Separate Lives

This week I’ve been visiting people in their homes again. Working my way with a different colleague each day from door to door, I’ve been struck by the incredible variety of people I meet this way. The diversity has so many dimensions that it’s hard to conceive; we need a new paradigm of diversity to account for it. As someone with a generally positive disposition, I’ve met individuals with deeply disquieting negativity toward life and their neighbourhood. As someone with an interest in other styles and cultures, I’ve met citizens who ‘keep themselves to themselves’ and only know people like themselves.

Walworth – the land of Babel?

It’s striking that you can talk to someone at door A who tells you emphatically that the area is a hell hole and utterly depraved; yet someone at door B next door will tell you forcibly that the area is delightful and can’t be improved. Their dissenting views can be about the general state of the community or even about specific issues such as crime or local shopping. Opinion seems to fluctuate wildly from one household to another. We seldom get to talk to more than one person from each household but when – in this cold weather – we are invited in, it’s clear that their views in general direction are likely to be shared by their family.

Wayne Coyne in a bubble - by bildungsr0mansLiving in a Bubble

I’ve been thinking about these extremely different experiences of the very same space. I’m sure we’ve all had that experience of expressing an opinion say about your community only for another to draw out a telling fact that flatly contradicts your view. You have two options. You might challenge the veracity of your friend’s ‘fact’ or ask where your own opinion came from. For many in Walworth, it seems either would be an unusual experience – and if I’m honest, it’s unusual for me too! I like many others live in a bubble of my own making, designed around my upbringing and lifestyle, informed by my life history and relationships, influenced by my day-to-day encounters and my reading. Encountering people with radically different views is rare.

Including the silenced

These separate lives makes community difficult. It is my contention with Aristotle that we find another component of our humanity when we engage with our neighbours in deliberation and share work for the common good, the work of politics. That they are diverse and hold diametrically opposed views makes it critical that we remain trusting and respectful in our relationships. And we discover the most important aspects of the common good – the deepest insights about what makes us human – by attending to those who are excluded, who have no voice and are never listened to. Their inclusion is the touchstone of effective everyday democracy.

Andrew Mitchell discusses UK Aid with the Somali Community - DFIDConsultation without conclusion

Taking the temperature of Walworth – cold to freezing to go by this week’s thermometer – can be a tricky business. So many say that they feel completely ignored by the authorities that active community engagement is a minority sport. Even those who do manage to find a suitable way to join in or to tell the authorities what they think often miss the point of the ‘consultation’ and fail to contribute in a way that makes their point stick. And then once you have the very small number who take meaningful part in any one consultation, the opinions expressed are so utterly diverse and contradictory that the authorities can draw few useful conclusions.

More Trustees, Power to the Executive

When I worked in charity governance, I was struck by the variation in the numbers of trustees appointed by different charities. Those who chose to appoint small numbers often thereby gave their board a greater influence on the organisation’s ethos and direction. A larger board (potentially) brought in a wider range of views but almost always gave the executive much more power over the organisation’s plans and culture. The diversity of views expressed in a larger (and disparate) group always left more to be decided elsewhere. Principles could be hammered out in broad terms by the board but their practice was seldom scrutinised because of contradictory understandings of those principles held by board members.

Kaleidoscope of concerns

As Walworth forms itself around a new kaleidoscope of cultures, styles and identities, so finding the common threads that bind the community together becomes more difficult. It also makes authentic leadership even more important. Community organising seeks to identify the common good from amongst the huge range of concerns in any one neighbourhood. Door-to-door listening gives some hope that we will encounter people from every walk of life and experience of Walworth. But the failure of the authorities to address this diversity in any meaningful way is tangible in most conversations. It leaves the decision more and more at the whim of elected members and more often their executive officers.

Data extraction vs listeningConstantin and Georgi 2 by tripu CC Flickr

The context in which we listen is critical. The questions are vital to eliciting the data we seek. But the assumptions that underpin any conversation are just as important. Dialogue aimed at drawing out the other, opening them up and helping them reflect on their own ideas is unusual, and for many citizens unique. Extractive data mining seems the norm, where the authoritative  interviewer – a researcher or pollster – asks carefully selected predetermined questions that can be easily quantified and offers nothing of themselves to the conversation. Most residents hear nothing more of such surveys and feel when they do hear what was decided that their views were just obliterated. Like their data, they feel like throw away people.


Edgar S. Cahn (2000) No More Throw Away People – The Co-production Imperative Essential Books

Aristotle (2000) The Politics Penguin Classics

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