Thursday, 10 February 2011

On invitations to conversations To Cambridge for a meeting on nieghbourhoods today, as a guest of a theological college at the university. A novel environment for me, exploring the role of faith (not faith groups, necessarily) in local life. My take on that, FWIW, was to draw attention to the interesting tension between, on the one hand, people's suspicions of religion as a form of social control; and on the other, the fact that people of faith tend to go round wearing a badge saying 'values' very clearly. You might or might not agree with them, but it helps enormously to know that values matter to this person. Two things in particular I brought away with me to ponder. The first was the direct consequence of having several Americans in the room. What, it was asked, is the English equivalent of the American front porch? This is a use of semi-private space close to the home where everyday conversations can be started without threat or awkwardness. The response of Hank Dittmar of the Prince's Trust, was to say we should look for precedents elsewhere in the English way of doing things, and build on those. But I'm not sure that gets us much further than dogwalking. We've surrendered the street, and the cars are all over our front gardens as well. I'd like to see more communal waste and recycling bins, with the greater likelihood of neighbourhood encounters around them; but it doesn't exactly have romantic charm as a design solution, does it? (Better suggestions over on 50 Ways to Meet Your Neighbour please). My second takeaway came from a remark made by Indy Johar which got me thinking about the difference between having opportunities to participate in local initiatives, and being invited to participate. Often enough people have cause to complain about how opportunities have been created through community work or action, for people to just get together or roll their sleeves up and do something, and people haven't taken them up for whatever reason. Success can depend on creating an invitation in which people's interests or needs are aligned with whatever might be going on. It doesn't have to be personal but it does need to be more than an announcement of an opportunity. I remember a good example from talking to someone at a community centre in Shipley. He had never previously been to a community centre and was telling me how he went along to a school of an evening to hear a talk about doing classes at the centre, in this case on digital photography: he said, 'it was as if she were talking just to me'.

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