Speech to the People’s Powerhouse event hosted by Inclusive Economy Liverpool – 24/10/19

Speech to the People’s Powerhouse event hosted by Inclusive Economy Liverpool – 24/10/19

Hi there, as Patrick just said, I’m Helen from Little Sandbox, we run tech clubs for kids and more recently opened a community makerspace at Norris Green Library.

Today I’m here to tell you about how we developed a person centred approach to digital inclusion, by exploring how digital tools complement traditional crafts.

Digital inclusion has been a bit of an obsession of ours for quite some time. Both myself and my Little Sandbox co-founder, Chris Huffee, have in the past delivered digital inclusion projects and we were getting frustrated that millions of pounds are invested in the same old programmes and yet, somehow there’s still a digital inclusion problem.

I believe we’ve reached a point where, the only people left who can’t use computers are those people who don’t want to. And no amount of basic IT courses are going to reach them.

This year the Centre for Ageing Better and The Good Things Foundation produced a report that estimates 91% of those who lack basic digital skills are over 55. They concluded that the same old approach won’t work.

Finally! Someone who is speaking our language!

We have been advocating for something different for a few years, because we believed that there was merit in using a more creative approach to get people interested in digital skills.

I suppose it comes down to a question of what we mean by digital. When people talk to us about the problem of digital inclusion they talk about “access to the internet” “Using social media” “Mobile phones”. Which all sounds a bit dry and boring.

When we talk about digital inclusion we think Digital photography, 3D printing and Making things with lasers. Which sounds loads more exciting.

2 years ago we took part in some consultation sessions to help shape the LCR digital inclusion strategy. We sat around a table with housing associations, councillors, the DWP, age concern and other national charities. We were asked: What’s the problem.

After much discussion, I can sum the problem as one simple issue: older people can’t use online forms.

That’s it. That’s the problem.

But that’s not a problem for the people who lack digital skills. They don’t care. They’re quite happy filling in forms by hand – they’ve been doing it for decades – they’re happy ringing people up, they’re happy having face to face conversations. Their lack of basic IT skills is not a problem for them. It is a problem for the service provider wanting to move to an automated system, which is perhaps more efficient, will save time, cut down on staff costs & increase profits.

But it excludes people, particularity older people and it forces them to learn skills they don’t want in order to access services they’re entitled to.

I mean, when you think about it like that, it’s just morally wrong, isn’t it?

So how important is it, really, that older people learn basic IT skills? Whenever I ask that question of people they generally say that using facebook would give them a connection to the outside world and help them feel less lonely.

Which is all well and good, but given what we know about social media, and how it is so easily manipulated, would you want to subject your parents or grandparents to it?

But let’s be realistic, the world is changing, technology is advancing at an almost alarming rate. Like it or not, having digital skills is going to be useful, if not necessary, to everyone.

But if decision makers are committed to reaching a point where everyone has some basic digital skills, then they have to get on board with the idea that one size does not fit all.

Little Sandbox a small social enterprise based in North Liverpool and we don’t have much clout. Yet. We made lots of suggestions around digital inclusion, we talked about digital art, making, we suggested they involve makerspaces in their plans. And I believe LCR has invested in opening a makerspace in Prescot. Which is great news. But it would also be great if we could see some investment in the makerspaces we have in Liverpool, because in the current economy, we are all at risk and we could all be doing so much more in our communities with a bit of support.

We realised, no one was going to take our suggestions seriously, until we could prove they worked. We’d been here before, when we were trying to open our kids tech club, we just needed one funder to take a chance on us.

Eventually about 12 months ago, we successfully applied for some “Make:Shift:Do” funding from the Craft Council which was for pilot projects that introduced traditional crafters to digital tools. We saw this as an opportunity to put our idea into practice.

We spoke to the library manager at Norris Green Library and asked her, which craft books were most popular among visitors. She told us it was knitting and crochet.

Okay, you might think it’s a bit of a stretch to use knitting and crochet to teach people how to use a computer.

But that’s exactly what we did!

We started a knitting group. And we advertised it as an opportunity to enjoy knitting and crochet and have a go at some of our digital tools.

The first week 2 sisters came in and said “We’re not interested in your digital tools, that’s not for us, we just want to knit and have a natter.” Ok, no problem.

Week by week the group grew to about 15 regular members. We realised that, more than anything else, this was an opportunity for them to socialise, they quickly bonded, some of the group came because they wanted to learn different techniques, some came because they were lonely, some came because they needed something to help them get through the pain of losing their husband. The group has provided much needed support to older women at risk of social isolation and depression, and given them a sense of belonging and purpose.

But it’s also given them a sense of confidence around digital skills and increased their ability to engage with the ever expanding digital world.

After a few weeks one of the group brought in a cardigan she’d knitted. Chris suggested she could make her own buttons and so he showed her a basic template and how to cut them on the laser cutter.

The following week all of the group made their own buttons.

One of the group wanted to make a pom pom for a hat she’d knitted and needed something to wrap wool around. Chris showed her how to create the shape on the computer and then cut it using the laser cutter.

Then of course everyone in the group needed a pom pom maker too…

One of the group said she wanted to make something for her granddaughter but she’s too old for knitted stuff, she’s just interested in unicorns. So we suggested she make a tshirt with a unicorn on it, and introduced her to the vinyl cutter and heat press.

The following week they were cutting slogans on the vinyl cutter and heat pressing them on to their knitting bags.

Another week, we showed them how to print onto fabric using the sublimation printer. And then we got them to sew in some LEDs using conductive thread.

Each week, we find out what they want, what matters to them, and we show them a digital solution.

The group has been going for nearly a year now, we ran out of funding about 6 months ago but we haven’t got the heart to tell them to stop coming. They wouldn’t listen to us anyway. The 2 sisters who came to that first session, they now teach newcomers how to use the vinyl cutter to make their own t-shirts and have recently learned how to format images for laser engraving. They’re working up towards 3D design so they can 3D print their own buttons.

One of the group has joined our maker business programme – she knits and crochets so much stuff she wants to start selling it online – and she wants to manage that herself.

I noticed recently that pretty much all of the group – which ranges in age from late 50s through to early 90s, all now have mobile phones… and know how to use them! If that’s not evidence of success, I don’t know what is.

The lovely thing about this approach to digital inclusion, is that they don’t even realise they’re learning to use a computer. What we’ve shown them is how to use digital tools to enhance their hobbies. But in doing so, they’ve learned how to use a mouse, a keyboard, how to search for things online and how to navigate the menu systems on different applications, And I wouldn’t be surprised if they could all complete an online form now aswell.

Thank you

Public Talk: women mean business at Central Library, 08/03/18

Public Talk: women mean business at Central Library, 08/03/18

On International Women’s Day 2018, I had been invited to talk about my experience as a woman in business by the Business and Intellectual Property Centre at Central Library. I was terrified. I’ve always turned these things down but I decided it was finally time to push myself to get more comfortable with public speaking. I enlisted some coaching support from Su Grainger who gave me so much help and advice as well as some techniques to quell the nerves.

I was introduced by Bernie from The Women’s Org who warned the audience that I was very nervous, while I was stood to one side taking slow, deep breaths and feeling like I just wanted to run from the room.

But I got through it. The audience even laughed at my jokes. By the end of it I felt like I could do an arena tour.

Here’s the transcript of my talk:

Hi I’m Helen, I’m really excited – well maybe excited isn’t the word, terrified, no: honoured – to be invited here, on International Women’s Day to share my experience as a woman in business.

Little Sandbox is a kids tech club which I co-founded, with Chris Huffee, in 2014. But I actually started the business in 2010. Prior to that I’d had some pretty interesting jobs. I’d spent 6 years living and working in London in the music industry, which wasn’t as glamorous or exciting as I’d imagined it to be. And eventually I was in so much debt I decided to move back to Liverpool, where after struggling to find work I became a taxi driver for Delta. I was one of only three female drivers at the time and it was quite an eye opening experience. But nowadays we have a lot more female drivers and I’m proud to have been one of the early ones who helped make that cultural shift.
After that I trained for a level 3 in playwork and worked in an afterschool club for 18 months before joining a CVS where I worked as a communications officer for 5 years.

It was from this job that, due to a change in government and cuts to charitable funding, I sadly got made redundant [insert ‘aaahhhhs’ from the audience, following a bit of prompting and a sad face from me].

I’d had two ambitions when I was younger.
First of all, when I was 9, I told my teacher that my ambition was to be an author… Like Jackie Collins.

Has anyone read any Jackie Collins books? [several enthusiastic responses from the audience] oh right, quite a few of you. Now I haven’t actually read any Jackie Collins books but it’s my understanding that she was the queen of the bonkbuster. Is that right? [more enthusiatic nodding]

Oh right, well then, I can only imagine the reaction that got in the staff room later that day.

Interestingly though, in 2014 I did write a novel. And it did get published. And it was a bit of a bonk buster too, so I achieved that particular ambition, quite literally.

My second ambition, when I was a teenager, was to own my own business, specifically a record company, which explains my years in the music industry. But I think both ambitions show that from an early age I knew I wanted to be self employed.

So there I was, facing redundancy, and I decided this was the time to go for it and start my own business. I decided that in this period of economic uncertainty with massive cuts to third sector funding that this was the perfect time to start a social enterprise.

But eight years later, it’s still going, so I guess I’m doing some thing right.

I registered my company on 26th August 2010 as Geni-i Creations Ltd.
Would anyone like to guess what Geni-i creations was set up to do? [tumbleweed…] no, of course not, it was a silly name, it meant nothing and it gave no clue as to what the service was that I was offering.
I started Geni-i creations as a Web design company, offering affordable websites to third sector businesses.

Before I left, my manager had told me about some funding I could apply for and asked if I’d consider teaching. I said “oh God, no. I couldn’t teach, no way, because that would mean standing up in front of a room full of people and talking, and that is my worst nightmare.” [some encouraging smiles from the front row and a murmer of laughter]

My boss encouraged me to go on a teacher training course, and part of the course involved a micro teach, where I had to deliver a 20 minute class to the rest of my group. Now I was really nervous about this and I had no idea what to do. My intention had been to teach clients to manage their own websites. But I couldn’t very well do that for a whole class with no equipment. My tutor said that it didn’t matter too much what I did for the microteach as it was just to demonstrate that I’d learned the principles and suggested I choose a hobby I enjoyed. I’d always loved silk painting so I bought some workshop supplies, planned how to demonstrate different methods and roped in a few mates for a trial run.

My tutor feedback was great, she said she hoped I would go on and do the certificate or diploma because I was a natural.

So emboldened by this new turn of events I applied for that funding and I ran 2 successful silk painting courses in a local community centre.

One day I was on a networking course and as we all introduced ourselves, I listened to everyone say things like ‘I’m Jim from 123 finance and we provide book keeping services’ and when it was my turn, I said ‘I’m Helen from Geni-i creations and I make websites and run art classes. And I heard it. I felt the confusion in the room. I realised that no one wants to buy a service from someone who does a bit of everything.

I made the decision to stick with digital and changed the company name to Sandbox Digital. A good techy name with digital in the title. And my client list grew steadily.

But it wasn’t very social enterprisey.

Then I met Chris. Chris had also been working in the voluntary sector, and Chris had also been made redundant. And Chris also decided to go self employed making websites for charities. GRRRR!! [laughter – from Chris too, thankfully]

We found ourselves with a mutual client, I was making the website and he was making an app which needed to be embedded in the website. We got together to discuss how that would happen. I mean, we both knew how that would happen so it took us all of 2 minutes to discuss and agree a solution, and while we finished our coffee, we got chatting. Chris said he wanted to get kids more interested in technology, which evolved into an idea for a tech club for nerdy kids who don’t fit in at other clubs. And so Little Sandbox was born.

But we were a bit ahead of our time, no one else got it. We wrote so many grant applications to get this started and got rejection after rejection. Finally just as we’d reached our limit, BBC Children in Need came through for us and we opened our doors on Saturday 5th September 2015. Over that year we had 22 kids come through our door – a 50/50 split of girls and boys – and we watched shy, socially anxious kids, grow in confidence and make friends.

At the end of the year, parents asked us to keep it going, describing how much the club had helped their kids. I explained that we had no more funding: “well charge us, we’re happy to pay, just keep it going.”

And so we did. And our membership grew. That strange thing where, when something is free people don’t value it, but as soon as we started charging we doubled our membership.

Initially we thought we were adressing a skills shortage in tech but actually, we were creating a social environment for kids who don’t like being in social groups. We noticed we were having a particular impact on kids with ASD who were thriving in this environment where the common ground wasn’t a condition but an interest in computers, robots, video games, just nerdy stuff.

We have created a really welcoming environment where kids can find their people and feel a sense of belonging. And we’ve created something that, I’m so proud of, I’m even prepared to stand up in front of a room full of people and talk about it.

Thanks for listening.

The importance of finding your people.

The importance of finding your people.

We all have people we’re close to. Siblings, cousins, friends. We might have friends we’ve known for so long they’ve become family. But despite the close connection we might not necessarily have much in common in terms of hobbies and interests.

I love my sister and my niece with all my heart, they’re among my favourite people to socialise with. But I don’t understand their love of reality TV. And I’m fairly sure they look at my  lounge walls covered in Spider-Man comics with a bemusement bordering on horror.

When I was a kid I didn’t really fit in at school. I had little in common with my class mates, and spent most of my break times alone reading a book. It’s only recently that I’ve realised I made the choice to be alone, because I wasn’t interested in my classmates. On the occasions I tried to fit in, I felt uncomfortable and didn’t enjoy taking part in their games and activities.

But I was lonely. And I grew up believing I was weird, stupid and unlikeable. And that stayed with me into adulthood.

For kids like me, university is the first place you find yourself surrounded by people who share your interests. But that’s a long time to have to wait to find your people.

When I started Little Sandbox, it was to provide an environment for nerdy kids to gather and learn and have the freedom to pursue their interests. It was as much about the social aspect as it was about education.

And the feedback we get from kids and parents always includes references to confidence, feeling safe, belonging, and making friends.

Kids need places they can be themselves, where they can do stuff they love with people who understand them. Where they don’t feel judged. Where they can be proud of who they are and what they’re doing.

And so do adults. I’m quite socially anxious. I hate going in to places I’ve never been. I hate meeting new people. I don’t even like making phone calls. And it occurred to me that I’m probably not the only adult that feels this way. So I thought maybe there’s room for a Big Sandbox. A tech club for adults.

And then I discovered makerspaces.

Against all my usual instincts (and after months of putting it off ) I eventually went along to a Maker nights at DoES Liverpool. I didn’t make anything, I just wanted to see what went on there.

And what I found was my people.

I’ve been back a few times, sometimes I make stuff but mostly I just go to hang out. I like being around people that make stuff, I like talking about tech and just feeling like I’m around people that get me.

So that’s why at Little Sandbox we’re developing a makerspace in Norris Green Library – to grow the makerspace community so more adults like me, can find their people.