Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The cleansing of community development The other day I attended the launch of the Church Urban Fund’s new programme called Near Neighbours. The programme will disburse central government money in small grants through local parishes. There are strong themes of cohesion and working with faith groups: ‘This fund will help local initiatives that build cross-community relationships i.e. people of different faith groups and those of no faith, working together through social action in their community to form closer relationships.’ The scheme is focused in the north of England (Bradford, Burnley and Oldham); Leicester; areas of London, and areas of Birmingham ‘which are diverse and multi-faith.’ There are already impressive stories of collective endeavour in Near Neighbours projects. Judging from conversations about the kind of project that is being funded, it’s apparent that the work that will be supported is community development work or community action. As is the fashion, the language is dominated more by the N words ‘neighbourhoods’ and ‘neighbours’ than by the C word, which is taking a breather after a really hard decade. There is no attempt to anchor this initiative in the principles and experience of established community development. Indeed, the programme fits the emerging pattern of new community-development-that-is-not-quite-community-development – National funding with a local orientation, that conveniently ignores local democratic structures and roots itself in traditional philanthropic soil. People in positions of power don’t want ordinary people to be political, but stuff needs doing in society. So it’s obvious - invent and fund a de-politicised form of CD. A high expectation of voluntary involvement that stimulates other local voluntary involvement, which won’t (in Julian Dobson’s words) ‘frighten the horses,’ and which arguably ‘will leave most of society pretty much as it is’. No allegiance to or even recognition paid to a tradition of such work, known as community development, that also acknowledges inequalities and power structures as part of the problem. So in its humble way, the Near Neighbours programme fits tidily alongside Nesta’s Neighbourhood Challenge and the Big Lottery’s People Powered Change in the contemporary cleansing of community development. Much good will come from this strange form of air conditioning, but you gotta wonder about what gets shut out. What happens to people who only breathe filtered air? I guess they get ill if they have to go outside. Get used to plenty of branding but not much about process or values – and yet a form of community development will have taken place. Get used to a diet of neat success stories, and bright shiny case studies, and people in positions of power queuing up to take the credit while blessing the peasants. And yet a form of community development will have taken place. It needs to be pointed out that any substantial CD programme with a very weak grasp of the principles and values of CD is rather vulnerable to capture, distortion and misrepresentation. In spite of these reservations, there are several reasons why I think these programmes will be beneficial. For a start, on a superficial...
Picnic, the launch And so my little essay about picnic and community was launched on Monday this week, with a small invited gathering at the Wellcome Collection. I started this project more than two years ago, collaborating with artist Gemma Orton since the early summer this year, and benefitting hugely from the advice and support of Giles Lane, using the Bookleteer process. It’s been an entirely unfunded project - which gave me freedom to write what I wanted to, but of course has made it inevitably loss-making (yes I know, I’m a lousy capitalist). No matter. Gemma and I had some friends and interested parties round for a little swigging, guzzling, and networking with the opportunity to buy copies and some of her striking images. Gemma had taken several of the designs used in the book, printed them digitally onto fabric, and added stitching. (Examples and still a few pieces available here). We also had the chance to hear some songs from the delightful Ije Amaechi – a special moment for me as I have known Ije since she was tiny - and a few poems from Kim Morrissey of the Purple Poets, who contributed to the 2009 Wellcome community picnic. By way of setting the tone for the evening, we had invited people @PicnicLaunch to suggest ‘late arrivals’ at the picnic event. You know the kind of thing – ‘Will you welcome please... Mr and Mrs Got the Mayonnaise and their son Ivor Got the Mayonnaise.‘ I’m pleased to say that some offerings were quite excruciating, naming no names Richard, and will not be reproduced here. More on the booklet here, and you can help keep economically-incompetent artists going a little longer by clicking in the right place on this page. The standard edition costs just £10.00 and the special limited edition, sold in aid of the homelessness charity Crisis, is £30.00. Think Christmas. The pic of Gemma and myself above was taken by Rebekah Franklin; the pic of Kim Morrissey reading at the launch event was taken by Ben Harris. Previously: Picnic and community. See also: this post with video interviews, by David Wilcox. Community: it's no picnic - Julian Dobson.

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