Mansfield gets a bad press.
Known these days more for its multicultural make-up than its market, Mansfield is the town where Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians live alongside locals who have called Mansfield their home for generations. Mansfield is famous for having the second highest Brexit vote in the country, and the dominant narrative that’s out there says it’s because of this influx of immigration from Eastern Europe.
This frustrates locals and migrants alike, because it is by no means the whole story.
It was telling our own story that brought me and a dozen other local civil society leaders together — from faiths, trade unions, football clubs, schools, the Polish Community Association and even the mayor of Mansfield herself — on a summer’s evening to discuss place and belonging. The workshop was the first in a series of three, starting with how things are today, organised by local charity Maun Valley Citizens in conjunction with Civil Society Futures (hear about the second workshop here).
Getting personal (and Polish)
Nobody was sure what to expect, but the event began with a couple of powerful stories from people living in Mansfield who had different lenses into the place. The first, from a young leader from the Mansfield Guides, told us of the power of organised local community groups in a place as localised as Mansfield. We then heard from a Polish lady who was still finding her place in Mansfield, having come here to work despite earning two university degrees in Poland. She told us:
“Mansfield has been a great place for my children to grow up, full of opportunities – after school clubs, language classes and a quality of education they could not have received in Poland. But I do miss Polish culture.”
The rest of the workshop was devoted to exploring three questions to get us thinking about Mansfield within a wider context: In your opinion what is the effect of change on Mansfield? What communities within Mansfield do you belong to? What makes Mansfield a distinctive place to live? Discussion was fruitful. United by being a part of civil society, we were most certainly not united by opinion, and my biggest takeaway is that Mansfield is a polarising place.
For those who have found themselves here – started a family, able to afford to buy a home, embedded themselves within an institution – opinion was largely positive. One lady said:
“Mansfield is friendly, people talk to one another and help each other out – there’s nothing that makes Mansfield stand out, but it’s just fine”
But those who never had Mansfield in mind as a final destination had more mixed opinions. One lady, whose son lives in Italy, had not intended to stay in Mansfield so long, and for her Mansfield was a constraining place which had not changed for the better:
“I remember when there was a real pride in Mansfield, the mines which treated people with dignity and a beautiful market. It wasn’t great then but at least there was pride.”
Diversity and (dis)agreement
What struck me most was how personal people’s views were. It was impossible to put participants in boxes and predict answers based on age, gender or ethnicity – even on how much time participants spent in Mansfield, whether they worked here or how often they travelled. Ultimately, I sensed that it came down to identity. If there was something about Mansfield that participants could identify with – perhaps a workplace, or a group or institution grounded in the community – opinion tended to be more positive.
We often found ourselves agreeing to disagree, coming at questions and issues from different angles. On one thing, however, we did agree: Mansfield doesn’t believe in itself, and the outside world does not believe in Mansfield enough.
Mansfield is full of potential, if only there was the investment and innovation to realise it. A beautiful, historic place, close to a major city in Nottingham as well as some of the country’s most beautiful countryside, Mansfield has to make more of itself. Only by telling a new story will Mansfield put the Brexit narrative to bed — but that story is yet unwritten.
Do you belong?
We ended the session by pinning some reflections to a whiteboard, and it feels appropriate to close by quoting one of the most interesting responses:
“If you look like you belong then you are usually accepted, if you’re strong”
Having myself moved to work in Mansfield from Essex, I must agree that fitting in is hard and takes real strength. But I left the workshop questioning the assumptions I arrived with. Is Mansfield really that different from the rest of the country? After all, doesn’t it take just as much strength to fit in in London, for instance?
Questioning assumptions, though, are what spaces like this workshop are all about. Space for citizens to come together to engage, discuss, query and question is crucial for democracy.
I very much enjoyed this first workshop and I’m looking forward to the second, which is all about ‘Mansfield As It Should Be’. The hope is that these workshops will lead to concrete action which makes Mansfield a more welcoming place — and I am excited about what that might be.
This is the first in a series of blog posts about community workshops in Mansfield – read a recap of the second workshop here: https://civilsocietyfutures.org/a-more-welcoming-mansfield/30th July 2018