Pembroke House: a new phase?


Ash Barmes shares her experience volunteering with Pembroke House over the Summer and looks forward at how our partnership can grow.

Arriving at Pembroke College in 2018, I was amazed by the incredible links and resources the college possesses, and to find out that a group of Pembroke students had set up a settlement in a deprived area of South London in 1885. That this same charitable centre for social action is still functioning and bearing the name of the college, was even more of a shock. For someone who has long been interested in volunteering with a direct impact, this connection seemed a golden opportunity, yet one that was seldom spoken about – particularly for a confused and overwhelmed fresher.

As a history student, I was intrigued by the legacy of settlements like Pembroke House in both the UK and America and their eventual influence on the creation of the modern welfare state. These were places where university-educated men and women would take up residence in a disadvantaged community and open their ‘settlement house’ as a public space for social and educational activities. This novel approach to combatting large-scale social inequalities – direct action in a localised area – has had a significant impact on this country and how welfare is talked about. To that end, the work of Pembroke House today is still so necessary to promoting a more empathetic society.

Cambridge’s long history with elitism and structures of privilege makes both the past and present engagement of students in social projects an instrumental way of using our available resources proactively to promote affirmative change. Pembroke House is an organisation that makes the prospect of ‘creating change’ tangible, as stark disparities are tackled in a personal and informal manner. Projects such as an accessible music academy, inclusive dance, a mental wellbeing hub and community garden, all place individual wellbeing and access to services at the fore. In doing so, they give residents a higher quality of life and, in the context of large-scale regeneration of London communities, areas of already acute inequality like Walworth depend on these services.

My experience as a summer intern at Pembroke House was overwhelmingly positive; the work I undertook was challenging, rewarding and had a direct impact on the future of the organisation. Through working in communications and project delivery, I had experiences both of behind-the-scenes promotion for Pembroke House and direct interaction with residents; this allowed me to see the immediate positive effects of these projects, as well as the work that goes into creating and sustaining the necessary frameworks. When I think of my time at Pembroke House, I am struck by the lovely moments of community: such as when I gave a taster course in seated tap dancing to a group of senior residents. Even those who didn’t move their feet danced around in their seats, and I was thanked by a grandmother for helping her keep up with her six-year-old, tap-dancing grandson: one of many wonderful memories.

During my week volunteering, I was introduced to a dedicated and passionate team who welcomed and supported me in every way possible, as well as a tight-knit community who cherish each other’s company, and it was an experience I would highly recommend. Yet in my communications role (which involved drafting letters, website updates and even my own leaflet) I found the advertisement of Pembroke House and its opportunities to students significantly lacking. Many of my friends became very interested in the work I was doing when I explained it to them, but had never heard of Pembroke House before, and I only made it to the information evening in Lent term because of a well-timed Facebook event popping up on my feed that evening. I decided to focus on how to inform students and make this experience more accessible, both to honour our historical connection and make use of the incredible work opportunities that are still reserved for Pembroke students.

If we do want to keep this relationship with Pembroke House alive, we need to reimagine our engagement. The Pembroke House Student Society has only existed for a year, and as such we have an opportunity to fashion it into a wonderful tool. By expanding the student society, we can begin to run more frequent events to bring the college and Pembroke House together, and give students a more functional line of communication so they can get involved. It is fair to say that creating a flyer and throwing it in people’s pidges is not a lasting solution, but my initial hope is for more transparency and awareness. If we show people that we can all have a stake in Pembroke House and support a worthwhile and important organisation, I believe that we can rejuvenate an exciting connection – one that I will certainly cherish.

Pembroke House is a charity, founded in 1885 by Pembroke Students. Today it remains a centre for social action in the heart of South London, committed to improving levels of wellbeing and access to education and opportunities. Here are some ways you can get involved:  Organising and running events at College that explore social inequality and spread the word  ‘Out of the bubble’ visits to Pembroke House to volunteer on one of their projects  Other remote volunteering opportunities, by bespoke arrangement with Pembroke House Pembroke House also offers Pembroke College students the opportunity to gain first-hand experience working in the charity sector through a range of different internship positions. Sign up to Pembroke House’s mailing list through Ash Barmes (ab2549) or Molly Workman (mmmw2) and like their Facebook page to find out more. @PembrokeHouseStudentSociety