One of the most common frustrations people have with politicians is that they are good at finding problems but bad at coming up with solutions.
That’s one of the reasons it was so refreshing to gather with a dozen or so leaders from across civil society in Mansfield for the second of three workshops (read about the first one here) run by Maun Valley Citizens and Civil Society Futures to try to find some real answers together – what would a more welcoming Mansfield look like?
Reflecting on this question on my way to the workshop, I found it a hard question to answer. The obvious tension in Mansfield is between some of the local population and the Eastern European immigrants, and initially I thought about perhaps putting on more community events which encouraged mutual understanding.
But then I realised that all divides and tensions have to do with deeper social issues which affect everyone — like education, housing, employment and safety. Maybe if we could make these things better, attitudes and integration would follow.
And so I was pleased that this was how the workshop was framed.
We were first invited to share some photographs which showed Mansfield as it is but also gave us a glimpse of what a more welcoming Mansfield would look like. Sonya Ward, the Labour candidate for Mansfield for the next general election, spoke well about a new community orchard near her on previously dormant land:
“It’s brought people together”
Others offered images of the local college, church and green spaces – places where people come together across difference to enjoy a shared Mansfield.
These photographs helped kick off a table exercise about what a better Mansfield would look like.
We discussed the concrete issues that we felt were behind the divisions and tensions in Mansfield. We touched on education, mental health, parking, housing, shopping, leisure facilities, wages, employment and safety. We didn’t focus on the problems but on the potential – how could these areas look? And if they looked this way, what would their impact on Mansfield be? How would they make Mansfield more welcoming?
Each of the discussions were rich in their own way, although some were more directly relevant to the theme of welcome than others. I started by sitting with Rose and listening to her talk about education:
“There should be more free adult education in Mansfield”
Her thought was that this would give local ex-miners the skills they sorely need to find better paid jobs in the modern industries around Mansfield. Given that much of the animosity directed towards the Eastern European population here is because they tend to work for low wages, this would definitely make Mansfield more welcoming.
Housing was another hot topic. John envisaged a Mansfield in which private sector landlords could not get away with treating their tenants badly. This would improve the lives of the immigrants from Eastern Europe who are often treated poorly in their housing in part because many come with little English. But it would also benefit vulnerable persons across the board, like those who are housed in Mansfield having previously lived on the streets in neighbouring districts.
“The impact of proper support and regulation of housing would be huge – a sense of pride and dignity, of having a place of your own within a place which for many is not their home”
Making work work
Perhaps the most important discussion of all was about wages and employment. Sonya strongly advocated consistently higher wages, with a fair ratio from top to bottom, as well as more permanent contracts as a failsafe way to make Mansfield more welcoming.
“I have a friend who is a carer and she isn’t even paid for her travel in between seeing clients”
A Mansfield where practices like this were scrapped would give the hardest off in our society the pride and dignity which is fundamental for any sense of belonging to a place.
We mused on the industries like textiles and fabrics which used to be so prominent here. The Mansfield of old was a town in which work was readily available and employees valued for the skills they brought to the table. I said:
“If we could have more industries like that here we could bring people together again”
But globalisation has of course struck communities like Mansfield and industries have moved elsewhere. We need new industries in Mansfield, but also to give local people the skills they need to access them.
Pride = future
Across all the discussions the common theme was a sense of a lack of basic self-respect and dignity.
Participants constantly related a better Mansfield in the areas above with prouder people – whether they be local people or people coming to Mansfield from elsewhere. And prouder people are more likely to be proud of their community, and to positively and actively contribute to making it better.
How can we expect somebody who is dehumanised – whether by an exploitative landlord, a school system which treats young people like numbers or by a boss who refuses to employ you permanently – to bring and create life in a community?
We left the workshop feeling far more positive about the future of Mansfield than we were on arrival. It was great to visualise a better Mansfield, because Mansfield has a great deal of potential but it is up to us as citizens to realise it.
I am very excited for the final workshop which will be all about just that – how to realise Mansfield’s potential. What concrete actions, we will ask, can we take to create the impact we all want, and that is a better, prouder Mansfield to which all can say:
“I belong here.”