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A Word On... A new term, a new challenge

(4 December 2019)

Hannah Shepherd and her son enjoying Lumiere

Hannah Shepherd and her son enjoying Lumiere

In her latest 'A Word On...' blog entry, our Community Liaison Officer Hannah Shepherd reflects on the past term, successes and challenges, and looks ahead to the New Year. 

As I write this we are precisely three weeks from Christmas Day. This statement alone fills me with equal amounts excitement and terror. The running list in my head of who I still need to get presents for; the cards to write and post; the various events at nursery and with family and friends; it all combines to make me feel somewhat like I am a passenger in my own life at this time of year, buoyed along on a sea of never-ending tasks.

There is so much to remind us of the true joy of the festive season and our City offers so much at this time of year for those of us who need a little break to just stop and take a moment. Take for example the fabulous Christmas Lights Switch On  which took place this year on Thursday 28th November in the Market Place. My son was just old enough to kind of get it this year so in we rushed after work to take part in a crowd-pleasing sing along to some family favourites from the Christmas playbook. Santa did his best in the cold and wet to enthuse the audience to create enough Christmas spirit to set the lights off and the whole event put a big smile on my face.

And yet, coming in to work the next day, was an important reality check that this is a challenging time of year for many people, for a myriad of reasons. Take for example, those colleagues I have been speaking to as I cross the picket line near my office. Taking part in strike action is no small decision at a collective or an individual level. I’m not a member of a union at the moment, but I have been in the past and I remember all too well the tough decision involved at a household level in taking part in strike action. I remember those colleagues who couldn’t afford to take part but showed their support in other ways so I’ve tried to stop and talk to my colleagues out there, pip my horn as I drive past, read the literature to understand the action or simply say hello.

A show of solidarity costs nothing and this term has shown me time and time again how important that can be.

A problem shared

One of the biggest areas of work for us in community relations this term has been navigating a new operational landscape for the management of anti-social noise complaints.

We have been working tirelessly, alongside Durham Students' Union colleagues (whose Community Strategy you may wish to read), to play our part in tackling the problem of anti-social noise in the City. And we must not shy away from calling it that, because it is a problem.

It’s a problem for the parent who has to get their children up for school at 7am after they were unable to get to sleep until 11pm because of a house party in the garden next door. It’s a problem for the dentist who needs to concentrate in surgery after being woken at 11pm, midnight and 2am by the noise of people shouting and singing in the street. It’s a problem for the retired lady who lives alone and has mental health issues who is scared what the noises in her street are at night. It’s a problem for the student who didn’t know what the late night opening hours were of the venues in the nearby streets but can’t afford to leave their tenancy. It’s a problem for the gentleman who, after 40 years in his most loved home, is the last permanent resident in his street but is tired of having to ask year in, year out for a little respect and never knowing whether his pleas will be heard.

It’s a problem all universities face and, in my mind, there is no option to not be involved in working together with partners to solve it. That’s why we were happy to take part in the City of Durham Parish Council’s public meeting around anti-social behaviour on Thursday 31st October. Held at the Town Hall in the Market Place, the event saw our local councillors bringing together representatives from across the City to talk with the public about their experiences of anti-social behaviour and put forward possible solutions.

Nothing was edited from the proposals and, as I dislike filtering of public opinion, it was immensely helpful to receive a no-holds-barred list of possible solutions to the problem. Having met individually and in a group setting with the Parish Council to discuss each of the 15 points, the first multi-agency meeting of a new Anti-Social Behaviour Problem Solving Sub Group (which will form part of the efforts of Durham City Safety Group), is set to take place on Tuesday 17th December. We will be there, we will continue to engage and, after working on the City Safety Group since coming into post in June 2018, I am confident that we will be able to find solutions to put in place and agree our individual roles in these.

Showing respect for each other

As for our individual role in the above problem solving, we did face some criticism for not being on the panel at the aforementioned event. I want anyone reading this to know that this is something we have listened to and will consider in the future. It would be remiss of me though to not be open and honest about our decision to not appear on the panel.

I have always believed that there is a time and a place for everything and sometimes we have to put opportunities for a platform to talk about ourselves second to the needs of others. When we received the invite to the panel, this for me was a time to put ourselves second. People talked openly about their personal experiences and the detriment they had suffered from anti-social behaviour, and it felt right that we should attend first and foremost to listen and to truly hear this. So we agreed this with the Parish Council and instead answered questions put to us from the floor.

In short this was intended as a mark of respect and I regret that we were not able to make this clear at the event. I know many of you reading this will have been there and I hope you can see from the above that this is a space we fully intend on actively engaging in, now and in the future.

More in common

It would be remiss of me to not mention one of our more minor challenges this term which was trying, and failing, to find a suitable date for the first of what we hope will be a permanent event on the University calendar for community engagement. Coming full circle, as I like to do in these blogs, we were scuppered by how busy everyone is in the run up to the festive period.

Community engagement in higher education is about so much more than just community relations. When we speak to our staff and students about their community engagement work and volunteering, we know that no matter what part of the institution people come from they are motivated by an in-built desire to engage, to bring people together, to share knowledge and skills and to work together on both local and global issues.

We are blessed to have this and to be situated in a City with such an active citizen network. It’s therefore only right that we should celebrate what brings us together, as well as working on those issues which divide us. Our work on the Community Engagement Task Force has shown us what can be achieved through conversation, networking and bringing people together. We have more in common than we sometimes take time to find out and our new event, ‘Celebrate:Exchange’, aims to bring people together in one space to discover and celebrate this. We are all working hard, not just in the run up to the festive period, but tirelessly throughout the year to make Durham great for all those who live, work, visit and study here. Time out to recognise this is important.

A festive missive

I would like to unashamedly use this blog to wish you all a peaceful time over the festive period. For those of you for whom this festive period brings much-needed ‘time out’ I wish you well, however you choose to spend the time off from your studies, your work, your efforts, or indeed on yourself.

To all those I have worked with this year, thank you. I break up from work on Friday 20th December and return on Monday 6th January. After a family bereavement in the summer I intend to spend my holidays making the most of time with my family, my husband and son and enjoying all our beautiful City and County has to offer.

I’ll be counting my blessings and reminding myself that even though there are things that I would like to change, I am very lucky to be who I am, where I am, doing what I do. I’ll be trying to do my bit for our community by volunteering at the local food bank, donating at the toy collection points around campus and, as a ‘First Responder’, giving blood. And I encourage you to keep doing your bit, no matter what that looks like.

Take care of yourself and those around you and I will see you in the New Year.

With warmest wishes,