Leicester Co-operative & Social Enterprise Development Agency's 30th Birthday

Last night Leicester Co-operative & Social Enterprise Development Agency celebrated it's 30th Birthday.  When I worked there, in the early 90s, it was one of nearly a hundred 'CDAs' – Co-op Development Agencies – across the UK.  The fact that it has survived when so many others haven't was reason enough to celebrate – and although there are many better reasons – all the people and enterprises it has helped over the years for example – I found myself thinking first about this simple fact of its survival.

Leicester CDA was always extraordinary.  When I joined at the start of the 90s it was already well known for 'the Leicester Model Rules' and other innovations.  Its first cohort of development workers – the likes of Andrew Bibby, Paul Gosling and Mick Taylor – were already established as leading experts in the social enterprise world, or beyond it as writers, journalists, etc.  It had set out on one of the earliest municipal bus company buy-outs – Leicester CityBus – a process which later formed the basis of my own first book on transformations to social enterprise, Turnarounds – and threw up one of the balls I have kept in the air ever since.

But looking back on it now, I don't think it was the ambition or bold new thinking that laid the foundation for Leicester's success.  It was a much more subtle weaving of co-operative and community strands – some of them only viable perhaps in a place like Leicester with it's vibrant ethnic mix, city and shire in tension, and 'mittelstand' micro-economic-climate.  The Leicester CDA I joined was in love with communities and their varieties.  It liked the radical black groups in the city; it liked the middle-class women redefining themselves out in the 'shire'; it liked the working-class heroes fighting to save their trades and livelihoods; it liked the 'radical roots' alternative lifestylers; it liked the community artists, the geeks, the vegans, the youths, the activists and social experimenters.

Last night, it was the continuing weaving together these community threads that came across most strongly, and for me this was best represented in the person of Leicester's chief executive, Dorothy Francis.  I have only a passing knowledge of what has happened to Leicester over the nearly-20-years since I left (to live in remote corners of the far north of England and now in Brittany) – but I'm sure it's survival is due in no short measure to Dorothy.  Born in Jamaica, knowing something of the experience of both first and second generation immigrants, the daughter of a car production line worker, but her own person enough to give up her first proper job to go back and study English Literature at University, Dorothy seems to me uniquely able to bridge Leicester's disparate communities, put people at their ease, know where they are coming from.  As she said herself at the start of the 30th Birthday film last night: “We're not one size fits all!”