Monday, 14 April 2014

Changing stuff (2): #CameronJesus, #EndHungerFast & #OccupyOurStreet

I'm still tantalised and frustrated - in equal amounts - by the possibility and difficulty of 'changing stuff' beyond the 'local'. In my last blog, I got all 'eschatological', anticipating future 'victories' in the temporary spaces of the here and now, spaces that might be 'in the system' but most definitely not 'of the system'. I gestured towards those 'thresholds' between 'the world as it is' and 'the world as it should/could/will be', and suggested that attending to those thresholds might make a real difference.

Here I feel the need to get practical again. I felt more than a little irony last Thursday, at the end of a rather long but rewarding day. Around 60 of us had been exploring the huge potential in an 'asset-based community development' approach for faith communities wanting to help draw out and connect up the gifts and treasures within their neighbourhoods, building local power to transform things for the better at a local level. At the same time, I discovered, David Cameron had been telling the world about his sincere Christian faith, how 'the Big Society' was really Jesus' idea, and how he, David, with the help of other good people of faith, was continuing Jesus' work.

Actually, I felt more than irony. I felt a bit sick. The inescapable danger of working away at the neighbourhood level, of championing the power of local people to transform communities, and of connecting local faith communities into that work, is that we get co-opted by a State that is quite happy to wash its hands of neighbourhoods and communities like ours, slashing services and investment and letting 'the Market' do its nasty, destructive thing, and looking to good people of faith to pick up the pieces. Asset-stripping, in the name of 'asset-building'. The 'Common Wealth' statement of 2010 recognised very early on that 'Big Society' was a cloak for radical cuts and disinvestment from the poorest neighbourhoods - and that has been what we've seen. And more than that - we've seen a systematic nurturing of the 'empathy deficit' that not only sneers at the poor, but blames them for their poverty and for the problems that come with it, while the so-called 'squeezed middle' swallow the lie that it's the 'scrounging' poor, not the super-rich wealth-hoarders, who are responsible for our current precarious economic state.

I've suggested in this blog - in a couple of excessively wordy posts that might just have defeated many readers - that while top-down enforcements of 'community resilience' ('you must survive and adapt within a wider system that you can do nothing about') are pretty deadly, there might just be a kind of bottom-up resilience which, rather than being 'contained' in the local, instead has the potential to 'overflow' it - internally, in forms of community ('conviviality' is one word, 'carnival' is another) that elude and surpass government control and even comprehension; and externally, into wider relationships of solidarity, defiance and even revolution. But how, in practice? That is the question.

Over the past year or so, I've found myself participating in processes that have been attempting to 'change stuff' beyond the local. Birmingham's 'Social Inclusion' process I've blogged about here. All along the way it's used the language of a 'new approach' which centres on 'community assets' and 'co-production' all along the way, but has struggled, often, to translate that into meaningful practical change. I've written a couple of laboured, detailed responses to Green Papers (I'm not quite sure why!), but much of the gap between language and practice seems to remain. On the other hand, the wonderful 'Places of Welcome' network that has emerged from the Social Inclusion process has illustrated and embodied exactly what the language has been striving to find - 'this is what it looks like', and it's happening all over the city already.

I've also had a fair amount to do with the 'Citizens' model of community organizing over the last couple of years, and it has much, in its stated vision and values, to commend it:

  •  building relationships through careful listening and sharing in ‘one-to-ones’
  • growing the confidence, skills and capabilities in teams of local leaders
  •  building alliances between faith, education, and labour institutions
  • finding common ground across difference in issues of social justice and the common good
  • holding those in authority to account on issues that affect the lives of people across the city

But I've had my hesitations too: about scale - the city, certainly Birmingham, is just too big, and the neighbourhood level risks being neglected; about pace - a sense of hurriedness risks putting 'the agenda' over the patient work of listening and relationship-building; and about an approach which, almost by definition, tends to put 'community organizing' before 'community building', the 'hard power' of numbers and structures before the 'soft power' of relationships of trust and friendship, and attends to the 'problems' of communities before really finding out what their strengths are. All of these have led us in Hodge Hill to want to 'stay friends' with Citizens, and to work together 'ad hoc' where our agendas coincide, but not to quite 'take the plunge' of making their approach central to what we do here.

And then, this Lent, I've found myself working with friends and colleagues, driving the 'End Hunger Fast' campaign in Birmingham, which breaks most of the rules I've just set for myself: it all happened in a hurry, it did its best to be not just Birmingham-wide but national, it was - in many ways - all about getting numbers signed up, and it was incredibly issue-focused, about food poverty and the government policies that are currently exacerbating it. But it started, for me, with an invitation from a very good friend, who was fasting from food completely for 40 days - so how could I say No?!

It's still early days, perhaps, to evaluate 'End Hunger Fast' as a campaign. But here are some of the things that 'worked' about it. Firstly, it sparked, and to a great extent 'snowballed', a heated public exchange between church leaders and politicians, in the glare of the media spotlight. With sharp words from Archbishop Vincent Nicholls, and a response from David Cameron very much on the back foot (about his 'moral mission', of all unlikely claims), the EHF letter hit the press hard and, in the process, saw the FoodBank giant Trussell Trust shift from being praised by the government as 'the Big Society in action', to being condemned by an angry Iain Duncan-Smith for pushing a 'political agenda'. Damn right, and not a moment too soon.

Secondly, the invitation to fast itself seemed to catch many people's imagination. An old - almost archaic, for many - tradition, revitalised as an imaginative act of empathy and solidarity. A practice not just for Muslims and seemingly alien to most secular Westerners - but something that has begun to mean something, and do something, once again.

Thirdly, the power of social media came into its own, attaching the hashtags #endhungerfast and #fastApril4th to all kinds of powerful messages, and images of empty plates and fasting people. Thousands have been able to follow my good friend Keith Hebden's 40-day fast, and encourage others to join in in their own small but not insignificant ways.

And then, in Birmingham particularly, we planted a garden shed, 'The Hunger Hut' in Cathedral Square for the duration of Lent, from which we engaged passers-by with flyers, conversation, and the opportunity to come into the Hut to find out more, light a candle to pray, and commit themselves to the campaign. On Ash Wednesday, as Lent kicked off, we invited people to add their thumbprints, in ash, to the EHF letter from church leaders. And around Birmingham, as well as at the Hut, we've been collecting people's stories of first-hand experience of hunger, in 'Hunger Journals' that we're going to submit to the Truro/Field Commission on Food Poverty. There was something about the Hut being where it was, with echoes of Occupy LSX (our wonderful Dean of Birmingham Cathedral was rather less keen on our first suggestion of a tent!), and being there for 40 days, emblazoned with the 'End Hunger Fast' logo and website, that 'interrupted' - symbolically at least, but also actually for many people - the normal flow of city life, in the middle of Birmingham's business district. There was a patience, an endurance, even if it closely followed the last-minute scramble in late February to make it all happen.

The Social Inclusion Inquiry, Citizens UK in Birmingham, and End Hunger Fast. Different approaches to 'scaling up' from the local, to seek to have an impact on the systems and structures which so often have the local in their grip. Attending summits and responding to Green Papers. Building alliances across institutions. Creating an interruption through symbolic action, social networks, and temporary occupation. All have their strengths and weaknesses, opportunities to effect real change and vulnerabilities to co-option and paralysis. But all three point me back towards my neighbourhood, and our messy, fragile, small-scale, slow-paced work of community-building.

At a recent gathering of church leaders from Birmingham's outer estates, we were privileged to spend an hour with a very senior Birmingham City Council officer, in open, honest and humble conversation. At the end of the hour, I asked him what he would like to see, or hear, us outer estates clergy doing as a result of our conversation. He replied that he wanted to see us stirring up local voices, to hold government - national and local - to account. To be catalysts of 'local democracy', far beyond encouraging people to turn out to vote every May.

In a quite brilliant recent blog, my friend and travelling-companion Cormac Russell lucidly outlines the power of 'neighbour power' - how locally-rooted, co-operative 'power from the people' can be what really changes the structures and systems:

If we care about participatory democracy we will go to where the connectors, conductors, and circuit breakers can constructively steward energy in a way that is inclusive and supports people to generate disparate energy into collective democratic power. 
That place is local, hence democracy is not just an ideal, it has a location, and that location is our communities of place. The act of building democracy is therefore an act of homecoming that extends outwards to govern the health, wealth and justice of a nation. And so it is, as well as occupying Wall Street, we must come to occupy our street.
Read Cormac's blog in full - a mere snippet here really can't do justice to it. But that connection between 'Occupy Wall Street' and the occupation of our own streets resonates strongly for me, and keeps nudging me to explore it further. It reminds me of a few dimensions of what I'm involved with here in Hodge Hill that I tend to forget: the 'poetic' dimension, seeking to 'tell our stories', especially the ones that seem to have some symbolic power (Hodge Hill Unsung Heroes and our community Passion Play, to name but two); an engagement with wider bodies and networks of thought, academic and 'critical' in other ways; the way we use social media to get things 'out there' (Facebook locally, Twitter to connect with the wider world, and blogs like this to flesh out some of the detail and explore things at length); and the way we're trying to 'do church' differently, in the round, with many voices heard (in liturgy and decision-making), and doing our best to connect and blur the boundaries between 'inside' and 'outside'.
And I'm reminded, finally, of the intentional messiness of the Occupy movement, and I wonder again if we're treading quite similar paths:
The disadvantage of such leaderless movements is that they allow for no quick resolutions and fixes, and they reduce the expectation of efficiency... Nevertheless, a slower process of addressing and resolving the problems of the world and an efficiency that rests on the shoulders of many may be more effective in the long run... [Also] it cannot be destroyed easily, as the destruction of those whom the system identifies as leaders will not bring the movement to a halt. (Joerg Rieger & Kwok Pui-lan, Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, p.81)
Which feels like quite an Easter-y thought on which to finish, for now...

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