'Befriending, taking risks, taking responsibility -- these are all Big Society concepts', says Kenneth Rodney, 'but we got there first'. We're walking to a meeting of the steering committee of the Five Estates Project, of which Rodney is one of the initiators and founders, through the low-rise centre of Dudley, in the West Midlands, a town that's visibly struggling. A freezing wind batters the faded bunting on the Fountain Arcade, built 1925, and rattles the 'For sale or to let' sign on a graceful eighteenth century house.
It's not just the weather that's forbidding; 'Dudley is a very cold place for newcomers', says Rodney, whose parents brought him to England from Jamaica when he was six (he's in his fifties now). He doesn't live in Dudley; he's raised his family in Birmingham because, he says, Dudley 'lacks vision; it hasn't got any get-up-and-go'. Someone else at the meeting, who's driven up from Birmingham, ten miles away, talks about the 'culture shock' of Dudley; ‘it's as if each mile up the motorway takes you back five years’, he says.
Dudley was a medieval market town, and became a powerful centre of Black Country iron, glass, coal and other industries from the eighteenth century until the early 1980s; the vast redbrick remains of Chance Brothers glassworks, for instance, sit idle along the canal between Smethwick and Dudley. Now Dudleyites are competing for around 300 minimum wage jobs in a new supermarket that's about to open at the foot of Dudley Castle (whose original structure was built by Norman invaders). Is there a particular culture that excludes newcomers? Dudleyites at the meeting talk about a 'village culture'; and then there’s the persistence of the local dialect, impenetrable to English-speaking outsiders. But racism also plays a part, and it's not just directed at people who aren't white; Kenneth Rodney says most of the Poles who came to Dudley to work have decamped, because of racial harassment.
But refugees from Zimbabwe, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, 'dispersed' to Dudley under a programme begun by the Labour government, lack the resources to move on. There are less than a thousand of them in the borough, says Rodney (though he regularly meets locals who claim there are at least 18 or 19,000 foreigners in the town). The Five Estates Project was developed by Rodney and an energetic Dudleyite, Martin Smith, who is currently Vice Chair of the Dudley Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations (DFTRA). He says he realised action was needed after the 2005 London bombings, when racist graffiti appeared on the council estate he lives on, and bricks were thrown through the windows of a tenant who’s Muslim. He contacted Kenneth Rodney, then director of the Dudley Racial Equality Council (now a charity called the Centre for Equality and Diversity), and they began to work together. The Five Estates Project, based in the former chain-making area of Netherton (‘close-knit communities’, says Rodney, ‘and very macho’), started life as the Three Estates project, but became Five Estates in September 2009, some months before the anti-Muslim English Defence League mobilised against a proposed new mosque in Dudley and held two marches in the town. ‘We got a lot of information about what they were planning through the 24-hour helpline DFTRA has set up’, says Smith (in five years, they’ve had over 10,000 calls). And he’s proud of the fact the person whose windows were being broken is now a member of his local Tenants’ and Residents’ Association (TRA).
The involvement of TRAs is the key feature of the Five Estates Project. ‘We were convinced’, says Rodney, ‘that we needed to work with TRAs to access isolated migrants and challenge myths about migration’. Drawing in migrants as volunteers in TRA-run voluntary services like ‘Big Clean-ups’ – where tenants help an elderly or disabled resident to clear out clutter – and organising events like skittles evenings – to give migrants a taste of Black Country culture – are how the project has proceeded. It’s involved painstaking door-to-door visiting by members of the Project, to make contact with migrants – ‘some of them go into their flats, and they won’t open the door to anyone’, says Rodney, ‘either because their experiences in the country they’ve fled have made them frightened of a knock at the door, or they fear the Home Office, or their fellow residents.You can knock and knock, and you know they’re there, but they won’t open’.So having people doing the knocking who can speak the same language has drawn these isolated migrants out. ‘The TRAs used to complain: we invite them to meetings, but they don’t come’, says Rodney. ‘Now they understand they’ve got to be positive about involving migrant communities – they have a responsibility to build bridges.’
At the end of November all the TRAs in Dudley – 26 in all – are supporting the first-ever city-wide conference to develop this bridge-building work; the day is to be called the ACT day – Awareness leading to myth-busting; Commitment to collective working to resolve problems; Taking responsibility as a citizen. The name of the day; the themes for workshops; all emerged from the meeting of TRAs and the Five Estates Project that agreed the conference. It’s a very big development.
‘When we approached Dudley Community Partnership several years ago, they told us there was no need for this project’, says Kenneth Rodney. ‘But in any case, public sector agencies aren’t good at this sort of thing. We’ve been able to do it because we’ve been willing to spend time out there, befriending people and trying things out. It demands a lot of time, and a lot of presence. Rightly or wrongly, what the promoters of the Big Society are talking about is what we’re doing already. But they are looking for evidence that it can all be done for free. It can’t – if you’re looking for everything to be done voluntarily, it won’t be done’. The Five Estates Project raised funds to appoint a co-ordinator who’s paid for 18 hours a week (but of course does more), and whose contract runs out in December 2011. He’s brought in people from Dudley Council and the local Primary Care Trust – ‘joined up thinking’, Martin Smith calls it; ‘Five Estates works because it’s based on partnerships.’
Some of the migrant volunteers were at the steering group meeting. They included a refugee from Zimbabwe who’d spent five years persuading the Home Office to give him leave to remain. During some of that time, he slept in graveyards and ate from rubbish bins; at one of his worst moments he was housed for several months by a woman and her husband he met by chance; ‘they would get up early in the morning’, he said, ‘and drive me to Liverpool to present my case. They were extraordinary’. Now that he has a small flat in a tower block, he’s exercised about what seem to him the boring lives of his elderly white neighbours: ‘there’s nothing for them to do’, he says, ‘except eat and watch television’. He says when these people look at the estate, they see what was there before the tower blocks were built; they see the old village underneath the concrete. He’s unearthed a few old pictures, and he wants to involve his elderly neighbours in this informal archiving work. A Zimbabwean tenderly knitting together Dudley’s past and present – it can only do good.
This article is part of the 50.50 dialogue People on the move