Collecting conversations (not money) on the Spot Barney tour

The month is June and the communications team at Barnwood sit together to think up ways to launch the new look and new website for the Trust in September. As a team, we talk about the many ways we could celebrate the rebrand – from a simple ribbon-cutting event to a launch on the scale of the Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony. It’s a fun conversation!

But in the end the decision is easy. We have a VW camper van which we take to summer fetes and Christmas light switch-on events throughout the year. So, why not take a trip around the county in the camper van? Why not celebrate the breadth of Gloucestershire, from Wotton to Moreton, Newent to Northleach, and meet as many people as possible along the way?

More conversations across the whole team at the Trust help us to think about the places we would like to visit, fun giveaways are designed, new grants leaflets are created, and we think about how we might change the look of the campervan so that it matches the new colour scheme and reflects the ripple effect of Barnwood’s influence and connections across Gloucestershire.

We also decide that throughout the tour we will collect bunting flag designs created by people we meet, to turn into community bunting as a memento of the tour. And we begin talks with local media to help us get the word out about our Spot Barney tour as widely as possible. After weeks of preparation, things starts to come together. It relies on the 40-strong staff team at Barnwood Trust to make it happen, with more than twenty tour dates and over 1,000 miles to cover.

On the tour we anticipate meeting lots of people to tell them about what the Trust does: ‘We work together with the people of Gloucestershire to create the best possible environment for disabled people and people with mental health problems. We provide grants, spark new community connections, share ideas and find ways to open up new opportunities for people…’

We expect passers-by to assume that we are collecting money for the charity and prepare ourselves to explain that we don’t take donations – we give grants instead!

But what we are not prepared for is just how impactful the tour will be for all of us.

Each day of the Spot Barney tour is filled with surprising conversations, with others and amongst ourselves.  For us this is fundamental – reaching out to people; making that slightly awkward first move to talk to people we don’t yet know. Gently breaking down barriers and including those people that might otherwise be isolated. Inviting them to join in.

Barnwood Trust Community Builders are far more used to starting these conversations than most – ‘What are you passionate about? ‘, ‘What would you like to see happening in your community?’, ‘Who would you like to connect with?’ Our Welcomers also spend time talking with individuals to find ways of opening up opportunities, focusing on the ‘can do’, rather than the ‘cannot’.  But some of us on the team are less used to it and the tour throws us together to learn from one another and to learn from the many people we meet.

In one location we heard of some of the challenges of living with a child with a disability and the resilience it takes to keep going. In another place, we felt the scale of tackling a lifetime of mental health problems and the importance of creativity in some people’s lives to overcome that. In another, we met an unassuming man who had sailed ships in his youth. I mean, real ships – it was his actual job.

We are so often unaware of the deep experiences, difficulties and passions of the people living near us. We see them passing us by and make assumptions, or worse still, we become indifferent to the people sharing this place with us and move on. Starting those conversations is not easy, even when you stand beside a brightly coloured campervan and have free giveaways to entice people to talk to you. But when we break out and ask people questions about themselves and share something about ourselves too, the resulting conversations can be extraordinary.

So, what started out as a tour to spread the word about Barnwood’s new look and website, turned out to be so much more. We will certainly be taking to the road more often and mixing up the places where we stop – from mixed-ability sports events to street corners – in the hope of collecting unexpected conversations with new people and collecting ideas along the way for how we can make this a stronger, happier and more community-led county.  If you see us, be sure to come over and say hello.