Empowered communities in the 2020s
The power of small actions in grassroots regeneration
What brings communities together and enables them to take action on issues that affect them locally? Recently IVAR co-hosted the DoFest Summit in Dudley as part of our Building Health Partnerships Share and Build Roadshow, which made me think about the power of small actions and collaborative, grassroots action to create fundamental shifts in the way we live and work.
A little bit of background
IVAR has worked in Dudley before, on a cross sector programme called Building Health Partnerships, which essentially helps local organisations to work together to improve local health and wellbeing. Much of the work IVAR does is with organisations, working from the inside-out, helping voluntary and community and public sector organisations through processes of change which are ultimately designed to improve peoples’ lives (see for example our work on learning and evaluation). But on our return to Dudley we found a collective of individuals, working from the outside-in to empower people to make their own localities vibrant and exciting places to live.
Do Fest Dudley – showing what’s possible
Do Fest is a celebration of what’s possible when ‘the doers, the encouragers and the curious’ come together. 3 days of participatory projects, lightening talks, exhibitions, Learning Labs and Design Labs. The whole thing was coproduced and attended by local people interested in creating, learning and sharing together. You can watch a fantastic short film about the whole event here.
Creating lots of small opportunities for people to get involved
Do Fest is part of efforts to create a more participatory culture in Dudley.[i] Part of this work aims to strengthen communities by nurturing lots of grassroots projects, ideas and practical activities. These are supported by CoLab, a friendly team of people based in a coffee shop called Gather[ii], smack-bang in the middle of Dudley’s high street. Here inspiration is shared from participatory projects around the world, ideas and projects are nurtured, practical activities are open to everyone and local people can connect into a networks and opportunities.
Structures and processes that support participation
The design team behind CoLab, Gather and DoFest are inspired by Participatory City, a way of working/organising that creates many projects and activities people can get involved in to ‘become creators of the places in which they live – becoming collaborators and co-producers as well as consumers…’ The idea is to create a more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable future together:
‘Places created by many people working together through a large network of practical ‘participatory culture’ projects and community businesses, built into the fabric of everyday life. Putting people at the heart of how a neighbourhood works. Places made by everyone, for everyone. Creating vibrant places that leave no one behind.’
DoFest was a celebration and demonstration of what’s possible when communities are supported to collaborate, coproduce.
‘If you eat you’re in’ – Using food as a catalyst for grassroots regeneration
A strong theme that ran through DoFest was food growing, with sessions on making seed bombs and planting fruit trees in public places. We were lucky enough to be joined by Pam Warhurst, one of the initiators of the Incredible Edible network, who shared her journey of using food to help strengthen community cohesion in Todmorden.
Everyone understands food. Food could get people talking; even better, it could inspire people to take action.
Pam described how food had become a catalyst for change by inspiring people to get together to create herb gardens and vegetable patches – Propaganda Gardens – on neglected public spaces. They didn’t ask permission or put “council officers through the trauma of having to say no” – they just got on with it. Soon they were setting up Propaganda Gardens in police stations, job centres, train stations and health centres. Incredible Edible went on to back various campaigns, support businesses and help set up learning centres at the Incredible Aqua Garden and the Incredible Farm.
Incredible Edible has had some quite unexpected effects on the community. The council put benches (unasked) in Propaganda Gardens for people to enjoy. More local products appeared in the market in response to greater demand for local food. Farmers even changed the types of crops they were growing. Small businesses and social enterprises sprung up selling and producing local delights. This created what Pam calls “a sticky economy”, keeping money in the local area. People have a sense of pride in where they live, have a voice on public spaces and are reconnecting with food growing skills. Todmorden has even invented Vegetable Tourism attracting people from all over the world to marvel at corn that’s taller than police officers. 10 years later, Incredible Edible is in 120 communities across the UK and is even inspiring people globally to start growing in their communities.
Action for empowered communities
There is a lot of rhetoric on empowerment and participation, but at the same time significant cuts are being made to public resources. So what makes resilient and empowered communities?
I think there’s a lot to be learnt from DoFest and Incredible Edible. They both inspire and empower by creating fun opportunities for people to get involved in local activities, bringing people together to learn from each other, share ideas and make things happen. Both empower people to take action, however small, which when done collectively shifts local norms. These are simple actions of giving and taking part, which is how communities have always worked. As Margaret Mead famously stated:
‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’
[i] Dudley CVS, Gather and The UP-Cycle Shop are collaborating on activity around participatory culture which West Midlands police are supporting through Active Citizens.
[ii] Gather Dudley CIC is a social enterprise which generates income through it’s coffee shop and room hire.
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