There will only be change if we make it happen. That’s what foot-binding, female circumcision and an empty shops project in Brixton have in common.
Foot-binding in China did not end with the communists coming to power, as many people believe. It ended with a series of communities deciding as a group to end the practise and one human catalyst – novelist Alicia Little - spreading and seeding that message. Society, as a peer-to-peer network, was perpetuating foot-binding. Parents were breaking and binding their young daughters’ feet in order to ensure them a good marriage and life prospects in a society where unbound women were ostracised. It was community networking – an ever more interlinked web of parent-led 'natural foot societies’ – that brought this to an end.
The same approach is mirrored by the Tostan charity, recipients of last week's Skoll prize for social entrepreneurship. Tostan, among other projects, is challenging the practice of female circumcision at village level throughout Africa.
It is doing so not through UN directives or high-level government wrangling, but by fostering change through changing of conventions at a community level, led by local people themselves. Through knowledge sharing and education, people are choosing what change they wish to effect in their immediate environment.
How does this relate to us here in Britain, in the run-up to our increasingly Americanised 6th May elections? Society, community and empowerment are words that get bandied about increasingly. But how can this be put into practice? How can we empower communities and the full human potential?
My three examples of community activism all point up the limits of what governments, red, blue or yellow, can achieve. They all relate to human rights and human development. For human rights are not something that only apply somewhere else. In the course of this year we have seen our police ‘kettling’ protestors at the G20 summit in London.There have been increasing attacks on civil liberties in the name of freedom and reminders of the brutality and inhumanity that results from misplaced priorities (from Ian Tomlinson’s untimely death to our shocking record on detention centres).
Human rights are not merely freedoms from. Freedom of speech is not just the freedom to voice an opinion, it should also be understood as the freedom of access to a channel from which we can voice that opinion. We have the human right not just to food, shelter and free speech. Human rights, Amartya Sen reminds us, should be seen as the freedom to develop the full extent of our personality and potential.
My three examples all relate to grassroots empowerment in its true sense: as a claiming of agency and power over one’s environment and community. Now please, don’t switch off because of this spiel about human rights and development: this purple party broadcast is brought to you from very close to home. Because the hard answer is that it if you want change, it’s kinda up to you and your networks to bring it about.
Government can give you the space to do things, it can avoid punching you up or smashing you down, it can give you those core rights that we all need. However, beyond the provision of subsistence, public services and education, government cannot empower us to claim agency or to change the attitudes and behaviour that foster inequality and injustice. China’s Manchu regime in China outlawed foot-binding , sometimes at pain of death, for over two hundred years. But it was the peer-to-peer network that eradicated it in a generation in many regions.
Beyond the election, May heralds other endings and new beginnings. One of these is the end of Britain’s biggest empty shop project in Brixton Village Market in London. Brixton’s borough, Lambeth is one of extremes: one of the most deprived areas of London, its deprivation score has worsened in the past five years. Higher than national levels of unemployment, crime and people living in social housing coexist with higher than national levels of household income and educational levels. It is highly diverse, with white Britons making up only 33% of its wards, Coldharbour, which is one of the most deprived in England and Wales.
Brixton Village had seen better times: it was run-down, half empty and reeked of neglect. Now, after a Space Makers Agency project in which twenty shops were offered rent-free for three months, it is a vibrant and buzzy place, gathering over £150.000 worth of press coverage to the area in the first quarter alone. It has become a place which, in the tail-end of recession and increasing unemployment, has become a focal point of activity for the local community. It is a place where stuff happens and local people have room to try things out and create.
It has become a space to create, but also a place to safely be. Olive Tree Cafe, founded by the parent-led Al Amal Society, aims to create a space for dialogue and bridges, where young people can start to move away from extremism. They cite a recent meeting with Israeli youths with pride. A couple of shops down, New Generation is taking advantage of the meanwhile spaces between temporary and permanent tenants, using an empty shop as gallery and workshop. Currently homeless, this Latin American collective affiliated to Refugee Youth uses art as a tool for empowerment and participation.
Thinking Flowers was one of the original tenants of the empty shop project. It is an ethical cut flower social enterprise that sources flowers mainly locally or from ethical sources abroad. Founder Lauren Craig points out how the equitable access to space brings people together as equals, and creates opportunity. Other shops have engaged with community problems like high youth employment by providing training and employment for local young people. “There won't be work left for us unless we create it” reads the banner in zero-food mile café Cornercopia.
One-off events have included the Wake-Up campaign in which passers- by were encouraged to dress up as African kings and queens to raise money for sustainable development projects. Every Saturday, and soon every Thursday evening, something exciting happens in Brixton Village. Anyone can turn up and do something, and local planning meetings are well-attended. The spontaneity of the Saturdays means that everyone has the opportunity to participate actively in the creation of culture, with space for freedom of expression, diversity and participation.
The empty shops phase of the project is drawing to a close, with eight new tenants and a further seven very close to signing. However, the most fundamental aspect of its success will remain: people can see how the local community can interact in a different way with the space around them.
This isn't just about the free art: participation in culture, education and employment are all fundamental human rights. Social capital in large part dictates where we end up in life. By forming effective networks and communities we increase our capabilities and our ability to realise our ideas. Empty shops, long-term unemployment and a disconnect with our community are all symptoms of the disempowering and dehumanising aspects of modern life.
In town centres across Britain, one in eight of our shops stand empty -12.6%. Brixton Village was one such example. You couldn't have paid a local authority or government official to bring in the diverse range of projects and people it has attracted in the past five months. Hell, you couldn’t have paid any individual to bring in all these projects. What Brixton Village demonstrates is the explosion of action, creativity and change that is possible when networks of people are given the space to connect.
It may seem to be stretching things to make a parallel between foot-binding in China, female circumcision and art in empty shops in Brixton. But we should never forget that 'developed' countries need developing as well. The UK suffers from deep political apathy, entrenched and rising inequalities and it is heading for uncertain times. Local networks and communities need to be empowered to actively seize opportunities and break the systems that keep discrimination and inequality in place. Young people need to know that they can be active agents and that there is a role out there for them.
There will only be change if we create it. Government can help us all achieve our potential by funding projects that make innovative use of wasted space and wasted talent. But only you can make it happen.
Gaia Marcus is a Research Associate at London’s Space Makers Agency and hosts the Space Makers Network. The photo is by Sara Haq/Space Makers Agency.