Three Social Entrepreneur Stories

Brian Murnane and the Claymore Miracle

Helen White and the Minto Project

Vicki Meadows and Families in Partnership

Brian Murnane and the Claymore Miracle

Sometimes miracles do happen.  Six years ago Proctor Way in the Campbelltown suburb of Claymore was known as the worst street in NSW.  It had a record of 60 police incidents a month or two a day.

The street was full of vandalism, family disputes and despair.  Things were so bad that the State Government could not pay people to move into the public housing.  The low ebb came in late 1995 when two tragic fires turned the townhouses into infernos, killing five people.

Today Proctor Way and much of Claymore have been transformed.  It is now possible to talk about a functioning community.  The neighbourhood still has high unemployment and the odd incident but generally, it has regained a sense of normality.

People no longer live in fear in their homes, wondering if their next-door neighbour has been doing the break-ins.  Instead, they share a community life with some important projects underway.  There is now a 12 month waiting list for new residents.  This has been the Claymore miracle, a wonderful example of social reconstruction.  How did it happen and what are the lessons for policy makers? 

The first lesson comes from the decision of the NSW Department of Housing to leave the area.  In 1996 it handed over part of Claymore to the Argyle Community Housing Association, a division of St Vincent de Paul.  The residents had grown distrustful of the Department.  It was seen as distant, cold and bureaucratic - more interested in making rules than helping people.

By contrast, Argyle established its office in Proctor Way itself, right next to where one of the burned-out townhouses had been.  From the very beginning, it confirmed its community credentials. Argyle saw the problems in Claymore as social, not just economic.  The housing manager, Brian Murnane, was determined to establish relationships of trust and cooperation between the residents.

He started with small things, such as a community barbecue and clean-up days, and then moved on to bigger projects, such as a Neighbourhood Watch scheme.  This burst of energy and effort created an enthusiasm for doing things together.  As Murnane describes it “everytime someone said let's do something, we backed them.”

In particular, the Pacific Islander residents led the development of a thriving community garden on a large slab of disused public land.  This became a focal point of achievement, as the residents crossed their different cultural boundaries and learnt from each other.

Having normalised the social environment, Murnane then moved on to the development of skills and economic activity.  He set up a small business to meet Claymore’s housing maintenance and lawn moving needs.  A low-interest loan scheme was also established, managed by the residents themselves.  This has been an important source of financial education and participation.  It has functioned like a micro-credit scheme, with a default rate of just one per cent.

These enterprises have established new skills and employment opportunities in Claymore.  Murnane now wants to take another step forward.  He wants to take over the run-down neighbourhood shopping centre for the development of business ventures, cooperatives and training programs.  This is where social venture capital has a role to play, exposing the capital markets to new investment opportunities in poor neighbourhoods.

Brian Murnane has fulfilled the role of a community broker - building new partnerships between people, while also giving them the confidence to develop their skills and to take risks.  This is such an important lesson.  People do not live their lives through committee meetings and minutes.  They want to get things done in practical ways, creating new relationships of trust and achievement.

This is why social capital is so vital.  It is a community’s immune system against social breakdown.  No amount of government money or market economics can reproduce these relationships.  They rely on the work of people like Brian Murnane and the development of community life. 

Six years ago, I doubted that anything could ever be done to improve the situation in Claymore.  Thankfully, this wonderful example of social entrepreneurship has proved everybody wrong.

Helen White and the Minto Hill Project

Social entrepreneurs often emerge in unexpected ways and places.  Following the success of the Claymore project, the NSW Department of Housing decided to try something similar in a section of the Minto estate (known as “the hill”).  In October 1998 it appointed one of its middle managers, Helen White, to run a new program called “intensive tenancy management.”  Like Brian Murnane, she was located on-site and expected to work closely with the local community.

It took White several months to break down the residents’ suspicion of someone from the Department.  Thereafter she moved down the social entrepreneurial path: organising street BBQs and clean-ups; employing a handyman to fix the small but significant things around the estate; and most of all, enabling people to do things for themselves.  The community now runs its own neighbourhood watch scheme, soup kitchen, vegetable gardens and arts and crafts program.

Perhaps the greatest success, however, has been the establishment of a new business called Concept Cooperative.  In late 1999 five women decided to establish an enterprise that matched the skills of the local residents against the needs of the local area.  It now provides a range of house cleaning and renovating, gardening and rubbish removal services.  It also hopes to establish a youth employment and training program.

As White sees it, “the community here is like a treasure chest.  We have uncovered valuable people previously hidden behind fences.  Basically, they want what everyone else wants.  They want a happy home, a safe place for their children and they want to be proud.  The way the system was, people here had lost their self-esteem, but we’re trying to bring it back.”

As a result, Minto is an improved place.  Public spaces that had been dominated by graffiti and crime are now being used constructively.  Relationships of isolation and fear have been converted into a spirit of community and cooperation.  For the Housing Department, the numbers look good.  Rental arrears are down by 47 percent while vacancy rates have fallen by 50 percent.

There are two important lessons from this project.  The first concerns the significance of people skills.  Helen White is a strikingly enthusiastic and inspirational person.  When I first met her in 1999 she said that she “couldn’t sleep at night for thinking about new ideas for Minto.”

White runs a people business.  Her sole asset is social capital.  She has a distinctive way of bringing out the best in others.  Without the right kind of character and commitment, there can be no such thing as social entrepreneurship.

The second lesson concerns the limitations of public administration.  While, to be certain, social entrepreneurs are available within the ranks of government, they are not necessarily suited to the methods of government.  White has not had the same freedom and success as Brian Murnane in crossing institutional boundaries.  At the end of the day, she is a government employee, somewhat restricted by the departmental rulebook.

This has limited the capacity of the Hill Project to form partnerships.  It is still part of the housing silo, disconnected from education and health services and most importantly, new sources of corporate investment.  Other than the Concept Cooperative enterprise, it has not been possible to generate new employment and training opportunities.

Within its current management structure, it is difficult to see how the project can convert its social capital gains into financial capital.  It needs an alternative source of funding to create a wider range of business ventures.  It would benefit substantially from access to social venture capital.  If social entrepreneurs are to succeed within the public sector, they require a high level of risk-taking autonomy, both in their social work and economic partnerships.

The Minto experience has convinced many that this is not likely.  While the project has made some important gains, it remains a second-best model.  The best and most enduring solution to poverty lies in the creation of an alternative welfare state.

Vicki Meadows and Families in Partnership

The greatest challenge for any parent is to raise a developmentally delayed child.  A group of working class parents in Campbelltown has met this challenge with an inspiring program of social entrepreneurship.  Not content with placing their children in institutionalised care, they have tried to build the provision of services around the needs of their families.  Through a powerful combination of innovation, social capital and sheer tenacity, they have achieved a remarkable amount of progress.

The Families in Partnership story starts in 1994 when two parents, Vicki Meadows and Mandy Shepherd, decided to do something positive about the needs of their developmentally delayed infants.  They wanted their children to stay in a normal family network, rather than experience the isolation of child care.  It was important for the children to keep developing and learning from regular contact with their brothers and sisters.

Instead of doing things the conventional way, by turning instinctively to a government department, Vicky and Mandy took their own initiative.  They joined a new group called Families First, organised by the Kindergarten Union and experts at Macquarie University .  This innovative service operated under an integrated model of family support and sibling learning.  Vicki and Mandy urged other parents to join, generating the enthusiasm for an additional playgroup and substantial fundraising.  They also set up a support network among the parents to help each other with the stress and trauma of raising their children.

Initially Families First was located in an old shed at the rear of an existing childcare centre in Campbelltown.  It made good use of a disused community asset.  By 1995, however, it had become so successful that it qualified for Federal funding to construct a purpose-built facility.  This was opened in 1997, further increasing the size and scope of the service.  The results for the children have been outstanding, with an improved level of development and regular family contact.

The success of Families First gave Vicki Meadows the confidence to play an even stronger leadership role.  In 1998 she established a new group called Families in Partnership.  It took on an ambitious agenda for families with disabilities, mobilising resources from across the health, university and community sectors.  It achievements include:

  • The Kids Club, which uses sporting activities to integrate children with disabilities into the community;

  • Project Play, a buddy system which links disabled and non-disabled school children in the development of play and social skills;

  • Advocacy Skills for Parents, a program run through the University of Western Sydney that teaches parents the lobbying skills they need to secure a better deal for their children.

As the children have grown older, Families in Partnership has shifted its focus towards school-related issues.  The parents have grown disillusioned with the structure of special education.  In particular, they want a higher level of innovation and service integration than the government school system is willing to provide.  As one parent (the mother of eight year old Jimmy, who has a moderate intellectual delay) puts it:

On one occasion I found out about a new literacy workshop and paid for one of the teachers to attend it after-hours.  When the principal found out about it he summoned me to the school and castigated me for my ‘unethical behaviour’.  Am I meant to apologise for trying to get a decent education for my child? … Jimmy’s programs are delivered in professional boxes.  For example, I would take Jimmy to occupational therapy (OT) and speech therapy (ST) at private providers external to the school.  He would then return to the school where the teachers had no knowledge of what he had learned at OT and ST.  The result is that the development of my boy suffers.  Why can’t we put all the services in the one place?

Families in Partnership is not willing to tolerate the failings of the education bureaucracy.  It has applied to the NSW Government for the establishment of a community or charter school.  Instead of running special education out of a large department in the centre of Sydney , the parents want to run their own school, in collaboration with teachers, community representatives and the Campbelltown campus of UWS.

Internationally, the evidence shows that schools achieve their strongest results when they maximise the involvement of parents.  This approach is doubly beneficial in special education.  It allows the integration of school and home-based programs across a number of disciplines.  The community school plans to provide a range of education, health and family services, with funding bundled together from three State departments.  The school will also draw on the expertise of the early childhood teaching and research programs at UWS.  It has the potential to be a national centre of excellence in special education.

From small beginnings, Families in Partnership has grown into a dynamic leader in the disabilities sector.  The parents are acting on their well-formed and innovative views about the needs of their children.  Most of all, they want to be treated as equals in their contact with health professionals, academics and bureaucrats.  They are not interested in the language of consultation – they want real and lasting partnerships.  When social entrepreneurship empowers parents in this fashion, it is an incredibly impressive force for social justice.  

As Peter Botsman has written, “there are no tougher problems than the ones these families face.  Already they have achieved things that an army of bureaucrats, governments and professionals would not have even contemplated.  Vicki Meadows and her network inspire people to work for them to build something better out of one-off payments, uncoordinated area spending and paternalistic expert advice.  Partnership and direct involvement in the funding, management and delivery of services for their children and families is the lesson they give us”.