You could tell by the chairs. You could tell by how the chairs were set up that this wasn’t going to be your typical community meeting.
Michelle Good, tsiMORAY’s Community Development Officer, had thought about it. She arranged chairs purposefully in a large open horse-shoe shape. That way, she thought, everyone could see each other; everyone would have the best seat in the house; everyone would feel included.
The meeting was taking place in the small but perfectly formed village of Portgordon, a coastal village like so many in Moray, nestling a stunning coastline, the sea unfolding itself to be the omnipresent backdrop. And like so many small coastal villages, Portgordon has had its fair share of problems - a tired harbour under serious threat, unemployment, the slow burnout of a dwindling number of community volunteers, a shrinking primary school, a closed village shop - the list was long and the way forward had been lost. Portgordon itself was the first to admit it was a fractured community.
So this meeting, to call together the community, to find a way forward needed to be different; simply put, there was there was a lot riding on it. Fail at this, Good knew, and there was no going back.
The set-up of the chairs was just the small detail. The engagement tool to help find a way forward, to re-energise this community, was what really needed to be radically different. Any work to be done that day, had to start with the communities’ strengths, instead of re-hashing its problems or past. As Good put it, she was ‘preparing the minds for a positive outcome’. ‘There’s a past, yes, understand it, but you have to put an end to the past for capacity for the future’.
In her development role at tsiMORAY, a project funded by Moray LEADER, Good was working with Project Leader Fabio Villani, tsiMORAY, trained in a tool developed by the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) called the Four Pillars of Sustainability. A simple but extremely effective way for every person that day to take part, and by doing so, focus on the strengths and commonalties, so that priorities could emerge, and action could be taken.
The turnout from members of the public was strong, and all community groups except one were represented.
They were all asked to pick cards from the GEN toolkit they could identify with and that they felt represented a strength of Portgordon. One by one, people told each other why they had picked their card. For some, it was the first time they could personally see what they had in common, but also what they thought was important for the village to focus on.
Two hours later it was decided – it was the Harbour – the community’s focal point, the largest remaining community asset that would still be the focus of energy and the driver of action and economic development. ‘Keep the harbour open.’
That day the fracture began to heal; faith in themselves and their community restored.
As are result of the night, action has happened.
The community is looking at setting up a Development Trust, acting as an anchor organisation for the Supporting Communities Fund.
Crown Estate Scotland, supported by external advisor, Lucy Parsons, is working with the Community with the vision of a harbour and other assets in the community’s hands, and of working together in partnership.
The community set up the Portgordon Connected Group, which has seen start-up of initiatives, led and supported by members of the community, that can leave a legacy when we emerge from the pandemic.
This newly formed group was ready to act when lockdown was announced, so that Portgordon was one of the first communities in Moray to set up a phoneline and volunteer support for its most vulnerable members.
Emerging partnerships with other organisations, such as Highlands and Islands Enterprise and other communities in Moray.
What was said:
“The Four Pillars exercise drew forward, shed light upon and made use of the single greatest commonality existing within the village - the desire to see positive, inclusive and forward minded investment in the village by the village itself. In short, residents realized and assumed a collective responsibility to both define and develop a plan for Portgordon that is specific to the goals of its residents and whose plan(s) are executed by Portgordon with assistance from lent external support. As a resident of Portgordon I have never seen until 'post four pillars' the level of interaction amongst ourselves on a daily basis to ensure plans are both evolving and action steps consistent. If nothing else, we 'Gordonese' folk have embraced the ease and instantaneous means to speak amongst a large group of us in real time and develop real consensus without having to have a formal meeting.” - Scott Sliter, Chair, Portgordon Community Harbour Group
What its impact has been during COVID-19:
“Four Pillars was for sure a starting point in bringing the village together in a truly meaningful way. I have no doubt that Scott's quick thinking would have created a support system, but it wouldn't have been the same. I feel like our team of around 25-30 people are keeping the village properly cheered up. A lot of feedback I get on the phone is that people are so touched that a village they have lived in for so long feels like a community again. People are surprised that we started this of our own volition, do not charge for the service we provide and usually operate a same-day/next day delivery (take that, Amazon!). In particular, the older neighbours find it easier staying in knowing that we are taking care of the necessities on their behalf, everything from groceries and prescriptions to posting mail is being covered.”
“I am a 150% converted sceptic and without your four pillars of sustainability workshop, Portgordon village in my opinion would be today as it was before the exercise; a disenfranchised collection of well-meaning individuals with no clear means through which to connect to one another. For example, had it not been for the Four Pillars exercise, I would never have met Lyndsay, James, Pery, Christine etc nor would I have had a means to send out that first email to see if we as a village could, should and would prepare and respond to the pandemic.”