In 2017 we reported on the work we’ve been doing with the Skills Network in south London to nurture less siloed communities in the context of the post-Brexit debate. Reactions to that article encouraged us to go one step further in deepening our learning with other groups trying to build collective forms of support and social justice. For most people divisive rhetoric isn’t new; they’ve been developing ways to counter it for years. Here are three more lessons from our experience.
1. We have more in common than divides us, but our situations are never equal.
”You’ve got to remember when you bring all these people together in the beginning…they’ve got to have someone to shout at…Both sides have got to be equal. It’s got to be a level playing field otherwise it doesn’t work…(to do this) you need to create a ‘them and us’ situation...But the goal is to work towards the ‘us.’” (Steve Scott, long-term Groundswell activist)
When we started Skills Network we were keen to focus on our shared experiences and values. We wanted the space to feel safe and positive, to ‘enact’ our ideal world, so we played down differences between us. But as we developed as a cooperative, frustrations at these differences came out in unexpected, sometimes disruptive ways, forcing us to think about more explicit ways to confront them.
The reality is that there are inequalities between people—financial and in terms of status, confidence to voice opinions, general life opportunities and expectations. These differences are often internalised, glossed over by well-meaning attempts to ‘bridge divides’ and ‘build communities.’ It’s difficult to get the balance right between acknowledging them and letting them define the group, but some groups manage this balancing act better than others.
Groundswell, for example, facilitates peer-to-peer support and advocacy around homelessness, and for many years has been training local councils and other organisations in user involvement. The organisation started in the 1990s as a movement "very explicitly campaigning for the homeless and roofless–engaging with people who were having those experiences and following their agenda" as Simone Helleren from Groundswell puts it. Over time it grew into a network of smaller groups doing localised ‘self-help’ which started to advocate for more fundamental changes to policies and attitudes around housing.
Groundswell recognised the crucial importance of taking the knowledge and anger of people at the sharp end of inequality seriously. The group pioneered the ‘Speakout’ model which brought together self-help groups, people experiencing homelessness, and people working in the sector to learn from each other through workshops and debates. These events brought homeless people into direct dialogue with policymakers and gave them an opportunity to express their opinions.
Allowing space for those who had experienced homelessness to share their feelings with those responsible for making and implementing housing policy helped the group to move past these divisions and laid the groundwork for years of productive collaboration. Over time speakouts evolved into citizens’ juries which were at the centre of the group’s radical inquiry into UK housing policy: the Homeless People’s Commission. The key was to confront, not suppress, the injustices and inequalities that divide people, and to build connections and communities that eventually overcame them.
2. Create frameworks that recognise we all have things to give and take.
“The difference between traditional charity and timebanking? It’s the power thing, isn’t it? It’s more equal. You get to feel good about yourself by giving and remembering ‘oh yeah I am actually quite good at things.’ And you get help back as well -rather than one set of people are always the givers and then the other lot are the passive beneficiaries.” (Alison Paule, Paxton Green Timebank Coordinator).
We initially thought at Skills Network that a flat pay-rate and shared decision-making would ensure everyone’s contributions felt equally valued. But ‘conventional’ hierarchies kept creeping into our dynamics. Searching for learning from other organisations in South London, we discovered Rushey Green and Paxton Green Timebanks. The timebanking movement seeks to create ‘operating systems’ which consciously facilitate exchange and support in a way that makes clear that “nobody is better than anybody else.” They do this by focusing on ‘proactive’ time as the principal unit of currency.
For every hour participants ‘deposit’ in a timebank they can ‘withdraw’ the equivalent in support when they need something—“ironing or accounting…an hour is an hour.” In this context being ‘in need’ is not stigmatizing or shameful—it’s a normal part of everyone’s life.
Timebanks globally have different characteristics. In south London, they bring together individuals who live very near each other but otherwise are worlds apart. Paule notes that “it quite surprises people to start with, probably more so for the posher people – ‘oh these are different people that I don’t usually interact with! And they are quite nice actually." One older woman member described the effects of a friendship that had grown out of her involvement:
“My friend who subsequently has died, she actually lived down the bottom of my road and I would never have listened and talked to her. She was afro-Caribbean, from Jamaica…I would never had actually been able to [sighing] comprehend, understand certain aspects of other people lives if it wasn’t for her.”
But these new relationships and insights don’t happen overnight. They evolve very gradually as people engage in mutual support. “When you first get involved it may be quite passive” according to Robert, a member of both timebanks, “just coming along (to an event), drinking a cup of tea. But the aim is to give people the opportunity to grow, to get more involved.”
This framework acknowledges that some people have had knock-backs in their lives and may need support in taking the lead on something—perhaps from something “really small like (starting) a knitting group…helping them think through the steps…Where do you want to have the group? What day of the week? What time? We’ve got spare kettles, tea, biscuits.”
The careful, slow work that happens within timebanks may seem insignificant to the untrained eye, focusing as it does on tiny interactions and exchanges and incremental shifts in people’s understanding of themselves and each other. These shifts are difficult to capture and count, but they can have profound resonance because they break down the sense of difference that those involved often have about each-other.
“It felt very different, completely different from anything that had been going on before. You started to feel as if you have got some value to give. And lo and behold somebody is giving you something that you never expected.” (Marilyn, Paxton Green member)
3. Having an equal conversation is a deliberate, political act.
Even a single conversation in which people feel like they are interacting as equals can help to shift the status quo in hierarchies, but it’s a challenge, and one that often overwhelmed us at Skills Network. ‘Transformative organising’ approaches (which came out of community organising in the US) have taught us a lot about how to do it better. It starts by acknowledging the entrenched hierarchies that play out in all our interactions, but which are often more obvious to those with less power who are used to subtly deferring to, agreeing with or apologising to those who have more.
These approaches use specific techniques to slowly equalise these hierarchies, like ‘Intentional Peer Support,’ which was developed in the 1990s as a challenge to top-down mental health services but has since become a wider method in community organising. Core to this method is the disruption of the tendency to replicate unequal ‘helping’ dynamics by building awareness of the power roles we all fall into, and by finding ways to be more aware of our own tendencies and assumptions.
Their listening and questioning techniques help people engage with each other with real curiosity and openness, and form connections across divides, shifting from notions of ‘helping’ towards ones of ‘learning together.’ Key to transformative approaches is the conviction that they form a continual and relentless process, and one that will keep being slightly undone by the rest of the world—meaning the job is never ‘done.’
Many people are looking for new ways to heal divides and that’s heartening. But enacting these sentiments in a long-lasting way is complex and challenging, especially when some people face very real resource shortages and others may have internalised very different notions of their power. If we are to come together across the entrenched divisions and disillusionment that many people are feeling, our starting point is clear: engage as equals.
That means a continuous, ever-evolving process in which we must all be self-aware and open to being challenged again and again. It involves challenging the structures and values that set up inequalities between us through our daily interactions and with everyone we meet. Our plea is for people who have been relatively inoculated from the effects of divisive rhetoric and policy to really try and ‘see’ the inspirational alternatives that are already being enacted around them—and bring their knowledge and skills to this existing, slow, un-photogenic, but potentially transformative experience.