Alternative Editorial: Finding each other

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By Indra Adnan, Co-initiator of The Alternative UK

We’ve spent a lot of time in action this week. Putting on a Community Collaboratory in Plymouth began as a dream. It became a production task that looked, at times, tricky to pull off.

Three people with a clear purpose but a tight budget were coming from London. For anything to happen, there had to be a lot more people with a similar sense of purpose, waiting to help in the locality. And each of them had to be ready to bring their own resources of time and networks.

And for that to work, we had to be in tune with enough people there – with their needs, their vision, their dynamics – for them to want to join in with us. Of course, that wouldn’t be so difficult if what we were offering was a product or a service they had been calling for. Free, clean transport, for example, or half-price electricity. Or a way to get out of the social security system and just get your basic bills covered without any questions asked.

But what if people can’t initially see that what you’re bringing is what they are looking for? That it takes more than one or two steps (the vote cast, the contract signed)? Rather, it requires many steps, patiently taken with others? Why should they come with you – rather than all the other people promising stuff? Especially if you look like “politicians”, or anyone that uses the ‘p’ word in any way. Aren’t they all corrupt? Why should they trust you, or your invitation, to step into a new space with them?

As we alighted upon Plymouth, we saw a complicated picture. A nuclear naval port that had huge historic importance as the departure point of the Mayflower in 1620, when the Puritan Pilgrims left England for the New World, now known as the United States. Over the years, large sums of money have been invested in the city to turn it into an attraction for the South West. But its momentum comes and goes as the interventions from outside the city engage the inhabitants fitfully.

Wherever you look there are large, metal and concrete buildings and highways, but little that socially connects these islands of commerce. It’s hard to feel the soul of the place because the big stuff is dwarfing the little stuff – the smaller buildings and businesses, the community initiatives that try to bind together a neighbourhood, street by street.

In the time we were there, the House of Fraser had just announced they were shutting down a number of flagship stores – one of which could be the building right in the city centre. People are worried: both that Plymouth could become a ghost town, but equally that the Fraser building would be bought up and broken up, turned into a shopping mall. As architect Hilary Kolinsky said, “there is so much more we could do with that space if only we could get together and use our imagination”.

And what we saw plenty of in our time there was the capacity to do just that. Whether we were talking about the vast experience of the Pembroke Street Estate to win large sums of public and grant money, and orchestrate it to deliver a beautiful and well functioning neighbourhood. Or the Nudge Community, bringing back to life empty shells of buildings to provide not just one but several community hubs where people meet and spend time together.

Or artists of all different styles and stances – like Anairda, Roz Birch and Antonia Raines, featured in our write-through of the event – who draw audiences to experience the broadest range of emotions, experienced in a safe space together. Or bright young socially politically educated architects who have designed city-transforming plans for their degree shows – but can’t find anyone in the city to share their ideas with? Or the Real Ideas Organisation who pick up any good idea they see and connect it to potential funding or a business plan.

How do you build trust between enough people, so that they feel the power of their numbers and begin to drive the development of their own community from the grassroots upwards? Our sense is that it cannot be done by selling anyone a single idea, an ideology, or even a theory of change.

It can only be done by building trust. Not the high stakes trust that depends on major promises being delivered. But the easy-going trust that comes through familiarity and friendship: that allows differences to be dealt with through discussion rather than confrontation. The trust that is held together by humour and generosity rather than a contract.

It’s one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned on this journey. The recent history of Plymouth tells us that a better future cannot rely upon the people finding a saviour who arrives in the city on a white charger (or a party leader pouring out of a campaign bus). It relies upon people finding themselves. The best we can do as The Alternative UK is to open up spaces for people to gather and share their own hopes and dreams, through food, theatre, movement, facilitation, ideas, discussion and song. The rest is up to you.

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