Thursday, 30 March 2006

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Community leaders, or representation? (updated) Here I am reading a draft report from a meeting about neighbourhood governance, and the phrase 'community leaders' stops me, the way it always does. I have difficulty with the frequent and unreflective use of this term - not, I hope, just because of some wishy-washy resistance to hierarchical cultures, but more because I'm unconvinced that calling for more 'community leaders' is a solution to anything. When I've said in the past that I don't know what or who they are, I wasn't being disingenuous. I read recently an article, published surprisingly enough in Urban studies, in which community leaders are described as professionals, equated with the local authority, and referred to, bizarrely, as 'supremos.' A far more nuanced and insightful account was provided by Derrick Purdue back in 2001.* I think most use of the label refers to activists who play a prominent role, often representing locally a community of interest, sometimes falling victim to accusations of 'usual suspects' or becoming manipulable media products. I'm more concerned right now with the chorus of calls for more of them. (Are we gonna have some kind of genetic programme here, get them all to breed so we have a stock for the future?) Maybe just whistling for more community leaders won't work, because we'll still have a gulf between them and the rest of us. If our democracy lacks the key ingredients of engagement and participation, I'm not sure it makes sense to crash-course a new cadre of likelies. Maybe we need to ensure far more widespread understanding of the notion of representation. We need to smooth over the gap between representation and apathy, between involvement and disinterest. We need to establish the habit of participation and an understanding of what it means to be represented by someone, and what it means to represent others. That's an educational role and it belongs in the citizenship curriculum. Those school exercises in mock elections, termly or annual student representation and so on - those are the kinds of initiative which need more subtle attention. And of course, it doesn't just belong in schools. I'd like to see mixed-age workshops on representation, using creative techniques and lots of local material. That would do a lot more for the future of neighbourhood governance than tired repetitive pleas for more foot-soldiers. *Hemphill, L, et al. (2006). “Leadership, power and multisector urban regeneration partnerships.” Urban studies 43(1): 59-80. Purdue, D. (2001). “Neighbourhood governance: leadership. trust and social capital.” Urban studies 38(12): 2211-2224. Update - Stephen Coleman has kindly drawn my attention to his 2005 ippr pamphlet called Direct representation: towards a conversational democracy, which to my shame I had missed. He argues that we need to move to a richer, more conversational form of representation.

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