12 Things I Learned From the West Kent Federation Meeting

On 23rd March I had the opportunity to attend our WI Federation’s Annual Council Meeting. Over the past 16 months as a Wells Angel, I’ve become increasingly intrigued about the greater workings of the Women’s Institute, and how we can come together to make it more accessible for women of all ages.

So, it was with an opened mind that I rocked up to the Assembly Hall Theatre, my arms full of generously donated sanitary products and my Wells Angels badge pinned proudly on my collar, with the lovely Laura from South Tonbridge WI as my companion. The first thing that I noticed, which wasn’t a surprise, was that I was one of the youngest women there by a long shot. I would hazard a guess that the large majority were beyond retirement age, and while many seemed to be well aware of one another, there were some that stood out to make a particular effort with us.

We joked with one of the longer-established WIs that their lack of new interest was caused by their current members’ adamance to sing Jerusalem at every meeting, but we couldn’t help questioning whether there was more to it than that. It definitely felt like things were targeted at an older audience, and who could blame them when almost all of the attendees were 60+, but it left me questioning the action they’re taking to bring youth into the WI and ensure it stays the course to reach its second centenary.

After a little nosy around the craft stalls (which were not offered to WI members with their own businesses, we checked) and some brief introductions with members from other WIs in our Federation, we settled in for the meeting itself. Here are 12 things I learned…

  1. The official name for our Federation is ‘Kent - West Kent Federation of WIs’.

  2. We’re the 4th largest WI Federation, with almost 8,000 members.

  3. The Federation really wants our input, and it’s important that we give it. In the coming months we’ll be asked to fill out a questionnaire which is our opportunity to help shape a WI that works for us.

  4. Last year our Federation ended up with a surplus of £25,000, and they’ve been advised to spend more. They also used some of this money to create bursaries for Denman.

  5. The WI really loves Denman!

  6. The ‘Save Denman’ appeal raised £280,000 in its first year, which leaves a long way to go to reach its 2-year target of £2,000,000.

  7. Anyone can apply for bursaries which provide financial support to attend courses at Denman, but they weren’t clear on how or where you apply.

  8. The money raised from the sale of national raffle tickets (or some of it at least) was distributed between the Federations. Our Federation chose to use this money to fund additional bursaries for Denman.

  9. Our Federation is in desperate need of WI Advisors. They currently have only a handful advising all 180+ WIs, and encourage anyone who may be interested to apply.

  10. There is also a need for Committee and Trustee members, who can request to sit in on a Committee meeting to see what it’s like and if they would like to get involved.

  11. 2018 is the Kent - West Kent Federation’s Centenary. It will be celebrated with an exhibition at Maidstone Museum, a performing arts show in Sidcup, a garden party in Hawkhurst, an arts and crafts day in Aylesford and a Country Show at Sevenoaks Prep School.

  12. The West Kent Federation has partnered with Kent Voluntary Services Emergency Group to train volunteers who can provide ‘tea and sympathy’ to people displaced from their homes in incidents like floods and fires. Anyone can apply to be a KVSEG volunteer, and will receive training that would also benefit their personal development.

There was a lot of official business, an interesting performance from a local acapella group and talks from Sarah Rogers of Riverhill Himalayan Gardens (which look well worth a stroll) and Dr Helen Sharman, whose account of life as the first British and the first female astronaut was certainly eye-opening.

All in all, I had a good day, and while at times it feels somewhat outdated, I think the Women’s Institute has all the possibility to provide a space of community, championship and opportunity for women long into the future, we just have to help steer it in the right direction.