I think of community as fluid rather than fixed. I’ve lived in many, many neighbourhoods over my 43 years, but only a handful have felt like a community. But we all belong to communities that have nothing to do with where we live, and to truly feel part of such a community, where you bond with others over friendships/beliefs/experiences/ventures can feel like being part of the best family (only perhaps with a little more choice over who your relatives are!). What has pushed my buttons for a long time, and heavily influenced different paths trodden in my personal and working life, is community spirit. As a phrase this can be a bit throwaway, and is something many try to engineer (yes, you Dave, with your Big Society BS), but when you really experience or witness it, it’s like everything else you file under “the best things in life” – it can’t be bottled.
Having worked as a community video maker for several years, before moving on to arts outreach and community engagement (with a few years chucked in as a volunteer coordinator) I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with people from a real variety of communities. The sort of people who leave their mark and make you to want to be a better person; who inadvertently educate and inspire you. So here are a few short stories.
We all know something about pit closures in the UK, probably from watching the news in the 1980s or maybe from just watching Brassed Off. What I certainly never learned from the news was just how devastated and decimated many communities were for the years, even decades that followed. But also that communities were created as well as kicked when the loss of that local industry meant the loss of thousands of jobs. I still can’t claim to have any depth of knowledge, but I met some amazing people who left an impression. In the mid 1990s I worked on a couple of video projects with people whose passion could make you weep. On a project called “We Are Women, We Are Strong” (after the song) I got to meet women who one day were ‘ordinary’ housewives and mothers, and the next were at the centre of pickets and marches, finding enormous camaraderie with other women who were fighting for their husbands’ jobs and their families’ survival. The Women Against Pit Closures Movement became about so much more than a fight for jobs. Many of these amazing ladies were changed forever by this unique bonding experience, finding their voices and a passion for campaigning they’d never experienced before. This lead some of them to join other fights (such as Greenham Common) and others even put themselves through university and ended up moving into politics – stuff they’d never dreamed could happen. This is real community spirit in my book – people who rally together to support each other and find a collective voice in the face of adversity. We probably feel it’s getting harder to do this in the current climate as this government scapegoat and punish the poorest and most vulnerable, pitting us against each other, but I still have hope.
Then there were the men, the miners. I was fortunate enough to work with a group of 12 men who’d all lost their jobs and been forced into early retirement. They were no longer down the pits together, and hadn’t found work in many years (not for want of trying), but remained a community, bound to each other by their locality and shared experiences, but also by developing new passions and hobbies (home video, in this instance). I taught them how to edit their films – they taught me about friendship and perseverance.
Sometimes we impose the ‘community’ label on groups of people, like a brand or a stamp of convenience. But we all know from experience that, whatever bonds or common interests a community may have, people are not homogenous. I grow so tired of politicians and the media talking about immigrants and immigration, particularly where refugees and asylum seekers are thrown into the mix out of ignorance. People who seek asylum do so because they face dangers we can’t imagine in their own countries, not because they’re after our jobs and houses. I’ve met people who have horrendous stories to tell, of physical and psychological abuse and persecution, of losing or leaving behind family members and children, and they have the scars to show for it. You don’t give up your home, your family and your career as a doctor to spend six years on benefits (equivalent to 70% of income support) and no right to work just to come to this country. You do so because you seek sanctuary, because the will to survive is strong.
Facing a room full of families and individuals who speak 20 different languages and hardly any English is daunting. It’s also incredibly inspiring. I mainly worked on video and music projects with asylum seekers (music being a universal language, cliched but true!). People so generously shared their stories and talents, and bonded over food and music. I can only guess what it’s like to be in their shoes, and distantly admire them and their bravery. These people were simultaneously the most disparate and the most together communities I’ve met.
So – a few snippets of real community spirit I’ve been lucky enough to experience through my work. At home it’s a work-in-progress. After years on the housing waiting list and many house moves, my son and I are finally in a council flat. The neighbourhood is ok, I’ve lived in better and worse. We had a few dirty looks at first, and seeing/hearing young kids smoking and swearing depresses me, but we’ve got a couple of nice neighbours and I’m determined to be one too. The old guy next door is friendly, we put each other’s bins out and clear snow from the steps to each other’s flats. Not everyone round here is neighbourly like that, but if we take small steps and say a few “hellos” who knows, maybe my neighbourhood will become my community.