Thursday, 11 June 2009

Active citizens and public services I've been in Cornwall, working with library and community development workers on community engagement for Truro library. One of numerous themes to come out of some intensive discussion concerned the relationship between active citizenship, volunteering, and community action. Someone raised awareness of a tension in the way volunteers are helping to prop up struggling services - or felt to be so doing - while the service is seeking to engage increasingly with residents active in local groups. What's the connection between those two categories? 'Active citizen' seems to be an umbrella term, popularised from political expediency in the 1980s, encompassing civic participation, community activity and volunteering. Essentially it distinguishes those who get involved (and who thereby, by implication, advance the interests of the state) from passive citizens who absorb what the state offers but do not contribute to the collective accomplishment of quality of life. Volunteering is a form of active ciizenship at the less political (and often less ideological) end of the spectrum. In public services - such as in a public library - volunteers will be subject to expectations about their role that have to be accommodated by their managing agency. Their degree of engagement with or commitment to the service ethos can be shallow, or not perceived as critical. Typically, a community activist by contrast is politically autonomous. They may be giving time, energy and expertise voluntarily but not perceive themselves as a 'volunteer'. Probably more consciously than the volunteer, they may be compensating for a shortfall in public provision; campaigning to increase or improve services; or otherwise, positioning community provision as distinct from public provision. The activist could be contributing energy to a campaign against the council, at the same time as helping a different department with some issue of mutual interest. They engage on terms that are acceptable to themselves and to the 'community' to which they claim allegiance. It's political, innit. Now that libraries are finding that the responsibilisation agenda pushes them towards both involving volunteers and engaging with activists - always to mutual advantage one hopes - will our understanding of these roles start to come into sharper focus? Do we need these subtle differences, these nuances in the relations between citizen and state provision? I suspect we do, very much, and the subtleties will increase not diminish.
Is racism increasing among young people? A colleague and I have been puzzling over a level of racism among young people that we've come across recently. Complaints about racist behaviour were offered to us by workshop participants on several occasions, and we witnessed openly racist comments among the young people in a racially mixed school class and among a group excluded from school. These examples appeared to us to be crude and unreflective reiterations of unfiltered prejudices, in contexts where no challenge was expected. Now I just came across a post by a youth worker on the CYP forum, claiming that racist attitudes have not only vastly intensified but they have also become calculated and covert. Over the last couple of months I have been shocked by the hostile nature of the racist attitudes displayed by young people - supplemented with many references to support for the BNP... I have worked with disaffected kids for over 15 years and not one single young person has ever shown any self-motivated interest in any political party but now they know the names of their local BNP representatives. The problem is out there, unseen and festering. Whilst I roll up my sleeves and prepare for what is going to be a complicated challenge I cannot help but feel utter frustration for the damage caused by the hysterical “moral police” who have succeeded in driving this social cancer underground. And disturbingly, when it came to reflecting on the recent elections: Support for the BNP was very open throughout the day with young people joining in the revelry of “their” party. This problem has been brewing, and I'm thinking about a paper published last year by Carolyn Gaskell on 'young people's experiences of (dis)respected citizenship and the New Labour Respect Agenda'. She pointed out how hard it is for young people to assume a role as an active citizen when the state does not reflect a sense of respect and worth to them: 'feeling disrespected by the state, living in insecure and often dangerous environments, without the voice, power or belief that change could be enacted, many young people subvert their citizenship, creating an alternative framework of respect for themselves.' [Children's geographies, 6(3), 2008]

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