Why being a user led organisation is special #SmallCharitiesWeek

About 11 years back Connect in the North made a big decision. After starting life as a member organisation of small third sector organisations committed to improving the lives of people with learning difficulties, Connect in the North’s predecessor organisation asked itself why it didn’t have any people who use services on its Board. If it really believed that learning difficulties should be no barrier to success, it needed to show this in the way it was run.

So it changed its rules; first to make it easier to have trustees with learning difficulties and later to go the whole hog and make sure all of its Board were people with learning difficulties. This complete commitment to putting the community in the lead is lived out in Connect in the North’s (CitN) work and, more importantly, in its values.

Today, CitN has two main areas of service. ‘Through the Maze’ provides the help that people with learning difficulties and their families need to navigate through the often confusing web of services, activities and opportunities that are available to them. The website, which is shaped and tested by members, is Leeds’ go to source of information. They have a helpline and drop ins. Employing people with learning difficulties is important to CitN, so they have a small team of people dedicated to finding out the information they want to know and pass it on to their friends….after all we all know that word of mouth is the best way to find out about stuff.

‘Making it Happen’ is all about leading change; making person-centred work real. They train people that work with people with learning difficulties to really listen and put the experience and wishes of service users first. They train people with learning difficulties to know their rights and speak up for them. Recently they became the new home of Rooots, a social business led, managed and delivered by people with learning difficulties with African Caribbean and South Asian heritage, who train people around cultural difference.

They used to work with individual service users to do Person-Centred Planning; working out a package of services which means a person can live their life the way they want to. They’re finding that they’re doing less of this work now – they write the plans but it can be really hard to find services that are flexible enough to deliver them.

The place where it’s easiest to see CitN’s values at work is in the things it does to empower people with learning difficulties, to have a voice and take part in democracy. This year they are holding Leeds’ first march for people with learning difficulties. Taking a lead from gay pride but focusing on learning difficulties, the march is about standing up for people to be treated with respect and celebrating the joy of being just a little bit different.

Last year they marked the centenary of votes for women by bringing together a group of women with learning difficulties to work through the political questions they needed answers for; things we all care about, like responses to anti-social behaviour or action to improve the environment, as well as some more specific things like the best design for pedestrian crossings. Then the group put their questions to a panel made up of an MP and some Councillors.

In 2010  they co-ordinated a funding bid and helped to find some professional musicians that could put a group together and organise some gigs. Once ‘The Outsiders’ were rehearsed, the band did a short tour with triumphant gigs at Seven Arts and the Carriageworks. It meant so much to one founding band member that his family asked for their music to be played at his funeral. While many of the members have moved on ‘The Outsiders’ continues, all thanks to the commitment of Liz Leach and Imagineer.

It hasn’t always been an easy ride for CitN. Back in the day some people questioned whether people with learning difficulties were ready to take the lead. But, as Cathy (CitN’s Director) says: “Anyone that thinks I can run rings round the Trustees is just wrong, and they certainly haven’t been to a Board meeting.

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