Central to our lives together are relationships; through relationships we find meaning and experience loss. Through relating to each other we create our own politics, our life together. To harp on about the importance of relationships can seem like platitudes but for community organisers, public relationships are a fundamental part of all we do. Inviting an individual to move out from their purely domestic concerns to take responsibility in the wider community involves connection. For many people such as Sylvia such a move is done over time, takes guts and perseverance and needs leadership to be sustained. Sylvia is a resident of a grey block on the Aylesbury estate who has been isolated at home by life’s circumstances. Meeting her at the door, Sylvia was warm and friendly but you could sense her loneliness from her references to best friends who lived far away.
Opening the conversation with her, she was tentative but direct. As we built trust, so she began to be more expansive and to think on a bigger scale. I joked with her about my independence – I’m not from the Council, not selling anything, not even Jesus and certainly not (looking at my black bomber jacket) from the police! She began to warm to the conversation as we got to her dreams for the area. Bringing up two kids – her son is nine and her daughter just thirteen – on the Aylesbury offers some real challenges but she also saw that things could be made much better if only we worked together. She wanted to see better activities planned for young people locally – the kids from eight up who often seem to roam the streets unsupervised.
How to act differently?
I challenged her about the part she plays in local life – does she feel able to influence the shape of local affairs? Is her opinion listened to? Does she want to have more of a say in the area’s decisions? The conversation became more focused and serious – we were getting to the point of our engagement: what would Sylvia do in response? How would she act differently? We explored how she had played a part in the past by attending meetings and complaining to the Council. She had been left disillusioned. Now was a chance for her to put her own words into action – how might we improve things by working together?
Our conversation turned to the practical matters of how she might meet neighbours and build trust with them. Sylvia’s history had led to her being quite insular – keeping herself to herself as she put it – not knowing much about her immediate neighbours. I offered to introduce her to a few people I had met already and who had shown an interest in further action. We agreed to a date and time for her to go out with me to some other homes on the estate and to get a chance to broaden her network. Meeting people – relating to other residents for the common good – became a theme we returned to again and again.
What was exciting though was the way our regular contact has turned into a deepening relationship. We have begun to know enough about each other to know we differ in some fundamental ways but to still respect each other. We hold an emerging view of each other that gets more nuanced each time we meet. Sylvia has been transformed from a stranger into a friend, not overnight but by careful and sensitive probing, some shared laughter and a challenge or two – both ways. She is still growing and has helped me see things on the Aylesbury with a new perspective.
Sylvia was hungry for association. Reaching out to the community is as much about reaching inside ourselves for the resources to risk. Finding your place alongside your neighbours as residents of the Aylesbury is a personal and a political act of considerable power. Leaders grow into their role by learning how to lead in small and simple ways; they grow more confident and robust as they see successes they value. Introducing people to their immediate neighbours may seem just the first step to community but it can be a considerable challenge to the people themselves, never mind those who regard them as passive recipients of services.
Sylvia is able now to bring a group together in her home, to listen with an open mind and learn from others and to take action to make things begin to happen. Her actions are small and apparently insignificant but they form the beginning of a journey for her that may just be life-transforming. The formation of meaningful public relationships is fundamentally different to the ‘tyranny of intimacy’ that dominate our media, politics and marketing. We are bombarded with personal details of the stars, politicians wanting to present as your friend on TV or when canvassing, salesmen want to tell you their life story. Such sham relating offers the feeling of connection without the substance; it is instrumental in quality, not relational.
Shifting the mindset
The habit of relating is key to developing the power of numbers. Moving citizens from a passive mentality is hard. When everyone expects to pay for every service, have it provided by a bureaucratic agency and then to complain when it doesn’t deliver, no one wins. But bringing residents into relationship with each other, to begin negotiating the most important things for this community – that makes for a different mindset. Michael Gecan writes
In a culture of quick encounters and multiple contacts, of instant access and empty photo-ops, there are fewer and fewer public relationships of [this] depth and quality. The absence of these relationships creates great gaps in our society – where alienated people become more detached, where lost and damaged people spin further out of control, where the apathetic and the enraged drift further away from a human center, where killers and terrorists hide in plain sight, shopping at the supermarket, drinking at the bar. We will never have enough technology or enough security officers or social workers and government programs to compensate for the thinning of public relationships.
Michael Gecan (2004) Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action Anchor Books
Edward T. Chambers (2004) Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action and Justice Continuum
Lee Staples (2004) Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing Praeger
A Guide to Root Solution Listening Matters – an introduction to the Re:generate Trust approach to community animation