'Mass participation is mass enjoyment': the Selby Centre in Tottenham, by Sona Mahtani

Sona Mahtani

Sona Mahtani

Sona Mahtani writes about the Selby Centre, a living example of our proposition, 'Mass participation is better than centralised power'.

We know instinctively that there is a better way to organise society, and occasionally come across examples that really reflect that in practice. For me, The Selby Centre is such an example, with its motto of ‘Many Cultures, One Community’. A multi-purpose community centre set in dowdy 1960s school buildings. Peel back the onion, you’ll find it is a dynamic social action hub run by The Selby Trust, a registered charity. It generates  £1 million annually, covers our main bills, including salaries for 20 local staff from earned income.

We reach over 173,000 people annually and attracted 797 volunteers from 28 firms in 2017. Open 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, the Centre brings in 130+ community groups, charities, sports clubs, community businesses, faith groups, employment support agencies, learning providers and skills agencies. Most are community led, by people often from the same diverse communities they seek to support. Norwegian, Japanese, German, Urdu, Somali, Arabic, Twi, Caribbean Patois, Malayalam and English speakers feel welcome at our reception desk, reflecting a long history of open arms to refugees and migrants in Tottenham.

Over thirty years, the Centre’s tenants, often small grassroots groups, have collectively raised over £35 million, spent primarily, on improving local lives and standards. Under one roof, there is capacity and key community services in health, well-being, youth, learning and employment. This represents an accumulated community investment in the local Tottenham area and its residents.

‘A wedding banqueting hall, an Olympic sized boxing ring, the Ding Dong play bus, a global garden..’

Enter one set of double doors to get married in a salubrious wedding banqueting hall, before going into a boxing club with an Olympic sized ring. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself on the Ding Dong play bus in a children’s party or a strategic away day in our global garden or going upstairs to learn a skill or fifty. It feels more strategic, more impactful and energising somehow which only comes from being where it really matters – on the ground, working with people and finding that they hold the answers to all those wicked problems. And boy is the food good!

For me, Selby has been the gift that has never really stopped giving, finding me love, endless amusement and satisfaction in all sorts of ways. This long arc started with me offering to work on an HIV and AIDS project promoting safe sex messages to young people in a cartoon project that involved us rampantly sexually active youngsters leading and shaping the project from beginning to end. After 18 months, my boss phoned the Head of HIV and AIDS work, and insisted he give ‘this young girl’ a reference. This guy’s reputation as a referee got me the interview at London Lighthouse and the rest is history.

I've been lucky to find work that has fed and stretched my brain, changed my personality. I’ve seen the same happen to many people - literally thousands of lives transformed amongst North London’s residents over a 30-year history. Not like a sausage machine, but by creating a platform for community organisers to come together, community organisations and networks to form, finding people jobs and opportunities, sharing cultures, languages, skills that strengthen all our hands in surviving and becoming an established part of British society.

The Selby Centre is a focal point of devolved or distributed power, tucked away on a council estate. It is also the  third largest concentration of employment in Tottenham, collectively employing over 200 staff in an area lacking in big business and well-known for a high concentration of small businesses, apart from one very famous football club and our local Council.

Mass participation is about mass enjoyment. Mohamed, one of our community organisers, a young Somali father of four, said in one of those ‘theory of change’, sessions, to the amusement of his colleagues, that ‘coming to work did not feel like work!’ Pure heresy! How did we manage to instigate joy in one of the country’s most deprived areas – Tottenham?! We’re not in Finland you know – where there’s childcare support, help for the young, the old and new parents, benefits systems that work and housing? Erm.... that’s what we do have here.

The Centre - which dates back to 1996 - was made possible by a community committed to diversity and a local authority that provided the building and support. It’s founded on a belief that people can do a lot themselves and the Centre frees people to find jobs, get advice, learn new skills and put back into society and the state’s coffers locally and nationally. It’s a living demonstration that mass participation – or community development as we call it - is better than centralised power.

‘The simple act of bringing people together unleashes creativity, opportunity and energy people create themselves’

Creating these informal havens in a largely unforgiving city by the simple act of bringing people together unleashes creativity, opportunity and energy people create themselves. It’s the answer, let’s do more of it and build better facilities to do it in that give credit to our communities and our work.


Sona Mahtani is the Chief Executive of The Selby Trust following a period as a consultant, network manager and project manager. Her career in the voluntary sector spans 30 years has involved working in sectors such as homelessness, HIV and AIDs support, capacity building in area regeneration, and community asset management.