“Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
These profound and powerful words of Martin Luther King, Jr. for me touch upon some of the things that are wonderful and timely about the Civil Society Futures PACT, whilst also urging us to go further in our commitment to one another’s flourishing.
We live in a divided society in which many have been left behind while others have enjoyed the benefits of economic growth. The voices and viewpoints which dominate mainstream media and public life do not reflect the heterogeneity of experience, belief, attitude, and identity of the population as a whole. As the inquiry points out, this presents us with both an urgent need, and an opportunity, for the healing of these divides.
Much of our work at Church Urban Fund is orientated towards building more cohesive communities in which people can belong, connect, and contribute. This includes supporting churches’ extensive engagement in local communities through our Together Network. Anglican churches across England run or support almost 33,000 social action projects such as food banks, parent and toddler groups, community cafes, holiday clubs, debt advice, night shelters, and lunch clubs for older people. This represents a huge volume of locally embedded civil society activity.
We place a strong emphasis on maximising the agency of those we work with, so we are pleased to see the PACT highlighting the importance of ‘trusting people to run things’. Our Near Neighbours programme provides small grants to support grassroots activities that bring people together across different ethnic or religious groups within a local community. The application process enables newly formed groups to get involved (including those who are not formally constituted), and local Near Neighbours workers provide support with developing project ideas and applications as needed. Those receiving grants frequently report having gained new skills in project management or fundraising, as well as having built new relationships through the projects.
Places of Welcome are another way in which we enable people who might otherwise be left out to get involved in civil society. There are now more than 250 volunteer-run Places of Welcome across England. Each offers a safe space for people to get together with others in their community on a weekly basis. One of the core values is participation: people who come along are encouraged to share their skills and interests, and to listen actively to one another. These spaces have proved valuable, not only in alleviating loneliness, but also in giving people renewed confidence and purpose as they realise they have something to offer that is valued by others. Many participants have gone on to get involved in other community activities as a result of taking a ‘first step’ into a Place of Welcome.
Ensuring that the voice(s) of civil society reflect(s) the diversity of the population means training up leaders from a wide range of socio-economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Last year 161 young people took part in our Catalyst leadership programme,which equips young people for leadership in our contemporary society. Talking about the difference Catalyst had made to them, one participant said: ‘I have the power to start something and try to improve my community.’
Overall, the PACT resonates strongly with our values at Church Urban Fund and we warmly welcome its emphases on rebalancing power, nurturing trust, building meaningful and equal relationships, and including people who might otherwise be excluded.
Yet we believe there is additionally a deeper challenge and a broader calling for civil society. Many of the power imbalances to which the report alludes are not simply the result of strategic or recruitment decisions by civil society organisations: they are products of systemic socio-economic inequality and of our implicit but widespread assent to narratives about what it means to be human that are based on consumption, competition, and accumulation.
We believe this falls far short of human flourishing or ‘fullness of life’: people are more precious than their possessions, accomplishments, or financial standing. And so for us, ‘implementing the demands of justice’ also means reaching beyond civil society, and seeking to encourage, inspire, and challenge those working in the state and market sectors to play their parts creatively and to the full when it comes to bringing about the social change we need to see.
Our relational approach is woven – albeit imperfectly – into the fabric of our programmes, processes and organisational structure. Yet a challenge for us in seeking to live up to our values, and those that the PACT represents, is that a deeply relational approach is a costly one. Choosing to work in this way is slow, messy, time consuming, and emotionally demanding. It means standing firm when an easier route might offer more funding, or more readily demonstrable outcomes. Quite simply, it is hard work. Being aware of our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities – as well as our own power – is therefore vital if we are to sustain ourselves and others in what is certainly a commitment for the long haul.