Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Islington evidence

Community is not something that is just "there" - rather it is an activity or a set of activities that has to be performed. It is not just about living in a particular neighbourhood or locality or being defined as a member of a group with a particular identity or common characteristics. In other words it has to be seen as an active process rather than a passive state. It is not just about being but is actually about belonging and becoming. In some cases it literally has to be fought for. It is not something that can be imposed and it can rarely be "regenerated" from outside.

The Cripplegate Foundation has just published an excellent research report on volunteering in Islington called "Unlocking the Potential". As you read many of the quotes from the active volunteers you realise that these people are actively creating a sense of community as they go along through their volunteering rather than uncovering something that was mysteriously there before their activity took place.

"I have done no volunteering and didn't know any neighbours at all and I've lived here for ten years before I joined and it's quite incredible that I can't leave the house now without bumping into people, which is lovely. And that's what I got from it more than anything else, the kind of community feeling, it's very nice"

Another volunteer says:

"The volunteering is actually what makes people talk to each other and work together. It's just that we started talking to people that maybe we wouldn't normally talk to .... it's a catalyst"

A striking finding from the Islington research is that volunteering can have the biggest impact on the most vulnerable and excluded people. When people are able to make a contribution to something bigger than themselves through volunteering they feel valued and worthwhile. Many of the volunteers were from refugee or migrant backgrounds and did not think of themselves as part of mainstream society and used volunteering in part to avoid the isolation that comes with exclusion.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Current discourses about “community” have usually been part of the problem rather than part of the solution. “Community” has been used to fracture and differentiate, to divide and control. Its misuse has resulted in a legacy of communal identity politics rather than a legacy of real political solidarity. Far from being a word or a concept that has been used to promote real challenges to racism, discrimination and inequality, "community" has often been the mechanism through which divisive and exclusionary identities have been imposed on people. The concluding chapter of Arun Kundnani’s tremendous book “The End of Tolerance” is called “Community: Theirs or Ours” and sets out a whole range of concerns about current community politics. He starts by pointing out that there has been a movement away from solidarity and the notion of anti-racism as a collective struggle by and for “black” communities and instead a break down into the politics of ethnic difference, of competing religious and ethnically defined communities. He draws attention to a “double state strategy of seeking suitably compliant community leaders who can act as surrogate voices for their community, while at the same time, demonising that community and systematically violating its civil rights”. This as he correctly points out “is the worst possible combination for creating a genuinely cohesive society. Its effect is to generate a permanent state of fear, anger and resentment among the ‘suspect community’, while suppressing any kind of constructive public expression of those feelings”

Some of Kundnani’s analysis is worth quoting in full. He points out that the thinking behind this na├»ve and quiescent community relations approach is that “communities consist of ready-made identities, which need a layer of representative organisations to be imposed on them in order that dissent and unrest can be channelled away ineffectually. This creates a climate in which different faith-based organisations compete with each other for state patronage by attempting to establish themselves as the authentic representatives of particular communities. These organisations have little interest in mobilising at the grass roots in struggles for social justice or civil rights; it is rather the state that they aim to mobilise to intervene in the community on their behalf - for example by funding educational and cultural activities that endorse their ideology. The result is , often, the closing down of spaces , particularly for the young and for women, where communities can come together to tackle the injustices that they face …. One measure of the bankruptcy of this kind of communal politics is the lack of solidarity and support that has been extended to asylum seekers, refugees and other new migrants.”