Thursday, 01 December 2005

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Community issues and the listener's responsibility Finding out what local people think about where they live is a much more subtle process than policy models of consultation and participation tend to allow. I've been working very occasionally with the residents' group on the Havelock estate in Southall for the past few months, and gradually got what I thought was a half decent understanding of life in the neighbourhood. I now realise it was much less than half decent. I learned a lot that I hadn't expected to learn yesterday, during an Open Day at the community shop where we ran out some Social Tapestries exercises that Giles Lane has described here. Using a five foot square aerial map of the neighbourhood as the focus, we began accumulating a broad range of comments and suggestions through post-its, wall-displays, annotated booklets, walkabouts and so on. Some people came in with their sense of grievance to the fore, but invariably we found someone to help answer their question and eventually the conversations got turned to 'how to bring about change.' Before the day started, my understanding of the key issues had been around the housing stock transfer process that is going on; poor relationships with service providers particularly over rubbish and repairs; and the need for play spaces for children and young people. The Open Day brought in a wide range of people, and the issues that really hit us were these: the truly deplorable quality of some of the housing; health and other issues around the use of drugs; and yes, the need for play spaces. The most striking testimony came from a very articulate lad of around 11 or 12 years old, who offered a relentless catalogue of the decay, disorder, prostitution and drug-related debris around his house without once thinking it necessary to spell out to me the implied constraints on what should be his natural play area. Once again I think, the key is conversations: and not just any conversations, but those with residents where they feel there is a level of trust and the possibility of a positive response. Several times during the afternoon and evening as people told me simply of the wholly unreasonable difficulties they face on a daily basis, I was reminded of what I call 'the listener's responsibility,' meaning that it makes a crucial difference if and how you imply any consequences to the conversation. In the Social Tapestries project we are helping people to articulate their concerns which in many cases have been festering for years and years, and in large part this is because of the chronic failure of officials to listen responsibly in the past.

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