Last week I attended the State of Us conference at the filigree, glass, dome, bomb proof concrete and brick wonder that is the Devonport Market Hall. The event promised to explore economic democracy and how to build powerful communities.
If there was ever a symbol of government and power and a transition to the community, the Market Hall is it. Once locked away behind the mighty - but divisive - naval dockyard wall, the building found itself on the ‘inside’ of Ministry of Defence territory, far from the prying eyes of Russian Cold War spies. But, as a consequence this once loud community centre of barter and trade was also removed from public scrutiny and transparency. The building had been languishing as a paint store and, once the wall came down, it was finally left, semi-derelict, to the pigeons and the elements.
Real Ideas has done an amazing job repurposing and refurbishing most of the building. Parts are still in need of development – notably the once magnificent clock tower. The building now houses one of the largest immersive 3D domes in the world.
It was with that context the conference kicked off. First up was an exploration of a hierarchy or pyramid of community empowerment. From inclusion through participation and agency and ultimately to power. A point was made that our job, as social enterprises and community-led organizations is to raise people up this pyramid. I found this an interesting concept and started wondering if there are ‘forces’ trying to push people back down the pathway. Is there a mysterious ‘system’ that crushes communities and keeps people in their atomised, Netflixized, isolated places? And, if so, where, who and what is this system, and more importantly what do we do about it?
The event explored how we can trust people with more power over their own destinies. Talks explored how self-organizing, government rejecting, quasi-anarchism can lead to people feeling more in control and have a sense of purpose in their own spaces and places. One quote I heard during the day was that “A real humanist can be identified by trust in people.”
One thing I think did need more clarity was the concept of the ‘system’ being a problem. So yes, there are ‘systemic’ root causes to the enduring poverty, crime and environmental crises we face. Yet too often there are generalised and woolly attacks on a broad idea of the ‘system’ as a problem.
I think we need to be laser focussed in rooting these causes out. One example was around unfair school exclusions in Hartlepool. Community activists have been razor sharp on challenging multi-academy trusts on this – even threatening or using judicial review to question decisions made that have a hugely damaging effect on the life chances of people in the town. That seems a great example of challenging power, a system and so called ‘authority’, particularly around the lack of accountability evident in some educational institutions.
I came away thinking that we really need to understand what we want to fundamentally change and be radical and clear about what we want instead. A simple - seemingly childish but actually quite effective - question to ask is; if we were in power (for example as the Prime Minister) what would we actually do differently? Everything is political, then.
We discussed the many barriers to communities gaining ‘power’. Barriers like prejudice, racism, geography/boundaries, bureaucracy, permission, lack of trust, money, poverty, education, the patriarchy and time. There are more, of course.
We ended optimistically looking at what can we do? Here’s a non-exclusive list of some ideas our table came up with:
And, as one participant, said: “Smash the patriarchy, lovingly of course, or even better, eclipse the patriarchy.” And, with great community organising, great community, social and co-operative businesses, that’s exactly what we can do.