Alternative Editorial: What kind of space can welcome a diverse community?

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By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK

The Alternative UK ship continues its travels and this week we docked in Plymouth harbour. Each stop is not simply different, but offers a deeper logic for a new politics than the one before. Or maybe that just describes our own journey to understanding better what The Alternative UK could be.

Following on from our trip to Montreal and the notion of ‘vacancy’ as a starting point for citizens giving rise to a new politics, we met with the Real Ideas Organisation in Plymouth. You could say that, like Entremise they have been pursuing the challenge of filling empty buildings in the community with creative activity that is meaningful and helpful to the people who live there, for a long time.

We’ve blogged RIO before but in conversation with Ed Whitelaw (Head of Enterprise and Regeneration) we understood more and better what he and his band of ‘artizens’ – artists acting in civic spaces - have been up to. Which is that they’ve been seeding the ground for a stronger, more empowered society.

They reclaim and renovate abandoned buildings as community hubs for change. They work hands-on with peoples’ raw ideas for new tools, services and play spaces, for the residents of Plymouth and nearby towns. They connect initiatives with resources. Who wouldn’t want a RIO in their town?

But even Ed acknowledges that there are still large communities within the wider Plymouth-and-beyond community that are not part of this process of flourishing. Not everyone has an idea they are willing to share: you have to be at ease with your own vulnerability, before you can put yourself on the line.

And to hear that you might be “disempowered”, that you could do with some help, can itself sound like a threat. What if you’ve spent a lot of effort making your life on the margins bearable, for yourself and others near and dear to you?

So RIO – or in a similar way, The Alternative UK as a new political platform – can make offers to a whole range of communities. But to some of them, our invitations to play and explore could appear as affronts. They have a settled sense of themselves as coping with the difficulties of life. Who are we to challenge that?

But does that mean that people should be left alone, to get on with their own version of 21C Devon life? Or in this post-Brexit age, is the marginalised voice that expressed itself so loudly in the Leave vote, seeking “control” of some kind, quietly looking for a next step? And if we don’t help them find that, it could be that others – with a more divisive intent – will try to.

Should social and cultural catalysts - like “us” - therefore be leaning ever more into the space of these communities, to try and hear what they say? Is it about knocking on doors with clip-boards, orchestrating encounters in supermarkets - like marketeers selling a new product or the curious just wanting to get closer?

Or should we be making an entirely new kind of space – one into which we can all walk, meet, hear ourselves and be heard? And enjoy ourselves in the process enough to want to come back again?

Not an easy task and one that political parties, charities and civil society organisations have failed at so many times – except in times of crisis, or the moment of a great vote, when people are actively looking to convene in places to discuss what to do. How can we succeed – or at least fail better – than anything tried in the past?

The evening before we met Ed from RIO, we had met with another group of Plymouth actors, each representatives of organisations working their piece of a puzzle (or is that a fractal?) in Plymouth and South Devon. Pat Bushell worked with Transition Plymouth, the Food Waste Partnership and ran Plymouth Radical Cinema. Jacky Clifts was from Plymouth Octopus (powering the voluntary sector), Tess Wilmott from Take a Part / Grow Efford, Edible Landscapes, the Permaculture Association, Routeways for the All-Ways-Apples Festival. And our hostess / convener Adriana Cordova - aka community artist Anairda - whose work as a musician and poietician places her at the intersection of multiple networks, personal, local and global ( I, We, World). All effective change-makers, in direct contact with people, enacting new vision and practice.

Each have connections to what we are calling the small-“p” political space – meaning certainly political, but not party political. Maybe pre-party political - or maybe beyond parties altogether. Who knows?

See how difficult that is? How do you name that space where we act individually and socially, so that we can have purchase on the power to make decisions and distribute resources? And how can these actions be in the full interests of the whole of the community, not just one historically defined piece of it (whether by class, perspective or geography)? The power that party-politics has hijacked for the 2% of people who are into parties – and now makes it difficult to use the term politics to describe something better.

But even these indefatigable activists accept that they are only reaching some of the people. Just as Ed is reaching those who have “real ideas”, civil society organisations tend to reach those with identifiable needs – often linking them to the new spaces of practice.

But who is talking to the four most visible communities in the town – the dockyard workers, the military, those who work at the Dereford hospital and the university population – at the same time? We were told that few of them make their ‘needs’ clear to anyone outside their own working community. But many of whom will have already made their desires clear through Brexit, in a 60% Leave vote which split the city. (We were told that a post-Brexit discussion for the people of Plymouth at the Devonport Guildhall attracted mostly Remainers, despite the clear Leave majority).

In the midst of all this apparent division and alienation, is there such a thing as a community  identity available for Devonport? And if so, could there also be one that includes Plymouth or South Devon? What might be the value of such a shared identity: what would it enable? On its own terms, what could it call on the national government for? And as it was doing that, what new meaning might it generate for its inhabitants? Some deep sense of belonging? More purpose?

But none of this is worth speculating on, if we cannot hear the voices of most of the people in any space that we open up.

Some might say we hear the majority when (and if) they vote. That’s when we are most clearly identified as “citizens”. And we are not just being responsible, we are exercising our “response abilities”, acting to exert power when given a date and a choice. But beyond that single vote which reduces us to a binary choice between largely unpopular political parties, we have little means of getting to know ourselves and each other as citizens. There are no platforms for our considered and complex human voices.

En masse, these platforms are evolving but difficult to process if you want a sense of the most people. Facebook is great at enclosing people in bubbles of shared views - where people of similar tastes and experiences can often hear their own voices for the first time, and those close to them. This can foster togetherness – though sometimes around toxic themes. But how can they step outside of these software bubbles to get a bigger picture of the society they live in - where skepticism about how the mainstream media frames reality is on the rise, amidst a whirling blizzard of other news sources.

There may be a solution to this challenge – of how you frame a world so you can act in it, and who best to share that frame with – at the community level.

To some extent, that is the simple goal of The Alternative’s laboratories: to initiate a citizens’ network that wants to know itself, generate a common purpose – a shared dream - and begin to face the future together as a community.

It doesn’t have to be comprehensive or include every single person from the outset. But in the same way that sortition aims to gather a microcosm of the population through random selection of the whole electorate, the collaboratory should at least have a basic aim to capture the full diversity of the community. Then who knows what that citizens’ network might choose to do together.

The road to a new legitimacy for politics could well be through the wisdom of the crowd. In any case, shall we try it and see what happens?

Plymouth and South Devon’s first go at this will be on June 12th in a gathering at the Devonport Guildhall, called a Friendly (with all sporting connotations implied). Tickets (£3.00 for some food and drink) will be available from May 5th on Eventbrite (link on the front of our site). Barbican and Theatre Royal Director and Writer, Jon Nash will be getting the party on, with guest appearances from artizens to be confirmed.