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In late December we had the chance to meet with Greg Holloway, who runs the project Keystone Community Lab. In our conversation with Greg, we touched upon the current state of his project, the difficulties which emerged in scaling his initiative, especially during the COVID pandemic and his goals and ambitions for this project.

KEYSTONE Community Lab in a nutshell

Keystone Community Lab started from the idea of tackling the increasing number of NEET and youth disengagement by “putting power back in the hands of marginalized young people” in Brixton, London. In particular, the project tries to engage local youngsters in activities of action research, to foster “a little bit of self reflection in terms of their own lives, their own communities and trying to do something, however big however small, to make a difference.” After the successful prototype in Stockwell Community Trust, the initiative is now being replicated with the youngsters from another center, Marcus Lipton Center (MLC), also in London, as well as a new group of young people in Stockwell. Opportunity to work with our proposed Portuguese partner (ADFP) has been limited by COVID-19 travel issues. However one trip allowed us to discuss options for working with the Keystone Community Lab concept in Portugal and Galicia in Northern Spain. Plans are well advanced for continued work in Iberia and elsewhere in Europe, as well as with the UK.


What has Keystone recently been busy with?

What Greg’s been trying to do from the start of the project is “to engage young people directly in a collaborative fashion in both designing, coming up with ideas, but also making a contribution to whatever is their community”. He did so, he explained, “by trying to introduce young people from diverse backgrounds, really problematic, to actually research principles as a life skill,” meaning “looking at your own lives and thinking, you know, what matters to me, what I would like to change, what belonging and passion, [and] community.”

With a lot of effort, Greg has been able to support some ideas from the youngsters in the community. Talking about some of the most recent activities taking place in both centers, he mentioned a podcast studio currently in development in one of the centers, as well as ongoing graffiti work to decorate it. “Amazingly” he mentioned, “this Saturday, a big music event was filmed outdoors, so that it could be streamed as a community event for Christmas (…) this included young local rappers and orchestra, film and picture work.”

Additionally, he’s now trying to engage some young women from both the MLC and Stockwell centers in “Action break silence.” A project targeting gender violence that, as Greg said, “ticks lots of boxes,” as “there’s some training, and they get paid part time work out of it, delivering it to schools.”

Fostering and nurturing these emerging projects has been however quite challenging, especially in an area such as Angell Town in London. As Greg explained “the big challenge (…) that this Keystone Community lab has is focus. The young people I’m working with need money. Money’s the primary issue for most of them, it’s opportunity, it’s a job, it’s these sorts of things.”


Regarding the impact of the COVID crisis…

The COVID crisis has made the challenges for this project even more complex.  

There’ve been several self quarantine situations that have affected different people including myself. I’ve been working nonetheless, you know, lots of phone calls, videos…,” Greg told us, and “restrictions actually meant that there’ve been several times when both centers have had to close.” In general, “they’ve been able to only work with a very limited number of groups so that has made it much harder for me,” Greg mentioned. Engaging youngsters in any activity, he said, “has involved a huge amount of running around. Even if it’s just to meet people to track others down. I’m working with very few of the young people.” 

Moreover, moving activities online, as it happened for many other projects, is not always an alternative for Keystone Community Lab. The centers are in fact the only access youngsters have to digital equipment. As Greg explained, “there’s even less support out there for them now. (…) They’re struggling to find food, let alone Internet access and things like this.”

The situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has, in fact, also brought several complications for an already complex reality in the community. As an example, Greg explained, “because via COVID and shutdowns the streets have been a lot more empty, there’s an increase in criminality, drugs etc.”

“you really do have to keep your ear to the ground and be prepared to run with what makes sense to the people that you’re working with.” 


The people behind Keystone Community Lab…

As a freelance researcher specialised in marginalised communities, Greg has worked on multiple projects, collaborating with different people. A project like Keystone Community Lab, in fact, “would not have been possible without the significant contributions and commitment” of a large group of people, Greg explained. “The key people in terms of management structure,” he mentioned, “are Julie Fawcett and the Stockwell Community Trust team, doing great work in Stockwell under challenging circumstances and Emmanuel Imeuri” together with a fantastic and committed team at the MLC. They are the ones who embraced and supported his idea of introducing Action Research approaches as an empowerment program in the community. Moreover, a lot of youngsters, “Poppy, Maria, Daniel, Bradley, Joel, Adama, Jez and many others… have remained engaged and involved in things like food distribution on both Estates,” he said, giving a much needed help in this really challenging phase.

A factor that played a crucial role in setting all these collaborations is surely the fact that Greg is really embedded in the community. As he mentioned setting up the project in Stockwell Community Trust he explained, “I teach kung-fu, for example, at that venue. So that was one of the reasons that I decided to put it here because the community knows me, and I’ve got a certain status within that community… which gets me past a lot of barriers”.

What really helps in this kind of project is creating connections with and among people, and this is a skill that Greg possesses for sure. “Luckily I’m good at this”, he said, “I’m good at building relationships in the community.”


Main lessons learned in this scalability phase…

One of the main takeaways of the project that Greg discussed with us was the need for flexibility: “you really do have to keep your ear to the ground and be prepared to run with what makes sense to the people that you’re working with.” And then he added, “very close relationships and communication are really important. I mean, ultimately, the big challenge, regardless of COVID is trust [Trust] inevitably goes back, goes up and down, you know, in terms of the nature of these relationships and you have to be constantly sensitive [to the needs of the community].

Regarding working in complicated communities, some of the aspects that have helped him the most are empathy and loyalty. He told us: “I very much identify with the communities that I’ve worked with. They get that and they still have passion for it, and most of them are absolutely amazed. I mean, the one thing [is], I’m quite loyal. So I’ve stuck around some of these kids…”


Looking ahead…

When discussing the achievements of the project so far, Greg explained that it “had limited success so far (…) not in terms of the project as a whole, but in terms of sort of direct training towards some outputs”. Looking at the next steps for the project, he mentioned how he would like to run a more focused Action Research activity, “something much more focused in terms of actual intervention, I don’t care how small.”

Overall, Greg has a clear idea of the impact he would like to have and capture in the community, “I’d like to see them try and implement something, get it wrong and learn from that. Learn, try again… because that’s the core of it. I think that if we can communicate any of that… [that] you need to plan, discuss, implement, reassess, tweak, try again. And this is a life skill, you know, this is how you get jobs. This is how you get into university. This is how you make money.” What we have learned talking to him is that this type of work requires a high level of dedication and passion like his, and that there are no shortcuts or easy fixes to create impact. To make a change in a community, you have to become, to some extent, part of it.