For Jay, from the alternative community hub Commonground Bray, community engagement is at the heart of everything he does. It just comes naturally. Of course he’s working with a group of changemakers to build a community centre in Bray. Of course he’s involved in the Edible Bray initiative. Of course he also gives a meditation class in the local community on top of his job and he constantly thinks about how to get more young people interested in contributing to local issues.
Being an artist, his professional work connects Jay just as much with the community as his voluntary work. If you’ve been at the Dart station in Bray in the last few years, you’ve probably seen one of the works Jay has been involved in, mosaics illustrating life in Bray in different decades. A work he did together with John Carter. He is currently working on another mosaic to brighten up the facade of a local school.
Luckily, Jay’s workshop happens to be in the same building as the Commonground Headquarters.
Every week the core members of the group come together to make new plans for the community.
We all had one interest in common: We felt that people were disconnected and that there was some kind of a meeting point missing in Bray for thinking progressively about change in our community. That’s where it all started. We wanted to create an inclusive and open environment where people can come together and where everyone can put on activities and events, that encourages the community to form!
They found that place with an open door in the Beverley Studios, where most of the Commonground activities now take place. Jay believes that every town has an available space like this, which would allow people to do something similar in other parts of the country. They’re not always easy to find, but they’re out there!
Bray is the perfect place for this kind of community initiative. It is the right size. It’s not too difficult to build a strong network, as it’s not too big, the logistics of the town helped us.
What unites the Commonground team is their interest in promoting a “co-operative and ecological lifestyle” as you can read on their website. So their first project was a foodmarket, one that supports their values and lifestyle priorities. It’s open to all members of Commonground. Members pay a small fee to make it possible and to benefit from the different community offerings for free or reduced prices.
“We want to support healthy lifestyles and stand for certain ethics of where to get your food. The Irish Independent Health Food catalogue gives you access to 15, 000 items and we are the connection to it in Bray. We make sure that we take enough orders from our members – you have to order 500 Euro worth of goods every month. 30 people order food through us now.”
The foodmarket is the day when everyone collects their orders and you can find a small range of offerings from local suppliers dedicated to organic food. It’s also the monthly get together for all the members of Commonground. Everyone collects in the one open room with a small kitchen. People here make sure you don’t leave without having a cup of tea and getting to meet some other people from the community.
What I really enjoy is the connection you can see amongst people, the conversations, the sharing. People are very keen to share their skills and life experience. What’s most satisfying to me is if someone comes up to me and says: It’s so great to have this space. That’s really moving and good for us to see that someone got that out of Commonground just by being a member.
Just like Jay, the rest of the ‘gang’ at Commonground seem to live and breathe for change. Each of the 12 members of the core team talk enthusiastically about their initiative and each of them brings to the table what they love most. There is never a lack of ideas. Kristin takes care of the Community garden, Jenny organises events and gives workshops in sustainability for communities, Niall organises the monthly ordering from Irish Health Foods Ltd, Annie does the bookings for the events, Aisling helps organising the events, Philip did most of the refurbishment of the house and Ciara, Jay’s wife, helps with PR and photography.
We are a ground up organisation. Rather anarchical than hirarchical but in a non-chaotic sense. It’s just all member-driven. The core group meets once a week just to facilitate all of that.
Everything they do is based on an initiative of one of their 160 members. Anyone can use the rooms for a small fee to provide their own workshops for low rates. There is one big room on the first floor for Yoga classes, meditation, Tai Chi, Feldenkreis, dancing and anything that you’d like to do that fits in with the overall ethos. In the basement, there is room for a small maker space, but it still needs some work and today it stores the food orders of the members. Everything in the house has been restored by volunteers.
It all needs to stay in the hands of the community. That’s part of the philosophy of Commonground also when it comes to finances.
We want to stay unaffiliated. Any costs are covered through membership and events. That way we can make our own decisions without an agenda. Our independence is fundamental to us, it’s crucial to the whole idea. We’ve even turned down offers of funding because it would have meant changing the way we do things.
One of the bigger projectes of Commonground is based a short car drive away from the headquarters at the Bray Recycling Centre. Here, in the middle of nowhere, the community hub is cultivating a community garden. Kristin and Hugh are in charge of the place at the edge of the car park. They come here regularly to take care of the plants and chat to people passing by about growing food.
It all needs some level of organisation, but we don’t want to become too rigid. Sara Fontannaz-Brady, who was the main driver at the beginning of Commonground and who passed away only a few months ago used to say: ‘Let’s keep it wild’ every time we were tempted to complicate things and to put more structure on things. We made it our motto: Keeping it wild!
They honour Sara with a new sign at the entrance of the house and of course by keeping her idea alive in the community of Bray with an exceptional level of engagement. The next big project they are working on together with the Tidy Towns Committee is called “Edible Bray”, an urban garden that goes through the whole town. Some of the group travelled to Todmorden in England where they got the inspiration for the idea.
I believe that in order to be a fully rounded person it’s important to connect with the community. It’s part of the good life to engage with other people. That idea is very important to all of us. I feel, if more people are willing to give some of their time we can make our towns and cities much nicer places to be in; where we feel connected and create real networks amongst people. We live in a society where we see ourselves more as consumer units than as members of a community or society. We want to change that with Commonground.
We found Jay’s story and the work of Commonground Bray really inspiring and would love to hear more stories like this. Do you know of initiatives like this in your local area or maybe you’d be interested in starting something similar?