By Lyndsey Haskell
Long-serving community worker Liz Lee has retired after nine years helping the people of Hollingdean through her work with the Trust for Developing Communities .
With a background in hotel management, festival catering and as a councillor in Lewes, Liz Lee was perhaps a rather unusual candidate for the role of community development worker in Hollingdean when she applied for the role nine years ago.
She went for it nonetheless and, though initially surprised when she landed the role, she has never looked back.
Now it’s time for Liz to move on, so we thought it would be a good opportunity to ask her to reflect on the change she has seen in the area since she’s been involved and look at the substantial impact she has made during the years she has been working in Hollingdean.
Within her first few days in the role, Liz had noticed the shocking disrepair of the local skate park, and when a concerned resident rang her a few days later to complain about the diabolical state of it she told them she couldn’t agree with them more.
A conversation began and three years and a lot of hard work later Hollingdean had a new skate park.
The community worked with Active for Life and the council to make it happen and had young people get involved to design the space.
“This was key,” says Liz, “as it’s their space, so they needed to decide what it looked like.”
Challenges included the sourcing of funds as well as getting the local authority to agree to maintain it afterwards but it was all worthwhile to create what is now a very well-used skate park.
A highlight of her time here has been the arrival of the Lucky Dip Fair – a mini festival held twice a year which uses a local bus stop as the stage.
She is pleased to have helped residents set up the first few fairs and is now pleased to see them running it on their own.
“When it comes to the fair, the residents can stand on their own feet now. The talent in Hollingdean is fantastic – whether you’re looking for a ceilidh, a folk group or someone to MC, you can find them here.
“We even discovered that the children’s laureate, Chris Riddell, is local and that some of the residents knew him, so were able to get him along too.”
She said: “A key thing about the Lucky Dip Fair is that it doesn’t cost that much. The Lucky Dip itself, as well as the tombola, cost just 50p to enter and there are lots of homemade goodies and prizes – so it’s not too expensive for parents to bring their families along.”
Consultation with the community has been a vital part of Liz’s work and a part which she thinks makes the biggest difference to people’s lives.
She emphasises that community development work is not about telling people what they need, it’s about asking them – to be able to understand what they truly need.
Community development workers can then help steer and advise local residents and put them in touch with the appropriate people and organisations to find solutions.
Liz says: “It’s about giving people the confidence and empowering them to do things for themselves. You’re there to support them but it’s their show.”
A Hollingdean “Communty Catch-up” takes place once a year, with other consultations taking place as and when needed. Liz’s role involves facilitating the discussion and interpreting the results.
“It’s about saying, ‘Here are the results. How do you want to progress this?’ Then residents can see that what they’ve said matters and makes a difference,” she says.
One recent resident consultation has involved research around the speed of traffic through the area – exploring ways to get drivers to slow down. Residents will continue to liaise with the council on the project once Liz has gone.
Another favourite project for Liz was being involved in the planting of 100 trees in Hollingdean in partnership with Brighton Permaculture Trust around four years ago.
“Residents expressed an interest in seeing a greener Hollingdean and 100 new trees is a pretty good start,” she says. “Working in partnership was essential. Brighton Permaculture Trust had all the knowledge and know-how that we needed.”
When asked about the challenges in her work, Liz talks about working with the council on the issue of opening the community café at weekends.
Following the success of the skate park, residents identified a need for toilet and refreshment facilities. With the café on the doorstep, it made sense to open it, with local people volunteering to staff it. But the idea was met with resistance from council officers – some of whom had pre-conceived notions of what it meant to live in Hollingdean.
She remembers one council officer insisting that they would need to include the cost of security on the door if the café were to open.
“It would’ve been completely unnecessary,” says Liz, “and the kind of thing that never would have been suggested had the café been in Saltdean.”
Other members of the council have been very supportive, however, and the café has opened over the past two years. This summer, residents will decide for themselves whether to continue with this set up.
Liz feels proud that they now have the confidence and knowledge to discuss these sort of issues with the council themselves.
She has seen a lot of change in the area but emphasises that there is still a lot to be done – “Community development work is a slow process, everything takes time.”
She’s been impressed with how young people have risen up against the proposed cuts to youth services across the city.
“They’re the ones doing it” she says, referring to the marches organised by young people to protest against the cuts – “and I do love a good demo.”
As we bid adieu to Liz, Kirsty Walker, project manager at TDC, says: “Liz started with TDC in 2008 and is one of the longest-serving staff members (and the) longest within the community development team.
“She epitomises what we value in our development workers, which is an ability to see the value in all individuals and an inclusive approach making sure all voices are heard and ideas shared.
“At her leaving do the residents were vocal in their appreciation of her and I think the most used word was ‘kind’.
“She will be hard to follow but Hollingdean is a vibrant engaged community and a lovely area to work for a new development worker coming in.”
It’s impossible not to notice the pride with which Liz speaks of the area and the sparkle in her eye when she talks about the people.
She’ll miss the residents and her colleague Shirley, who manages the admin of the building and with whom she’s shared an office for the past nine years.
“It doesn’t seem like nine years. I’ve definitely come to love Hollingdean – the residents are amazing and Hollingdean is very special,” she says.
So despite taking a risk in applying for the job in the first place, Liz is so pleased she applied to TDC all those years ago.
“I’m so glad I went for it,” she says. “It’s been an amazing and very important part of my life.”
Liz is looking forward to coming back for the next Lucky Dip Fair and when asked whether she has anything to tell the residents her message is simply: “Keep on doing what you all do so well.”
Lyndsey Haskell is a freelance photographer and online marketer who works with charities and community groups across Brighton and Hove.
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