve learnt a lot.
Today’s meeting included a talk by Cynthia Brown ‘Paths laid with ruin – drugs and the Victorians’ - mostly around opium and arsenic it covered social policy, poverty, literature and the enterprising approach the British had to selling opium into China and the wars they started when the Chinese resisted this trade.
My presentation to each AGM has evolved as I’ve gone round. Today, I concentrated more on volunteering and membership but, inevitably, after this year the issue of how to improve communication across the WEA was one of the main themes. In one region someone said ‘it’s not change that’s the issue, it’s the communication. It’s got to really be two way’.
People agree the need for clarity around membership and volunteering. It’s almost as if a conversation started ages ago but never got past the initial exchanges. The potential as well as the problems were discussed in every AGM I went to. In the discussions there were plenty of ideas: find out more about our members - their skills and interests; be clear about their roles; leave room for creativity; acknowledge and thank volunteers for their work; keep a campaigning edge – the WEA is a movement for social change; give them as much of a break as possible on admin and compliance issues; find ways for new people to be involved in shaping things.
There were concerns about how much is asked of members and volunteers. Equally, I think people agreed that with 54,000 members, engaging and making even 1% of them into new WEA activists would be a massive additional resource to the Association.
There are questions around what the benefits are to members and we do need to be clear about this. On volunteering one longstanding member in East Midlands, Ivor Moon, asked me if I thought that the greatest benefit of volunteering is in doing it. What could I say but yes?
In Nottingham, the discussion and reports before I spoke touched on issues around new volunteers, local decision making, social purpose education, digital inclusion, campaigning and community leadership. In some respects, whilst localism, challenging authority, voluntary activity and addressing inequality are current issues in the news - they’re new but old in the WEA.
I know there are lots of doubts about the potential of social media – particularly with older people. My mother, who is just 80, told me that she wasn’t really any good with computers – all she could use was Skype and Facebook. I said I thought that was pretty good but she then said they didn’t count because they were just for ‘keeping in touch’ with grandchildren and family. She’s right, it’s the C in ICT that is developing so quickly – ‘Communication’.
Despite my lengthy new job title, it’s communication that’s becoming the key issue for me. Within the WEA that's a challenge I expect will be absorbing and fascinating.