Listening to the views of loads of people gives me a sense of what troubles this area. People mention some things again and again: youth troubles, poor response to maintenance and repair calls, fears for the future of their flats. Some of these are repeated by rote, learnt on the network of gossip and rumour. Others have the feeling of authentic personal experience, individuals who have faced into the issue for themselves and come up angry, despairing or just resentful. Lots of the residents of Walworth – both on the huge Aylesbury estate which forms about half of the area and off it – seem determined to make the best of it.
The troubles are often though someone else. A normal response is to see the concern to be with the council, They don’t listen, they don’t act, they aren’t interested. The huge monolith that is the London Borough of Southwark for many takes a lot of the blame. The council influences many lives in a fundamental way as landlord, rent collector, repairs service, refuse collector, manager of public health, schools, planning and business licensing. Southwark has many opportunities then to mess up the lives of the community!
Give the yobs something to do
The trouble though is also often particular groups in the area. The most prevalent complaint is against young people. They are seen ‘hanging around’, ‘loitering’ or ‘mucking around’. Their clothes and demeanour make them feel threatening to some in the community and others have received – from the rumour mill or their friends or family or their own experience – violence, intimidation or abuse. A few have been mugged or stabbed and their stories are told to many salacious ears. Troubled young people with too little to do provide a constant source of fear, unease and disquiet for residents.
Another group ‘causing the trouble’ – if you can call it a group – is characterised as foreigners or outsiders. The troubles caused by outsiders are often less intense and more generalised. Some residents complain of noise or ‘dirty habits’ like spitting. Others point to the dominance of the local shopping market by foreign vegetables and cheap clothes. Others again feel alienated from their neighbours because they are all new and untried. Partly this seems to be a fear of the unknown and partly a loss of the familiar faces and shops that made this (in memory at least) a stable and secure environment.
In conversation after conversation, what strikes me so forcibly is the passivity of so many people in this community. It is extremely unusual to meet ordinary citizens who feel they can change their lives in anything but the most superficial way. In past ages, it might have been termed fatalism but most residents of Walworth offer up a pretty hopeless prospect. Their vision for the future is mostly much of the same with small tweaks to adjust for their specific circumstances. Ask them to address questions such as how they want the estate on which they live to be shaped, what priorities they might like to be implemented or what new activities they want to see started up and I am all too often met with a blank incomprehension.
More of the same
Placing the blame out there is a human trait; we all prefer to read the past in a way with exonerates us and our people from blame. On the other hand, the future is for many in other communities rich with possibilities. Here in Walworth, it is strikingly vague and uncertain. Most people seem to view the future of their community as essentially an extension of the present. Few indeed recognise that we might together actually have the capacity to form that future in a way that better meets our needs for mutual respect, shared endeavour and stronger community.
My role as community organiser is to encourage the germination of good ideas, to support lines of thought that lead to greater autonomy for the individual and their family. My job is to release the underlying hopefulness of many citizens that things round here could be better. This does not mean always presenting an immensely positive face to the world and ‘selling’ a glowing future of achievement. But it does mean being attuned to the part of people that want to take responsibility back from those external forces – the council, the youth or the foreigners – and begin to form their own better vision for the community.
Taking up the burden
Of course the blame is often rightly assigned elsewhere. The council seems to do a lousy job of repairing the Aylesbury flats. Young people are a menace to many especially in groups and at night. The swift transformation of a mostly white working class area into an extraordinarily diverse neighbourhood with a kaleidoscope of cultural models and styles is hard for long-term residents to understand or relate to. But alongside the pressures from these forces, we all need a sense of ‘agency’, a feeling that we can make a difference ourselves and are not merely flotsam and jetsam in the stream of social life.
Opening to possibilities
But more than this. This community here needs to reclaim its own power. Every community – in my opinion – has the right to determine its future, not in some vacuum with no recognition of the rights of other communities to the same. And Walworth has – systematically and for far too long – ceded power to other parts of the borough and the system. The power of Walworth has been on the wane for too long and people in this community have learnt too well that other people run things for them. A sense of agency leads to a sense of purpose and active participation. And engagement leads to a power to change key factors for our well-being. We need to reclaim the power we have lost.
Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller (2006) A New Weave of Power, People & Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation http://www.justassociates.org/ActionGuide.htm
Valerie Miller, Lisa VeneKlasen, Molly Reilly and Cindy Clark (2006)
Making Change Happen: Power – Concepts for Re-visioning Power for Justice,
Equality and Peace Available at http://www.justassociates.org/publications_files/MCH3.pdf
Ruth Mayne and Jim Coe (2010) Power and Social Change NCVO Available at http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/sites/default/files/UploadedFiles/NC586_12b_power_social_change.pdf
This pdf book is an excellent report exploring power in different aspects
of the work of the non-profit sector.