This week I was delighted to attend the AGM of the Bede House Association in Bermondsey. Bede House is a multi-purpose building used by several projects and services serving Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. Most obviously it has a youth centre with vivid murals painted on the external walls and has established work with people with learning difficulties. It is located next to Southwark Park and sits beneath Maydew House, a twenty storey tower block, part of the Southwark Park Estate. The AGM was completely full and arriving late I had to edge through to the front table to take the only chair available. Nick Dunne has been the Director of the Bede House Association for over ten years was presenting. Despite a hard year of retrenchment in 2010-11, he has sustained a fine staff team and a dedicated Board of Directors.
As the evening proceeded, I was struck by the way in which the Bede House Association sits at the intersection of many different networks. Some are professional, linking together for example commissioners and service providers for people with learning difficulties. Some are personal, such as the links with a quiet clergyman I spoke to in the reception after the main business. He had been a residential volunteer at the Bede House Association in the 1960s and even today in his seventies, loyally turned out for the AGM.
Some of the networks are structured around mutual interests – such as those who created the rap three young people wrote and performed – or shared concerns – such as combating domestic violence and hate crime. I talked to a couple of young women who are part of the youth club about their experience of gangs locally. Some are dispersed networks of the powerful and well-connected, such as the Labour deputy mayor whom I unknowingly sat next to or Simon Hughes, the local MP and deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, currently in coalition with the Conservatives in national government. Simon (pictured here at the Blue Market, Bermondsey) closed the formal business of the evening by talking about the links between the work of Bede and the global economic crisis engulfing us today.
Bede House is no exception – I have begun to see networks everywhere! While researching my dissertation, I examined the network of independent activists in Southwark. My sample was small but several key messages were clear from the material I gathered. First, activists are deeply dependent – directly and indirectly – on the local authority. They use the information, staff and resources of the authority at many turns in their activism. Second, activists rely on each other often in neighbourhood clusters, both because of proximity and that many of their causes are local in character. (This diagram shows the nine clusters identified in my research.) Third – and most pertinent to my visit to Bede House – local activists often need the support of independent centres to enable and legitimise their efforts. Indeed in my study, only three organisations appeared twice in my network mapping, two of which, like Bede House Association were local settlements.
And now of course I am becoming a network weaver. As a community organiser, I’m working with local residents to find those who link others together, who often unconsciously give a shape to local community life, who forge bonds between disparate groups, who can connect and inspire. Individuals play such different and really valuable roles in their communities, yet there are some who are invaluable in creating the ties of community in the first place. As I set out to meet hundreds of community members, listening to them talk about their hopes and fears, about their lives and the lives of their neighbours, I want to find the bonds of trust that are strong enough to support collective action.
Bede House Association is a place where many such networks for action intersect. It means that at their AGM or any other general gathering they sponsor, people from all parts of Bermondsey life – and beyond – feel welcomed and comfortable. They may go into their distinct groups most of the time but on these special occasions, the networks can create new bridges and bonds between those sections of society. At times, the interests of those networks will diverge and sometimes clash but they are somehow the trust is held in such settings.
Arcing between the Haves and the Have-nots
Today the links between the rich and the excluded grow tenuous, divided by geography, housing tenure and prejudice as much as by income. Bede House Association, the settlements more widely and many community-led organisations across the country continue to interlace people from many networks to produce a rich tapestry of community effort. Such meeting places are few and far between and however we may view the divisions, these points of linkage remain important wellsprings of community life.
Alison Gilchrist (2009) The well-connected community – a networking approach to community development 2nd Edition Policy Press
Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor (2006) Net Gains – A handbook for network builders seeking social change Available from www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/plastrick.pdf
Valdis Krebs and June Holley (2006) Building Smart Communities through Network Weaving Available from http://www.orgnet.com/BuildingNetworks.pdf