This month, Helen Pearson from Soft Touch Arts explains “Why I work in a co-operative”.
What does your co-operative do?
Soft Touch Arts delivers creative projects and activities to engage disadvantaged people, with a focus on young people. We support participants to explore and develop their creative expression using a variety of artforms, eg music, film, photography, screen printing. Much of our work results in creative products such as music CDs or films, and many of these are used as peer education materials to raise awareness about issues which affect young people. We work in partnership with other organisations to enable groups of people to gain skills and progress with personal and social goals through making their own creative work.
What is your role and how long have you worked there for?
I am one of the four worker directors of Soft Touch and I have been there for 11 years. I share management responsibility with my colleagues, for example strategic planning, programming and staff supervision. My specialist role is to take the lead on income generation and I am also responsible for human resources.
Why did you choose to work for a co-operative?
I started at Soft Touch by accident – I was in the right place at the right time when they needed a temporary part time worker to finish off a project. So I guess they chose me rather than me chosing them, but I chose to stay as it turned out that working co-operatively suited me brilliantly. Compared to working in the more traditional structures as I did before (be that a large bureaucracy like a city council or a voluntary sector organisation with a management committee) I find that the co-operative model encourages creativity, honesty and personal growth because there is a bedrock of mutual support and shared values. This is much more satisfying that being a cog within a hierarchy or working in an organisation where profit is the primary motive.
The co-operative enables me be true in my working life to my personal values and ethics around creating a more equal world in which everyone is respected and responsibility for creating change is shared. At the same time the co-operative recognises that being a good employer and encouraging a healthy work-life balance is essential to running a co-operative enterprise.
What do you enjoy most about working in a co-operative?
The most important thing for me is knowing that we make a difference to the young people who take part in our projects. And I believe we are able to make a difference because of the organisation’s co-operative values because everybody shares the same values and goals and really care about the work we deliver to young people. There is no sense of competition or personal gripes so all our energy goes into creating the best possible experience for our participants.
The fact that both successes and failures are shared by everyone, is hugely important in creating a sense of shared responsibility. Yes, credit is given where it’s due – it’s great that everyone says “well done” when a funding application is successful, but it never feels like it was just my work that made it happen. Likewise, when an application is turned down, nobody says it was my fault, everyone knows I did the best I could.
I love the fact that working co-operatively is challenging on a personal level. It only works through achieving a deep trust and mutual respect between co-directors and this is not always easy to maintain. I have had to learn to listen to and understand different points of view, and to put personal views and preferences to one side if necessary. I have had to acknowledge my weaknesses and strengths and address or employ those for the good of the organisation – sometimes my energy needs to be spent on things that I may not particularly want to do but need to be done for the sake of Soft Touch. This whole process is personally enriching and I believe has a positive impact in my life outside work.
Do you have any particular success stories that you would like to share with us?
I supported a group of young people to apply successfully to the Youth Opportunities Fund (YOF) to get a mobile studio for Soft Touch. This gave me a real sense of achievement because now we have the mobile studio so many more young people will be able to benefit from our work, and because we are out on the streets, many of these are young people who we wouldn’t otherwise reach. One particular young person took a lead in putting the YOF application together and he subsequently went on to start up a social enterprise for other young people in his own community. With the experience he gained with us of applying for funding he has subsequently successfully led on an application to Leicestershire County Council.