Monthly Archives: February 2015

Finding our own power – Part 2 (Permission and Power)

From the very beginnings of my community development and activism roots, from the early days of A Way Out, to the setting up of I Love Stockton me, I’ve found, the next question you get asked when wanting to do something in your community, after “who are you and what is your identity?” is usually “Who’s permission or who’s authority do you have to do this?”
This is a significant barrier and hurdle to get across.

Lets get the first thing straight. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be a good person. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be an active or good citizen and you do not need anyone’s permission or authority to start a community project or community activity. You are allowed, end of; in fact you not only allowed, you are needed. To really change our society, we actually need everyone to do their bit, to give a bit and to care a little more.

But not everyone is going to greet you and your idea with open arms. Usually, the people who will create the most barriers will be those who hold most power, have the greatest vested interest or have the most to lose in what you are wanting to do. One of Pete’s ideas is a community street art festival. street art regen He wants to take one of Stockton’s most run down estates and neglected landscapes and turn it into a canvass for beautiful visual art, a destination for street artists and musicians from all over the region to come and bring this area to life with creativity and culture. The project will leave a lasting legacy for the area, it could do for Stockton what Banksy did for Bristol. Art will be used to regenerate a run down area and like most major cities, it will probably as affective as the grand city regen schemes.

So who could be against it. Well, lots of people. Firstly, it will be someone’s job to plan arts activity for the town. They will have a vested interest in everything arts and culture that happens in the area. They will have a three year strategic plan, a budget and a team that they employ to help them achieve their objectives. A street art festival will not be in the plan. The regeneration team and environmental services will also have their plans for which Pete’s idea won’t be included either. Then there is the police and council events team and local councillors and youth work projects in the area. There are the other music and arts organisations that get paid to provide an arts and culture offer. All of these different vested interests could become either supporters or barriers for this type of project.

Over the last couple of years I supported or helped develop a few community festivals, Parklife, Stockton Pirate festival and Look A Teesside. I have also been a part of setting up or supporting the development of numerous other community projects, ideas and activities. And one thing has become apparent to me, even though people think you might need permission or authority, you don’t. No-one could actually stop the events, ideas or projects from happening. The other vested interests can do only two things, support the ideas and enable them to flourish or put barriers in the way that would stop these things being all that they could be.

I hope that for Pete, he will find the vested interests support him, they hopefully will, it’s a great idea. In my 14 years of being active in my community, just because something is a good idea, it doesn’t mean it will be supported though. I often wonder what would happen if the powerful bodies and the organisations and institutions around us, began to see themselves as enablers of new ideas, supporters of active citizenship and releasers instead of controllers of people with visions. I understand the fears and the risks of really active communities. The activities won’t always be as good as we would like them or even as safe as we might need them, but should this mean we stop people trying? In a time of austerity and decreasing council budgets, diminishing membership of institutions like churches and women’s groups, maybe we need to take a few more risks, maybe we need to just let people get on with things without needing our permission or authority. Maybe this is part of the ingredient for transformation of a place. For the transformation of Stockton?

Next week I’ll be talking about fear of failure and being allowed to get it wrong. This is another important lesson if we are going to find our own power. Please share this post if you think it is useful.

Finding Our Own Power (Part One)

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be sharing some of what I have learned over the last 10 months as I have explored life after A Way Out.

One of the things I have been learning about is power.
Power and powerlessness is often overlooked yet is a significant contributor to the poverty that people in Teesside experience. It is something that I believe if we tackle well, could have a significant regenerating effect on our towns, villages and communities. It will take a significant shift in thinking though, not just with individuals within our communities but also with those who currently hold power.

To illustrate some of my findings let me share with you a story of someone I’ve been working with. I’ll call him Pete. Pete grew up in the most deprived area of Stockton, it was once the 10th most deprived ward in the whole country. He was a bright and capable young man; he knew the issues that people were facing but felt powerless to do anything. I mean who was he? He was just a young man who cared for his area.

Issue One) Identity – “Who am I to tackle my communities issues?”

This is a significant issue that comes up time and time again. People do not feel qualified to respond to the issues around them. We have a whole profession and workforce built up around community development, regeneration, and community support and engagement. The workforce see themselves as the professionals, they studied at university (probably) and have been taking a pay cheque to tackle this stuff for years. Pete had no qualifications in care, communities or anything else, he was therefore made to feel like he was out of his depth, that he didn’t have the skills and knowledge to respond to his community.

How to respond?
So the first thing I did in working with Pete was to treat him as an equal. I did not come with an answer or solution to his communities’ issues. I came to learn from him and share learning with him. You see, Pete is an expert. He is an expert in his community; he knows it intimately. He also knows the issues it faces, in part because he has also faced a lot of them himself. He needed to believe this, to understand the skills and knowledge he already had and so a lot of what I did was to listen and encourage, to reinforce his identity as that of an expert and that he didn’t need a name or a title to be able to make a difference. (I have wrote a blog about this earlier of my own experience of not having a name and it ‘can’ be disempowering but we need to get over this and just get on with things)
Pete had lots of ideas of what could be different and what could be done but he was waiting for someone else to come and fix the problems.

Issue Two. Responsibility – Who’s job is it to fix my communities problems?

The next issue I identified was the idea that is linked to identity, which is the idea that there is someone else being paid to do this so it isn’t really my job? It’s an easy trap to fall into isn’t? The idea that if we don’t drop rubbish, the street cleaners won’t have anything to do so we should probably just drop it. It’s the same with community development. Most people assume that it’s someone else’s job. The problem with this thinking is that we have divorced ourselves from our personal responsibilities as citizens. Just because there is a professional group of people doing things in and for our communities, it doesn’t mean they are the only people. In fact the issues will never go away if we leave it just to those “paid professionals”. I’ve ran a charity through the days of prosperity in terms of community finance and even if we had 200 workers and 20 projects, it isn’t enough and it isn’t sustainable. We would never go to an African village and employ a whole load of non-local people to give out food and healthcare. Development charities know this doesn’t work. The only way to see sustainable development is for the indigenous populations to learn how to tackle their own issues. We must replicate and emulate this in our own communities.

How to Respond?

I asked simple questions to begin with “So what are ‘you’ going to do about it?” “So how will ‘you’ make this happen?” “What can I do to support ‘you’?” I understood that my role wasn’t to fix the communities problems for Pete, or to do anything for him particularly. I refused to take positions of responsibility within any projects he set up. I would not go and speak to people on his behalf. My role was more of coach and connector. I would share ideas with him and help him to reflect but I would never impose my thoughts. I conveyed the idea constantly that his community was his responsibility.
He definitely began to take the reigns, he began engaging with his community and developing his own ideas about what he could do. There are now all sorts of ideas popping up.

The next areas I want to explore in future blog posts are ‘permission from the professionals’ (and what happens when you don’t get it?) fear of getting it wrong and how to get resources? I’ll be sharing a bit more of Pete’s story along with a few other friends I’ve met along the way so please pop back and do share this with others if you like what you have read or if you think it may help someone to find their own power!