No Happy Accident: Defining the factors contributing to the success and longevity of a long-running community engagement program
Date of Award
Master of Public Health
School of Medical and Health Sciences
Dr Julie Dare
Dr Kim Clark
The Kalamunda Community Learning Centre (‘the Centre’) was established in 1977 by a group of four women, following their attendance at a conference held by the Women’s Electoral Lobby. Originally named the Kalamunda Women’s Learning Centre, it was established with a charter to improve the status of women, whilst providing a place to alleviate isolation and boredom for ‘stay at home’ mothers. Through its structure, underpinned by feminist ideology, the Centre also provided a place for women to practice skills that would build their confidence with respect to returning to the workforce. From its beginnings with a predominant focus on art and craft classes, 40 years later the Centre now runs some 80 courses, with a continuing membership of more than 800 women and men from the Kalamunda Shire and wider metropolitan community. While the Centre grew from a concern with the status of women, demographic changes, particularly in terms of an aging population and an increase in women in the workforce, have led to a change in the profile of Centre attendees. In 2019, the majority were retirees, and it had its highest ever proportion of male attendees, at almost 20%.
The women involved in the early days were focused on women’s emancipation, empowerment, and social inclusion. This resonates with contemporary notions of social capital and community building especially oriented to more vulnerable, ‘excluded’ groups within society. These issues should be of increasing interest to policy makers in Australia, particularly those concerned with the ways local government authorities might best address the social determinants of ill-health and poor wellbeing.
The current study took as a point of departure that the Centre has demonstrated an enduring capacity for addressing emancipation, empowerment, and social inclusion, despite a broadening of the population to which it caters. Because of this, the study especially sought to shed light on how the Centre has been able to evolve and retain relevance across four decades that have been marked by significant social, political, and demographic change.
A particular emphasis of the study was to understand better the means by which a community organisation like the Centre might continue to make a contribution to building sustainable, positive communities through the capacity to reach and engage people, especially vulnerable and marginalised groups confronting life challenges, and then to scaffold their growth and development as they move into more positive states of connection and wellbeing.
Reflecting the study purpose, qualitative research methods were used in an attempt to elucidate factors that might explain the Centre’s growth and sustainability over the 40 years it has been operating, looking from the perspectives of people with distinct roles in the organisation’s history.
The study was particularly concerned with exploring and interpreting the rationales underpinning the Centre’s structure and policies, and the resulting features of the Centre that might explain its enduring attraction for so many. Here, the study sought to determine whether there was evidence of features locked into the original organisational ‘DNA’ of the Centre by its founders that contributed to its ongoing relevance. Given the Centre was founded on feminist ideology, the study was especially informed by the tenets of this body of theory.
The research identified that, at the time of its establishment, the Centre founders deliberately rejected a hierarchical model of management in favour of a flat management structure, requiring active involvement and high levels of collaboration between members as a necessary component of decision-making. It also found that the smooth running of the Centre appeared to owe its longevity and apparent success to many small, but significant, structural practices, such as involving members at all levels in voluntary capacities – from tutoring, gardening, cleaning, administration, daily running of the building, and through to the provision of a fee-free crèche. An important practice built into operations has also been an in-class tea-break. Class members are informed from the outset that tea breaks are mandatory, and are to take place halfway through the class time. Members are expected to take turns in bringing food for breaks, sharing recipes, food, and life stories. These breaks provide a platform for creating deeper connections among class members and tutors, and appear critical in fostering social capital amongst members.
Each of the practices identified as part of the study appear to have meshed together, contributing to the development of a grass-roots community-based organisation that has extremely low operational costs and low attendance fees, thereby overcoming a significant barrier to inclusion for many: cost. By involving all members in voluntary roles, the Centre has also ensured inclusion remains at its core. Assigning tasks to members ensures they are immediately enmeshed in the running of the Centre and valued for their contribution. Through this, most seem to quickly develop a sense of belonging and ownership that extends far beyond passive attendance at a weekly class.
In these and other ways, the study has important lessons to offer on designing low cost, high impact, self-sustaining community initiatives that foster social capital and do not require external support to deliver significant individual and community benefit. Whilst retaining the Centre’s core philosophies, which have continued to be deemed ‘nonnegotiable’ by many, the organisation has also been flexible enough to shift its focus and to evolve to embrace a new membership profile as it adapts to a changing outside world. People knowing each other in the community, feeling connected, and having choice to participate in aspects of life from employment to social activities, are hallmarks of a strong community. In this, the Kalamunda Community Learning Centre illustrates how a community organisation can be inclusive of all and provides lessons for those who believe such things might be out of reach.
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Irvine, J. (2020). No Happy Accident: Defining the factors contributing to the success and longevity of a long-running community engagement program. https://ro.ecu.edu.au/theses/2355