In the context of growing inequality, disconnection from power and political polarization, many people have lost trust in the institutions that frame their lives and even those with whom they coexist. A key issue that emerged in meetings with our inquiry into the future of civil society around England through the past year has been the misunderstanding or fear of the ‘other’ in local communities, particularly in places that have witnessed great change in, for example, employment or housing. Deindustrialisation and changing employment practices have weakened support structures and altered the entire fabric of some communities.
In Shirebook, for example, the mining industry that employed thousands of skilled and unionised workers also built the redbrick terraces of the Model Village, and brought free dental treatment into the local schools. Today, Sports Direct’s central distribution centre, which sits on the old colliery site, employs thousands of agency staff on precarious zero hours contracts, many of whom live in the same Model Village, now rented out by private landlords as homes of multiple occupancy (HMOs) with up to 12 adults per family home. The limited supply of genuinely affordable housing, not least in ‘regenerated’ areas where house prices have risen and social housing been lost, puts inevitable pressure on communities. In this context and amid the targeting by successive governments of ‘sponging’ immigrants and ‘benefits cheats’, it comes as little surprise that tensions between long established and newer residents have risen.
In response to these tensions we found a strongly expressed desire for civil society to find ways to build bridges, spread understanding and find ways to live together well. This need has been magnified through the past year by major events that have threatened yet greater division: the Manchester and London attacks, the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, the Windrush Scandal. Each time civil society has shown agile creativity, determination and compassion, often as the first responder in times of crisis. And amid inflammatory calls from press and politicians for tough consequences, that ‘enough is enough’, it is civil society that comes together to show unity and promote a positive reaction.
Think of the thousands of people who met in Albert Square in the days after 22 people were killed at Manchester Arena, to share poetry, prayer and music, together singing the words of ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’. There are those who in their personal and professional capacity support asylum seekers and refugees, even as these victims (along with British citizens of the Windrush generation) are scapegoated and isolated by the hostile environment, and those that have journeyed to Calais or Lesbos with sleeping bags and waterproofs, dismayed by the callous and ineffective state response to the current crisis. At Grenfell Tower it was the local mosques, churches and youth clubs that set up shelter for the injured, shocked, grieving and homeless, and ultimately the Red Cross and its ‘emergency response volunteers’ that stepped in to coordinate where the local authority had been found desperately wanting.
In this context, Civil Society Futures is undertaking further research to explore key examples of bridge-building and peace-brokering in response to stresses, tensions and crises in communities, for example where violence, extremism, prejudice or poverty have impacted. How do these initiatives build everyday resilience for community flourishing as well as coping times of crisis? We will work with our networks to identify and explore some key examples, and with our panel of experts choose four cases to examine, understand and share in more detail.
In keeping with the whole of the Inquiry, we want to work with real people meeting genuine need on the ground. This research seeks the voices of crucial projects underway in communities all over the country connecting people across difference and diversity. If your project or initiative, or one that you know, is doing this work we’d be very interested to hear about it. You can tweet us @CivSocFutures, share a website or email me on [email protected] and we can follow up with a phone call.
We plan to carry out the case studies in June and July and we really look forward to meeting you and hearing all about your work. We hope we can share what you do – and how you have success – with others across the country in places which might benefit from this learning.