As part of our series on ‘the power of co-creation’ the organiser of Derby’s own People’s Kitchen talks to Lunar21 about his own experiences of community creation:
As an introduction, here’s a bit of background to our group, Derby Peoples Kitchen; Derby PK was set up about four years ago as a self-sustaining, independent, vegan, community meal group. I joined three years ago. At that time it was a smaller group, around 15-20 people would be at each meal, but we have grown now to having around 30-40 who regularly attend. The venue we use is fairly small, and it is now regularly packed to capacity each month.
The group is very much volunteer-led and community based – there are no fixed roles, and all our meals are cooked by volunteers from the group; a good proportion of members have cooked for us at some point. No-one does more than they would like to. Everyone is encouraged to join in with food prep, and the group set tables, serve food, collect plates, wash up and tidy the venue before we leave. The basic ‘rule’ is that if you can see something that needs to be done, and you feel like doing it, then do it! …though if you just feel like chatting and making the group such a delight to be a part of, that’s important too.
All our meals are pay-what-you-want; we collect donations during each 3-course meal and, after ingredients are paid for, all the remaining money is given away to a good cause of the cooks’ choice.
Many of our cooks are first-timers at cooking for 30 people; for the most part they make a menu and source the ingredients independently. The incentive for cooks to volunteer is that they get to decide which good cause the money goes to support; and, equally, they get to have a new experience and skill. But I think another big incentive is the empowerment that comes from having made something good happen. There’s an ancient joy in humans eating together, and having ‘fed the tribe’ is a good feeling. Also I think most cooks find that the cooking is actually really good fun. I can’t think of any who have cooked only once – it’s addictive! – and it’s a great way to simultaneously support both a favourite charity and everyone’s favourite community meal group. Double whammy!
It’s true that we occasionally have to do shout-outs for volunteers for upcoming meals, but generally the cooking-diary is booked up a month or two in advance.
Mostly, all this just kind of self-organises: people volunteer to cook, other people turn up to eat, and a few of those will help tidy and washup, usually without being asked. In some ways it’s like PK just creates the circumstance within which something can happen, and then simply relies on the group to make it happen together (well, actually, being in the real world, it’s not quite like that, but it’s close enough, often enough!).
At its best this kind of ‘organisation’ works like ants in a hill: everyone just bimbles around doing stuff until the hill is finished. No-one is in charge, no-one is compelled to do anything… but together things just get done. This is co-operation and co-creation at its best. Allow chaos, it’ll sort itself out.
Organisation becomes an emergent property of just being together with a shared purpose (we’re all hungry!), but I also think this kind of free involvement in a group fosters a very deep attachment; when you see that not everything was handed to you on a plate (ha ha!), that you helped make it happen, together, you know that you are part of something rather than just turning up for something . Another thing that fosters a sense of belonging is the trust that is engendered by using a pay-what-you-want model. A jug is passed round and everyone is trusted to contribute what they can (just like with the practicalities of the meals, the washing up etc); this kind of trust is so unusual outside of family that it’s almost bad manners, and some people find it almost uncomfortable at first! But I think this uncommon trust, being given, is returned with joy. Trust binds us together. Without it, we are just a bunch of people in a room, eating. With it, we are a community, enjoying the ancient joys of eating together, trusting each other to be the best we can be, to give what we can, and get it back in spades. This is what co-creation is about. Together we all make it happen; together we all own what we do; together we thrive.
By trusting everyone to contribute; by allowing a bit of chaos; by sharing; by learning; by being open to all we have created a thriving group where we all meet in friendship and co-operation.
Oh, and the food’s good too…
Miles Halpin has been a sculptor, photographer, video artist and vegan for over 20 years. He is acting as group co-ordinator for Derby PK, and for another community meals group, Freedom Feed Em, in Wirksworth… and, hopefully, another in Belper, starting this Autumn once a suitable venue has been found.