Seizing back ‘community’
In my day job I encounter the word ‘community’ dozens of times a day, hundreds of times a week. I use the term myself almost as many times again. I like to think on most occasions it is being used intentionally, genuinely and honestly. But on occasions it is not. It is used inappropriately, for ulterior self-serving motives, or in a patronising, pejroative manner. Whether it is done so intentionally or unintentionally matters little, for its mis-use or abuse brings with it potentially heavy consequences for those of us who believe we use it with due care and attention.
What prompted me to write this was reading a study about a “community training and education centre” in south Wales. I shall not name the centre, the area in which it is located or the organisations that manage it. My intention is not to judge the facility and those involved with it; indeed, I endorse the study’s conclusions that it has the potential to derive socio-economic benefits for people who use it and live near it. Neither do I lay claim to any of the findings in the study. I merely refer to it in order to illustrate a broader point.
That’s the disclaimers over.
The centre doesn’t, admittedly, feature the word ‘community’ in its name. It is an education and training centre and it is located in a deprived community. Or in other words a community that is oppressed by the inequalities of, and the uneven development perpetuated by, contemporary capitalism; but that risks being tempted down another path. Maybe another day. Back to the centre….
It is a centre whose aim is to promote and enhance access to training and lifelong learning opportunities. Laudable indeed for a community where low educational and skills (and health) levels undermine people’s abilities to penetrate, remain in and, perhaps most importantly, navigate the labour market. However it is branded and referred to as, and colloquially assumes the term of, a ‘community’ facility. This all seems reasonable. Except the study reveals that:
- the centre is managed by the local authority, and specifically by a department that has only a limited public-facing remit
- the centre is owned by the local authority
- there was “little community involvement in its design”
- there is “little community involvement” in its operation
- it is remote from the main residential area of the community it is there to serve
It begs the question: on what reasonable grounds can it be referred to as a ‘community’ facility? The local community did not have input to the design let alone have any input to the budgeting, contractual and project management aspects of the initial development. It has minimal input to the current management and operation of the facility. It is geographically peripheral from the community (not that this means that it must automatically be culturally and socially peripheral).
Large public organisations often assign the word community to its activities (or activities on which it is a lead partner) in order to differentiate them from its core corporate activities. Or to denote the point of delivery or location of an activity as away from a recognised central point. A more hawkish critique would be to suggest that local authorities use the term community tokenistically to massage and gain acceptance for developments and activities. They are ‘community’ developments based on the physical, cultural or organisational distance from a corporate centre and not in any way a reflection of community interest. This is dangerous to a more genuine use of the word ‘community’. Those developments about which communities are unaware; about which they have little opportunity to show dissent and/or offer alternatives; of which they are passive consumers; and, fundamentally, which contribute to a vision of a community that is not shared locally will not gain what is often referred to in shorthand as community ‘buy-in’.
This translates itself into, among other things, low footfall, both casual (i.e., dropping-in) and purposeful (i.e., to access particular services); low income generation and potential loss-making; alienation of those working at, or out of, the centre; potentially anti-social behaviour; and resentment from local people and partner agencies at the perceived ‘waste of money’. It is the latter two that an often conservative local press, which is also often impatient to understand the finer details of such developments, latch onto and publicise. Those interests that ideologically reject forms of welfarism, and state intervention (at a local or any other level) identify the term ‘community’ as one which denotes in developments a lack of financial rigour, robust management, professionalism and clarity of purpose. The fact that such ‘community’ projects or initiatives are often associated with disadvantaged communities leads to the criticism, by extension, of these communities, their perceived deficiencies and is a convenient means of ignoring the oppressive factors that insulates disadvantage in such communities (I’ve almost wandered off down that path again). It acquires a pejorativeness but one which has no origin in the community itself but in the actions of the mobilisers of a development who label it, with abandon, as being of or for a ‘community’.
The centre in question cost over £2.5 million and there is a severe risk that it acquires white elephant status among the local population and media. In such cases the community whose input, views and involvement were not sought at the outset and throughout the development and delivery process are often unfairly perceived as protagonists, over and above the fact that on a more fundamental level individuals potentially end up missing out on the supposed practical benefits that the development was intended to bring (in the case of this centre, qualifications, soft skills, affordable childcare, improved nutrition and diet, etc.)
There is a pressing need for scrutiny of ‘community’ proposals in order to ascertain whether, in simple terms, the term community is being employed genuinely or cosmetically, serving, as it might, interests other than those of the community/-ies. This need will gain a greater imperative in the next few years as punitive cuts to public and third sector budgets demand greater economies of scale, co-operation, joint working and collaboration. Unless communities are involved as equal partners and collaborators in these developments there is the risk that the term ‘community’ becomes a recklessly used label to justify, massage or railroad proposals that actually have no community involvement, interest or dividend.
As ever disdvantaged communities are those most at risk here. Where they lack the literacy, confidence, receptive conduits, and ability to mobilise a counter-voice then there can be insufficient means of challenging and withstanding such disingenuousness. Community development workers are critical to ensure that such interests are advocated and to provide the practical means of mobilising to articulate. Scrutinising the use of the term ‘community’ is the first step in seizing it back from those who seek to use it for their own interests.
Finally, back to the centre. The study concludes that there is a potentially promising future for it, and, hopefully, by extension for local residents. It can be financially viable; could become community-owned; and be instrumental in tackling the disadvantage that exists locally. That a team of community development workers hand in hand with a core of local activists have supported the centre, lobbied, and sought the finance, for the study to be completed and have badgered the local authority to consider imaginative proposals for the funding, management and ownership of the centre is testament to my point about the importance of community development. I suppose I should congratulate the local authority in question for its willingness to contribute to the debate about the centre’s future. Here’s to the future of the centre and that community, and many others like them.