Chatting to people in the street isn’t scientific. But it does give you a sense of something. It does allow you to get a bit of a feel for how particular kinds of people in specific sorts of places talk about things. It permits a glimpse of the light from some of the fractures in our kaleidoscope society.
But, a day in Birmingham trying to guage attitudes to civil society did pose some challenges. First, people don’t tend to use the term ‘civil society’. But we didn’t just want their views on any of the parts of it that have more recognisable names: charity, volunteering, community groups, churches; Mosques and Gurdwaras; trade unions… we wanted opinions about all of it: about how the people of Birmingham organise themselves; how they arrange their mutual aid, how they look out for each other and stand up for each other.
You can’t, though, just ask people in the street everything at once. And so we started off with a simple question, a route into the rest of it: what do you think about charities in England? And we took it from there.
The first man I approached in Victoria square in central Birmingham wouldn’t talk on camera. But he did have a clear opinion: “English charities focus too much on people abroad,” he said “when there are so many people in need here, that’s wrong.” Next up was a young woman who turned out to be Canadian, and was involved in environmental volunteering back at home. She thought that, in Canada, there are too many organisations, and that they end up competing with one another.
“English charities focus too much on people abroad,” he said “when there are so many people in need here, that’s wrong.”
After her, another younger woman agreed to talk to us: a student who was sat in the morning sun revising for her exams. Like huge numbers of students, she had some experience of volunteering herself.
And then we struck gold. A group of women from the National Ladies Association made their way up the steps next to us, and agreed to come over for a quick chat. I’ll let you watch the video in full, which presents a broad section of the spectrum of challenges that civil society organisations face.
After interviewing the excellent folk from the Home of Waifs and Strays we hopped on a bus to Lozells, a corner of Birmingham known for it’s multiethnic make up, with significant Afro-Carribean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities. Within short walking distance, it had at least one church, Mosque and temple.
Here, we found people very reticent to talk to us, particularly on film. While you always get folk who are a wee bit camera-shy, I’ve never found anything like this. We were even stopped and questioned by a man in a high-vis vest for taking a couple of photos of the high street.
But off camera, people did give us a few useful insights: for one young man, the main representation of charity was charity shops, though he felt he’d become more aware of different organisations because of the internet. For another, the thing he cared about most was the organisation his mother set up, supporting people back home in Kenya. The UK, he told us, is stingy, and key parts of civic life – a community centre and the sports that kids played in the park, were held together by a couple of specific women. For yet another, the Bangladeshi community centre was important, and he spent time there helping raise funds when there were crises in Bangladesh.
Finally, though, we found a man named Ali who was happy to talk at a little more length, and gave us a deeper insight into what was going on.
We’d been sent by a middle aged man down Lozells road in a hunt of a Bengali community centre. Having failed to find it, we popped into a shop to ask for directions. They didn’t think such a thing existed. But moments after we’d left, one of the men in the shop caught up with us in his car, keen to talk some more. And so we jumped in, and sat in the parking space as he talked about civil society in his community: how “we do all that through the Mosque”, how, as we had suspected, people were afraid to talk to the outsiders on camera because the government’s Prevent agenda had made everyone afraid of expressing their opinions, and how it also stopped the Muslim community opening up, he believed, to the wider world: a process which he thought was necessary.
Ali also talked to us about his religious duty to pay 2.5% of his savings to charity, and about his concerns that bigger charities spend too much on adminstration.
Ali wore the clothing and facial hair of a devout South Asian Muslim, and was a passionate follower of a group of Youtube scholars who preach tolerance and openness. You can hear the full conversation below.
Over the next two years, as part of Civil Society Futures we’ll continue to speak to people across England about civil society in their area, and how they think it’s changing.