Whenever you pick up the latest news, however you access it, we are hit by the amount of ‘civic’ or social action that is happening all around us. In recent weeks the newspapers have published a letter authored by professional footballer Raheem Sterling demanding greater representation of black players in senior management positions in football and at the weekend thousands of people lined the streets demanding for action on climate changes. These actions are bringing thousands of people who haven’t previously been involved in citizen action to the fore.
Despite this rise in civic action we are seeing about big national or global issues the local is still somewhat overlooked. In Hartlepool, twice as many people voted in the national elections rather than locals. According to Sacha Bedding, Manager at the Wharton Trust Community Centre and polling station in Dyke House in Hartlepool, the EU referendum brought about people voting who had never voted before. He contended that it was the agenda of taking back control that resonated with people who had no control in their lives but the failure to deliver on the results of the referendum has left people feeling a further disillusionment with politicians and politics. Therefore, when asked did he envisage heightened turnout in local elections he responded simply with, ‘very unlikely’.
Although there has been increasing interest in the national, it is still local issues that dominate many of the conversations that people are having every day in our communities. Conversations concerning the state of our streets, access to and the quality of green spaces or even the availability of public or community spaces. Whilst these local issues are influenced by the national, it is still at the local level that the capacity to tackle these issues remains. So why is it that people feel disillusioned to act on what matters to them locally but will participate in the national debate?
Whilst I do not purport to hold the answers or indeed the reasons for this, from the conversations that I have had with local people from communities up and down England I can suggest some of the reasons why this breakdown at a local level exists:
· People’s first hand experience of the state is that of fear of something being taken away - we are regularly hearing stories of people feeling like if they ‘put their heads above the parapet’ they may be sanctioned, putting their income in jeopardy.
· National narratives distract from the local – when voting on national issues the prevailing narratives seemingly dominate the discourse, distracting from the local.
· Acting locally creates a fear of it being personal – people feel acting locally could put themselves, or others at risk, or even in danger. We have heard stories of people not wanting to challenge local issues through fear of being condemned by others or threat of retaliation.
Interestingly, alongside this there is an increasing desire from public sector agencies to re-engage at a local level. Citizen participation in decision making and the delivery of services is becoming more prevalent, but, at the same time we are hearing that trust in public services and elected officials is at a low point.
This desire from the public sector, alongside lack of trust in local organisations institutions and agencies, presents a challenge to those wishing to engage citizens in decision making, as people are not prepared to engage in the conversation. Therefore, before we start to think about how we shift or even share power with those in communities who are ‘power-less’, we need to think about how we invest the time and resources to build the capacity of people so that they are both willing and are prepared to engage.
To address this challenge we are seeing a wider movement - including organisations such as Lankelly Chase Foundation, the New Economics Foundation and Locality - that are seeking to bring about changes in the system so that people are more able to participate and those with power in the system see the need for it to be shared, as well as shifted. Community Organisers sees itself as part of this movement but is seeking to encourage those people most seldom heard and in those left behind communities to be ready to be heard.
In the community organising world, we are starting to see how investing this time in listening, building relationships and encouraging people to come together on local issues is rekindling the trust between people and the institutions and organisation that seek to serve them. Through taking action and rekindling trust people start to believe in their own ability to make change.
In Lambeth recently, a conversation led by the community organising work at High Trees Community Development Trust was convened to explore school exclusions in Lambeth, including local people and a wide range of organisations including the GLA. This issue emerged from the local conversations that people were having and was made possible by people starting to realise their own ability to effect change.
Also, a group of mums from Birkenhead were supported to visit the enquiry by the House of Lords into Holiday Hunger. This visit, including mums and young people, was made possible by the work of North Birkhenhead Development Trust who through their Community Organiser encouraged the mums to think about how they could act on an issue that deeply affected them and the wider community. In response to this visit, one of the mums reported after the visit, ‘I feel 6ft tall, no one that important has ever listened to me before.’
In Gloucester, local young people have come together to work with the council to bring a new skate park into the town.
These stories of action are starting to demonstrate how trust is being built through the effective sharing and shifting of power between people and organisations. But its clear it can only be achieved by starting small, starting where people are and for people to realise for themselves their own ability to effect change.
Nick Gardham is the CEO of Community Organisers.