It was Mark and Ben Metz who were the official co-founders of Shared Assets in December 2011 - after the idea was sparked at PopSE and over a couple of pints in the Duke of Wellington. They gathered together a wonderful founding board. Matt Leach, brought commercial rigour and ambition, Maria Adebowale-Schwarte brought deep thinking and a real ethos of care, and Lorraine Hart brought a pragmatic focus on what communities need combined with a strong sense of the ins and outs of running a small business. Ben became a non-exec director and added his systemic brain and massive ambitions to the team. Mark took up the reins as executive director and started fundraising.
Buoyed by an initial start up grant from Tudor Trust Mark recruited me and we set to work figuring out exactly what this thing called “Shared Assets” was. Our first paid intern (we’ve always paid our interns, by the way), was Andrew Walker whose effective interviewing skills helped us deliver our first real piece of research. Karen Barker then came on board to help finish off this report and scope out our next ones, using her well honed research skills.
Becka Hudson started as an intern and then became our first “comms and admin” person - bringing a real creative energy to a whole range of things, from understanding how social innovations scale to going on a filmmaking course and setting off to all ends of the country making short films and creating a microsite. Isobel Ward brought her calm thoughtfulness and PhD research on “home” into our work on the Limehouse Cut canal.
We started to feel like a real organisation when Tom Kenny joined the team. Initially the four of us shared a miniscule office in Oxford House in Bethnal Green, until we moved into a bigger space in the Turks Head in Wapping. Tom brought rigour and creativity into the team, leading a programme of policy and research work that brought partners together, expanding our networks, and producing a wide range of useful and influential work, particularly on the planning system and how it needs to change. He coined the term “common good land use” and was a driving force in the initial research into and the creation of LandExplorer (which now has a new home at Digital Commons!). Tom played a big role in organising Land for What, and was an important part of the broader land justice movement, contributing to the Land for the Many report.
After Becka left, Rachael Stalker joined us to oversee and coordinate the revamp of our website (always a more complicated job than you think, which she dealt with with commendable patience!). We were then joined by Jasmine Arnould, who put some real style and energy into our comms, and Isabella Coin, whose role quickly shifted into supporting the delivery of the Unlocking Networks project we convened with Social Change Agency for Power to Change. Isa got to grips with network theory and practice really quickly and produced super readable and useful briefings for the network coordinators we were working with.
This brings us to 2017, 5 years into Shared Assets’ life. In my last blog I wrote about the different phases that the organisation has been through and this marks the end of the “accidental mum and dad” phase. Running a small business is in many ways a story of balancing cashflow, and Mark and I had become used to being the people who thought about the finances, and we didn’t want to bother or worry the rest of the team when we had cashflow issues - most of the time something came in to steady the ship. In early 2017, though, we had really limited runway and we knew we had to make someone redundant if we were going to be able to make it through the year. We made the hard decision to let Jasmine go in April, but we (naively?) hadn’t anticipated the shockwaves this would send through the team. About the same time, I’d been telling people that I was pregnant and would be going off on maternity leave in August, and by the time July came around both Tom and Isabella had found new (really great!) jobs. This might have been coincidental, but I went off on maternity leave very curious about how we could create fair ways of sharing more information and responsibility amongst the team, so that we’d never be in the position of surprising the team with our actual financial position again.
We had got a place on the CAN Mezzanine Accelerator programme, so we moved office to Borough, and July and August saw us recruit Hannah Gardiner as our new Head of Consultancy, and Megan Johnson as a projects officer leading on finishing off the Unlocking Networks project. Megan brought some real customer focus and flair to creating resources and getting Unlocking Networks over the line. Hannah stayed with us for over two years, and brought a lot of energy into our consultancy services, developing new markets and services, and really helping get some structure into our internal systems. She combines a pragmatic focus with a deep idealism and I was always impressed by her energy and her ability to connect the dots.
Julian Thompson joined the team at the same time as Hannah and Megan, as a freelancer charged with developing Land Explorer as a product. He put huge energy into improving the usability of the platform, bringing in our new developers CodeOperative and brokering our initial relationship with Solidarity Economy Association which has led to the development of Digital Commons, as well as taking Land Explorer through the UnFound Accelerator.
One of the outcomes of our work with the CAN Accelerator was realising we wanted to create more of an evidence base for change in the land system, and we went out to recruit for a Head of Research. We were super excited to recruit Carys Roberts who brought policy-focussed research and analytical skills and brilliant writing ability. She had the bravery, though, to recognise early that this wasn’t the right job for her, and went back to IPPR (which she now runs, so it was clearly the right choice!).
We went back out to recruit again and brought on Ọlá Ayorinde as a projects officer and Kim Graham as research coordinator (both of whom are sensible enough to have very little internet presence!). Ọlá brought experience of food growing in both the UK and Nigeria, and a deeply thoughtful approach to our work. It was his reflections on who we were working with and thinking about how we could catalyse more of a movement around land as a social justice issue that led to the formation of our movement building function with Ọlá as our first Movement Building Coordinator during the pandemic.
Kim’s first task was delivering the mammoth “state of the common good land use sector” research project, which they grappled with amazingly. Kim has played a lead role in delivering so much Shared Assets research over the past three years; from Fringe Farming to Ruralization, to Reimagining Council Farms. This sparked a whole lot of thoughts about the limitations of traditional research, and now as our Lead Research Coordinator Kim is leading the way in rethinking research as infrastructure for change and actively exploring how we can deliver more of our work through peer researchers. Kim is an extraordinary team member, bringing their sharp analytical skills to bear on the knotty issues we are exploring, while being a great collaborator and partner to the wide range of people they are convening to think about research.
After Hannah moved on to do a masters at CAT, the clouds of the pandemic began to loom. One of the last in-person things we did as a team was interview for a new consultancy coordinator and appoint Tom Carman. Through his roles at Plunkett Foundation, Groundwork and Ethex, Tom was really well versed in the food and farming and agroecology world, and brought energy, enthusiasm, connections and experience into the team. He threw himself into a new sphere - that of parks - with gusto, and has been developing new partnerships and projects as well as approaches to our consultancy services. Tom is always interested in the health of the team and brings real energy and humour into our team meetings.
We gave up our office early on in the pandemic and have been remote ever since. We recruited a new project officer, Louis Smith-Lassey, and given the restrictions, we didn’t meet face to face for around 4 months! Louis coped admirably with joining a fully remote team, and brought his geography, planning and urban design expertise to bear on thinking about how we could rethink our consultancy services in urban areas, as well as learning about co-production on the job. Louis has literally just moved on from Shared Assets to start a new role at CPRE as a land use planning officer.
During the pandemic Ọlá moved to Brazil, and worked remotely from there, convening online conversations, but decided to focus more on his life and growing family there. We then recruited a new Movement Building Coordinator, Christabel Buchanan who has injected focus and energy into our movement building work, holding the justice room space at ORFC and convening a Spring Gathering to explore theories of change for the land justice movement. Christabel has really deep experience of making change in a participatory way and has brought techniques and approaches that have transformed some of our internal practices and helped bring more focus and alignment to our remote team.
We were really pleased to be able to use the government’s Kickstarter grant to bring on two new team members during the pandemic, both of who are now a full part of the team. Our Projects Officer Alanna Hill brings loads of activism and movement experience and always brings playfulness and creativity into group and facilitation settings and deep thinking into the team. Cordelia Hughes is our Comms Officer and a calm clear thinker who has injected some savvy professionalism into our comms while holding movement building spaces and team sessions with real skill. And, last but not least we have just recruited Graciela Romero Vasquez as our new research coordinator - who brings vast research and changemaking experience and will be a fantastic member of the team!
Throughout all of this our board has been strong and supportive. Sylvia Brown provided insight and experience from her years running ACRE and Steve Clare brought valuable experience of community assets from his work at Locality. Our current brilliant board includes Lauren Burnhill who has an amazing international network from her work in social investment globally, Louise Amstrong brings energy, insight and a passion for system change and organisational development, Simon Ruston brings planning expertise and Rob Slinger has a wealth of knowledge and experience of running and advising SMEs.
This depth and diversity of people is only one part of the ecosystem of people and organisations working to change the land system. We’ve also worked with a wonderful range of partners, associates, clients and collaborators, making up a vibrant tapestry of land users, stewards, thinkers and owners, all working for change.
Part of my role on the board of Shared Assets will be to explore what blurring the boundaries of the organisation might look like, and how we can grow the energy and impact of Shared Assets without just growing the team in numbers. I’m so excited to see how this web of people and connections evolves and strengthens over the next 10 years!