This week has been the first when we have been able to get out onto the streets to listen to people about their views on their community. The local team of five organisers – Zara, Nicholas, Ahmed, Kathleen and me – are between us working across different communities in Southwark, taking our home patch of the borough as a starting point. Zara’s parents and grandparents come from Walworth in central Southwark whilst Nicholas, Ahmed and I have lived in different parts of the borough for some years. Kathleen is the new-comer having been in Walworth for only a year or so. Ahmed has been living in Peckham in the middle of the borough whilst Nicholas lives with his family on the border with Lambeth near Kennington. I’ve been in north Southwark in Rotherhithe for about fifteen years now.
Making the preparations
At this early stage, we are still flexing our wings and trying out our approach to listening. We’ve spent a few weeks putting together the basics like starting up team meetings, sorting out the practical administration and preparing secure storage for our records. The stumbling block so far has been creating ourselves some business cards which has proved more difficult than we anticipated. Trying to use a particular online service left us hamstrung with templates that just didn’t work, so we have turned to a local printer. Overall the month has been a good experience of learning about each other and about the borough and developing a sense of how the team will function over the year’s training.
Now we have begun to take our learning out into the community and to discover what people really think about their neighbourhood. Southwark social housing is dominated by the local authority who have retained a large proportion of their housing stock. The estates that were built in the 1950s and 1960s after the devastation to the north of the borough in the Second World War are mostly now renewed and upgraded. They are also now a huge mixture of tenancy with many households having decided to buy the leasehold often using mortgage finance. In more recent days, the Council has been eager to encourage private developers to build new complexes with a small number of social housing units included. (The Shard is pictured here as only the most prominent of these developments.) Southwark’s housing stock then is immensely diverse from completely insanitary to wildly luxurious.
Choosing where to start
Going out door-to-door presented me with several hurdles. I needed first to decide where to start. No one neighbourhood seemed to beckon, though I knew I wanted to go to those places where no one listens. In the end, walking through Bermondsey to observe the area and get a feel for places I didn’t know, I found a Southwark-run estate which seemed to present a positive face to the world. I spent some time looking it over and felt comfortable making this my place for early learning. Obviously, I choose not to name the estate so as to retain anonymity for my work on the ground.
I had to prepare myself with paperwork. My identity card needed to be readily available if asked for it. I wanted to be able to note down what the residents told me without having a firm surface to rest on. In the end, I borrowed a rather old clipboard which proved too flimsy and I’m now after a zip up pouch ‘folio’ to replace it. I had to print off some paper slips with my contact details to push through doors that remained shut. I also had to decide how to record progress during the day; as a result, I have devised my own hieroglyphs to note which doors were opened, to what end and those that were ‘no answer’. We started in unseasonably warm weather but as the week ended, it certainly became much colder and the mists of Autumn rolled in from the Thames; I had to judge each day what clothes were needed to make this new outdoor life comfortable!
I also had to get my spirits together. If you’ve never gone door-to-door before, as I hadn’t, it is quite a moment to knock on your first door. What to expect? How to start? I found once we had made a start – Zara came with me to give me courage – the variety of responses were mostly within a predictable range. Being able to reflect together on each early doorstep conversation helped us improve our approach quite quickly. About half were ‘no answer’, another quarter answered but were not available and the remaining quarter gave us their time quite freely. Even late in our first day, we were surprised by one elderly man who immediately invited us into his living room, so keen was he to tell us about ‘the blacks’.
And the results? We were heartened to see two women over the three days make tentative steps toward joining us to listen to their neighbours. Almost everyone who spoke to us – about fifteen people in three days – exchanged their contact details with us, so as to stay in touch with developments. We bumped into the chair of the tenants and residents’ association who was keen to talk to us. Small steps but promising ones. But then Confucius said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, eh?