1to1 Agency of Engagement and the SARChI Chair for Spatial Transformation present on Community Engagement at Bertrams, Johannesburg

Presented as part of the SACN Urban Festival October 2020

On Thursday 15th October 2020 @ 09.00 on zoom

By Suzette van der Walt and Amira Osman

See the accompanying slides here: Bertrams Community Engagement Project – Urban Festival (Osman & van der Walt)

1to1 Agency of Engagement and myself, Amira Osman, the SARChI Chair for Spatial Transformation based at the Tshwane University of Technology, will present on Community Engagement at Bertrams, Johannesburg

For 30+ years I have been involved in one way or the other in community projects and established multi-year collaborations between the institutions I worked at and proximate communities to the campuses. About 15 years ago I started something I called the Housing and Urban Environments studio at the University of Pretoria and continued it at the University of Johannesburg starting in 2017. Much of our work over the years is in the HUE website which I will share at the end of this presentation.

In the one particular project we are presenting today, we have set out to support the residents of occupied, inner city buildings. We are collaborating with 1to1 Agency of Engagement focusing on a building in the Bertrams Priority Block wher 200 residents occupy city owned buildings. Our primary partner is the Inner City Resource Centre, who have worked with the community and other inner city communities for over 20 years.

I hand over to Suzette van der Walt who represents 1to1 Agency to elaborate:

1to1 – Agency of Engagement

In 2019 I was brought on board and consequently 1to1 has been identified as the implementation partner for the project going forward. 1to1 has ten years of experience in community engagement and socio-technical support of under-resourced communities. The hybrid role as researchers, advocates, designers and builders, allowed us some experience to draw on although the global Covid-19 pandemic certainly brought about its own unique challenges.

Engagement in the age of social distancing

The national lockdown instituted in March brought the challenge wherein our organization, mandated by an additional parallel project in the area, was to actively engage the residents of the priority block in their advocacy for housing rights and the NRF funded CEP project which sought to improve the livelihoods of residents by supporting community driven building upgrades.

Engagement as advocacy

To avoid being idle, and challenged by lockdown, we realised that the impact of lockdown on the communities we support would be far more drastic than for others. We hoped to use our time to engage a broader audience, as a form of advocacy. We produced documents illustrating these realities and deliberately designed these documents to be disseminated on a smartphone, with a small file size ensuing the document may form part of the masses of information that were being disseminated via word-of-mouth at the time.

Information is not income

Unfortunately, despite the efficacy of distributing information in this way, these facts and figures were of little help to the resides we support, who’s lived reality often means limited access to disposal income, who were left without income during lockdown and often had poor access to water & sanitation, and not to mention  access to food. Not to mention that access to smartphones remains around 1 in 10 in the Bertrams Priority block.

Back at the Grass roots in the age of Covid-19

Once the lockdown began to ease it was considered safe for us to return to the Priority Block, but with strict protocols kept in mind. The process began with a delivery of masks and humanizers made by my colleagues – a way of making contact and providing relevant support to the residents.

Despite the benefits of the handouts of protective measures to residents, we needed to continue our work. However, instead of the typical mass meetings and workshops that typical mark the early stages of our process, we devised a Covid-19 friendly workshop methodology, where everything could easily be sterilized, and social distancing was encouraged.

Challenged by the increased facilitation support this process required, we asked for the support of the Slovo Park Youth Forum, another community Organization we support. The experience served as training for them to implement the same type of workshop in their own neighbourhood.

The workshop collected people’s attitudes towards their neighbourhood. It was followed by ideation workshops and public meetings to determine the best interventions as part of the NRF CEP project.

Interventions in response to Covid-19

Despite the existing challenges of safety and dignified living environments, Covid-19 brought into the spotlight the importance for safe, dignified access to water & sanitation, something that remains a distant future for many residents in Bertrams. Thus, after individual engagements with a number of the residents of a particular building over a few days, the need to reconstruct what was previously a yard toilet, into an ablution block with two toilets and a shower, became the major priority. The construction for this took 2 weeks and was completed last week.

The potential of Academia & Civil Society to develop empowerment & activation tools

The Bertrams CEP highlights the value of working in under-resourced communities as academics and professionals, academics being able to channel incredibly valuable resources, like research funding and energy, and organizations like ICRC and 1to1 being engaged at the grass roots, to identify where there is a need for engagement and what those needs might be. The potential of this multiyear partnership is invaluable.

At this point, I would like to invite, Prof Osman to offer a few closing reflections on our collaboration and her experience in general with community engagement projects in an academic setting.

Educating the Citizen Designer

Thank you Suzette

I have shared my experiences in using this method of combining teaching and community engagement in a book chapter on EDUCATING THE CITIZEN DESIGNER. Participatory approaches can best be explored through real-life design projects, so design-build processes became an integral part of the courses. One challenge with the approach to teaching presented is the distinction between the projects as an ‘educational process’ versus the intention to deliver a ‘community service’.

The coordination of community-engagement projects and design-build studios need to be aligned with academic programmes and university schedules. It important that the project is ongoing while students come and go – thus a multi-year engagement. We must distinguish between the project and the studio, because the project must not be disrupted by the changing studios/people and vice versa. It is about KNOWLEDGE EXCHANGE not KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER; extending learning sites beyond the campus.

Catalysts, in the form of individuals and small projects, are important vehicles for collaboration, development and learning. These catalysts and short-term acupunctural interventions are promoted in light of the larger, longer-term visions that should drive them. Training of the future professionals needs to achieve a balance between the individual and the community, between the small intervention and the larger vision, between a building and its neighbourhood, between respect for what is already there and a new envisioned future, between the benefits of a specific community and the links with the wider city context, between what is permanent and what is transient.

Please visit the HUE website and join a more extensive conversation on this matter on the 26th October 2020 as part of the Urban Festival.

(See the accompanying slides here: Bertrams Community Engagement Project – Urban Festival (Osman & van der Walt))