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Paul Brand joins a crew of creatives finding local solutions to local problems

Hands up if you’re one of those who scoffed at David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea…?

That’d be pretty much everyone then. Now, your cynicism might have stemmed from party political allegiances. Perhaps it was a distrust of the entire political machine. It might simply have been due to the crap moniker. But if it’s because you genuinely don’t believe in helping communities or giving your time for free then you might want to stop reading, because GFN (the customary shorthand for Good for Nothing, a group who are anything but ‘good-for-nothings’!) is definitely not for you.

Though we scoffed, nearly a decade on, it’s become ever clearer that if you want something done, there’s no point relying on the official channels of governance. Communities are taking back control and driving things forward. GFN – in stark contrast to our paralysed parliament – are doers, intent on making a real difference.

It is a lamentable truth that everyone wants things to be better but few are prepared to actually do anything about it. How often do you hear residents belittling Chester, whether it’s in a snatched conversation at the bus exchange or the dark recesses of the Cheshire Live online comments? It’s this unproductive moaning that GFN offers an invigorating antidote to. As an integral part of the #makechester movement, they are not afraid to shout about the potential of our fair city and, even more importantly, are willing to roll up their sleeves to help fulfil that potential.

They arrange “hacks” – high-energy gatherings in which members puzzle, probe, collaborate and create to provide solutions to specific asks. Their latest hack occurred on Saturday 11th May. Following a briefing at The Ship Inn the night before, twenty-five GFNers met bright and early at Industry, Chester’s amazing coworking hub in Handbridge, that had generously lent them the space to do their stuff. Their task: to assess how they could communicate with and support young people aged 13-15 to understand and access the career paths available to them within culture, heritage and creative organisations across the city. The creative genesis for this event was Uná Meehan, Senior Lecturer and Lead in Creative Learning at the University of Chester, who is preparing to launch a programme that provides less privileged children with an entry-point to arts and heritage careers. One of the messages she wishes to convey is that there’s no need for youthful talent to hotfoot it to London; Chester has its own rich tapestry that they can weave in and add texture to.

Again, GFN provides an excellent case in point. Representing a veritable cross-section of society, the band of creative types assembled at Industry were unified primarily by their desire to make a difference to the city they love. Coming from as far afield as New Zealand, it was notable how few were Cestrian born and bred, perhaps supporting the supposition that those who choose to make Chester their home are more heavily invested in the area than natives who have become a bit blasé about the walls, the Rows, the Roodee and everything else that makes Chester unique.

The migrants include GFN Chester co-leads Holly Ffi (Nelson) (above -far right), originally from Aberystwyth, and Rhiannon Bevan (above – far left), who relocated from London two weeks after performing at the Olympic Closing Ceremony, as you do.

So, where did it all begin? Good for Nothing was the brainchild of Dan Burgess, Tom Farrand and Tom Rowley, born in 2010, ironically at the same time that Cameron was espousing his own ‘Big Society’ concept. The idea was simple: to bring creative energy, ideas and skills to those already innovating on social issues. The network grew rapidly and evolved into regional chapters, an appellation that gives some indication of the venture’s missionary zeal. There are now chapters in Brighton, Brisbane, Colchester, Cape Town, Nottingham, New York, Sao Paulo, Singapore and Stockholm, to name but a few.

It made its way to Chester care of Alice Rose Elliott, when she absconded from the capital and brought her formative GFN experiences and experimental itch with her. She and Holly collaborated, and together they spent a number of years building GFN Chester with a core of like-minded folks (Alice then co-founded Murmurations, a comparable crusade to ignite the creative and cultural industries in and around Chester). Rhiannon came on board with Holly after finding GFN through a friend, which seems to be a common theme; as one member commented, “I feel like I’ve found my tribe.”

Impressively, Chester boasts the world’s most active GFN chapter. With more than 400 members, it has also become one of the city’s prime mover and shakers. When CWaC wanted ideas on the use and design of the new market in Northgate Phase One, it was GFN they reached out to. It was also a driving force behind the SuperTrees urban biodiversity scheme being installed on the Hoole Way roundabout, led by passionate and committed GFNer Steve Hughes.

Chester is sometimes accused of looking towards the past but we can also be trailblazers, as in becoming the world’s first sustainable palm oil city and being awarded Plastic Free Community status. Even with divisive issues such as Dee House and the amphitheatre, GFN are busy building bridges, inviting Andy Foster (chair of the Dee House Working Group) to give an update on that building’s wellbeing and the prospective plans for the site at a recent social. The philosophy is to accelerate positive change, planting a bright future whilst embracing our heritage.

Which brings us back to the Creative Careers – Inspiring Young People hack… after an intense day of brainstorming, our skilled philanthropists had generated app interfaces, promo videos and countless other imaginative gems that made a humble writer feel creatively deficient. Still, could have been worse: Uná was so overwhelmed by the ideas presented back to her that she broke down in tears (and I fear something else may get broken for my having revealed that fact)!

In fine GFN-tradition, success was celebrated and equanimity restored with drinks at Alexander’s, where Street Level 2019 was taking place, as flagged up at the last GFN social on reclaiming spaces with art. And the next stop after that? The great unknown.

By the next GFN event, it’s possible that there will be branded clothing to designate tribe membership and to spread the word by the medium of fashion; Holly and Rhiannon are now product-testing designs and sourcing local suppliers. Plans are also afoot for GFNx – an off-shoot empowering the young people of Chester to create a city in their image.

With so much to shout about, what are they proudest of? There’s a moment of deliberation before Rhiannon shoots back an answer, hinting at their plans for GFNx, and encapsulating GFN’s forward-thinking ethos: ‘It’s not happened yet.’

Find out more about GFN Chester and join in here.