Organising for a new economy

This week I went with my colleagues from Southwark to visit Marsh Farm Outreach, a group of local residents of the Marsh Farm estate who have been working for over fifteen years to create an area of ‘special economic interest’ just outside Luton. The group have been trained as part of the Locality community organising programme and we have met on different occasions during the first year. Now that we are both moving on from the trainee year, we knew it would be a great opportunity to share experience, explore common ground and consider taking action together.

Economic Success

We were showed round the Marsh Farm House itself, in the midst of being extended and renovated to provide substantially improved facilities for a café, offices, a go-cart course and a sound studio. This is all happening a stone’s throw from a major roundabout with vast amounts of local traffic. In the afternoon, we went across to the community facility that has been open for 15 months (above) and is now beginning to be fully occupied. This is a huge purpose-built centre with three wings – one to incubate small businesses, one to provide conference and wedding party spaces and a third to house a massive fun room for children. The council, health services, police and other local services are all taking substantial parts of the complex and so providing near-permanent financial security for the rest of the scheme.

2012-12-03 14.01.05At the same time, I’ve been reflecting on the meaning of economic justice for our time. I’m no economist (thankfully!) and so feel rather inadequate when presented with looking for ways out of our current situation. I don’t believe there is much hope of weaning the political classes from their commitment to one form or another of neo-liberal free-marketry, dominated as they are by business interests. But at the same time, I also recognise that the communities in which most organisers are working face immense barriers to economic self-sufficiency or autonomy. The arguments rage about the austerity agenda, who is to blame (the bankers methinks!) and how quickly and for how long we need to take the foul medicine. And some really good thinking has already been done about new ways of organising our economy to respond to the triple threats of climate change, gross inequalities and financial meltdown, in places like the new economics foundation.

Retain Profit Locally

As a citizen, I don’t want the resources of my community to be leeched out to feed the international profit factories of multi-nationals. I want us to first hold onto what resources come into our community and then to make the very best use of them once they stay here. In urban society though, people work – and so use their most valuable time and skills – in service of other dispersed institutions; they seldom live, work and play in the same community. I do not pay any attention to whom my income serves once it leaves my pocket or bank account, to whether I spend it with a local family business or a multi-national. If our communities are to survive and have any capacity to build their own future, we all need to become much more conscious of the impact of our individual and collective spend.

2012-12-03 14.29.38And that’s just what Marsh Farm Outreach has done (Glenn and Matty  with the Southwark Organisers are pictured above).  Over several years, they have surveyed the estate on which all the Outreach members also live to uncover the pattern of income and spend. They explained to residents that they were looking to help the estate to retain the money that already flowed into Marsh Farm to make more jobs and businesses flourish. They collected information from hundreds of households about their income, benefits and earnings and about their spending habits, from food to car servicing. As a consequence, they could draw up a reasonable estimate of the Gross Domestic Product of the estate; it came to over £90M. They could also identify business opportunities that would draw existing spend back onto the estate and to people employed from the estate; they learnt that fast food was purchased in huge amounts but from many dispersed sources. Similarly car MOTs and servicing were taking loads of hard-earned cash out of the estate when people would be very happy to use a local mechanic, were the price and quality equivalent.

2012-12-03 14.41.56Expanding the Expectations

The work in Marsh Farm has clearly required a dedicated team and nearly two decades to deliver exceptional results. Community organisers – and other progressive community workers – can however take inspiration from their vision and example. It has taken many fierce battles with authorities, politicians and funding bodies to realise even a part of their dream but now the reality is changing. They have gained grudging recognition and a reputation beyond their resources. Marsh Farm Futures – the partnership that runs the community centre (and the Fun Factory or play centre pictured) – has a resource which should be financially secure for years to come and deliver a very real benefit to the people of the Marsh Farm estate, through employment, services, profile and sheer pride in achievement.

We know as organisers that ‘things ain’t right’ in communities on the edge. Of course due to our focus on local people, on relationships and on trust building, we tend to highlight the social aspects of the crisis in our neighbourhood – cohesion, conflict, lack of confidence. The reality is that economics plays a major role in shaping the expectations and behaviours of these communities. Living in poverty can be draining for your self-esteem and limiting of your choices but it also too often forms a bleak framework of possibilities. Organisers must be able to challenge those assumptions, not with bland assertions that anything is possible but by affirming the instinct to explore and experiment, to risk and be enterprising. Economic justice is about many aspects of our collective life but it certainly includes a real sense of expanded possibilities in excluded communities.

2012-12-03 15.00.29Making the Economics work

Organisers are looking for three factors for economic justice in their community’s initiatives:

  • The ideas must keep resources local and prevent them leaking out of the neighbourhood
  • The people involved must have an inclusive vision and be looking for collective solutions
  • The ambition must be unique and powerful so that it motivates for the long haul ahead

Facing into the devastation that is chronic in our communities today requires effective action in coordination with others. We need to build our efforts in a common direction with other progressive forces and so with others need to find a shared narrative that enables our diverse efforts to draw in the same way. That search is underway, let’s hope organisers can play our part in building greater economic justice for every citizen.

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