Gathering local creativity and developing skills to redesign Dudley

“There’s a building that’s been rotting on the edge of town for a good 25 years”, according to Guy, founder of The UP-Cycle Shop, “A creative man would’ve thought, do we leave it to show that Dudley is actually rotten and broken? Or do we paint a massive Black Country mural on it that expresses what we’re famous for, our pride and the future?”

Guy is part of a number of creative social entrepreneurs supported by UnLtd who want to empower Dudley’s residents to transform the borough.

Dudley is a place with history. The capital of the Black Country was at the heart of the industrial revolution with thriving manufacturing and mining industries. Now home to more than 300,000 people a recent report by CoLab Dudley, a social lab working to give local people agency as leaders and designers of change, highlighted the effects of de-generation, civic apathy and disenfranchisement.

Meet some of the entrepreneurs transforming Dudley for the better

Gather CIC

A community platform where local people can come together to test out new creative ideas. Based on the High Street in Dudley, they host creative sessions open to all and support anyone committed to making Dudley a better place to live.

Riverside House

A social regeneration project transforming an abandoned 19th century ironworks into a community and social hub with cafe, local-produce shop, garden and craft workshops. The project works with adults with learning disabilities who can transform the site while engaging in practical activities.

The UP-cycle Shop

Guy Holness set up The UP-cycle Shop to inspire people in Dudley. He uses waste materials to make creative and commissioned products which he sells to fund inspirational community projects.

Discover U

Everything Discover U do is about supporting people with disabilities to develop social, emotional, functional and employability skills. The team of people with disabilities at Discover U, as well as staff and volunteers, create handcrafted products for market.

Creative local social entrepreneurs are reimagining what Dudley can look like by inspiring and empowering local residents

Using profits generated from selling upcycled products Guy has begun to turn Dudley town centre’s abandoned buildings and boarded up high street shops into something more inspiring.

“I can go out and spend a couple of hours just painting a wall, just making it look a little better. There’s 5,6,7 pieces of art that used to be 5,6,7 rotten abandoned shop fronts.”

Guy’s not alone in recognising the importance of creativity and curiosity. Along with CoLab Dudley, The UP-Cycle Shop is based at Gather CIC, a community cafe founded by Stuart and Lorraine.

“The initial plan was to provide a space where we could help the local community and support people who wanted to make Dudley a nicer place.”, says Stuart.

Stuart and Lorraine recognised that there was a lot of negativity surrounding Dudley and that people felt disconnected from each other and the borough itself. Everything that Gather does is encourages participation of local people.

Stuart explains: “[Gather’s] a community platform. So yes, our name’s on the lease, but it’s meant to be owned by the community. It’s a place where people can come to meet and develop their own communities.”

And it’s a growing community of locals with a whole host of ideas. Since opening in November 2016 Gather’s events schedule has been almost non-stop. There are regular skill swap events, local art exhibitions and they hosted DoFest Dudley, a festival of doing which saw 300 people take part in various creative sessions.

The cafe itself was an abandoned bank on Dudley’s High Street. “No-one had been in here for eight years”, according to Lorraine, when they decided to transform it into a warm and welcoming place for the community.

It’s a familiar theme, seven miles away in Stourbridge Lloyd Stacey is regenerating Riverside House, an old ironworks, into a social and cultural hub for the local community. Lloyd, a former carpenter with experience of working with people with learning disabilities, is working to ensure everyone in Dudley plays a role in its transformation. He’s working with adults with learning disabilities or any other needs to transform the site.

Lloyd explains: “Practical, meaningful activities in small, social teams has huge benefits in terms of communications skills, teamworks and preparing for work. There’s a lot of positive mental health outcomes - reduction of anxiety, and loneliness and marginalisation.”

In nearby Wollaston, a group of social entrepreneurs have also come together to help people with disabilities develop emotional, functional, social and employability skills.

Discover U runs a cafe for local residents and a workshop where its 38 clients use woodwork and craft skills to make products for sale at local markets and shops.

It provides an invaluable service to the borough. According to Jamie, who’s been coming to Discover U since it began, “A lot of the other services that you get in the borough are quite basic in what they do. They’ve forgotten that everyone’s adults.”

“People take a little bit of a step away when people say disability, but these are the brightest, funniest, warmest you’re ever going to meet. And they deserve the same chance that you and I have to get a job”, says co-founder, Steve.

“Community is at the heart of what we do”, according to Steve. The recently opened tearoom, renovated thanks to volunteer support from local firefighters, will be a place that demonstrates to residents and employers that disabled people can work.

For Steve, it was UnLtd’s funding and social media support that proved valuable, “I can find volunteers, I can find community spirit, I can find the guys to attend, but finding the funding is a real challenge”.

The challenges that local people in Dudley are tackling are far from solved, but there’s a community of people transforming Dudley emerging that with the right support from residents, employers and local decision makers can take off.

Photography: Colab Dudley, photography Thom Bartley
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