Graeme Fancourt, associate of Just Ideas and co-author of research report Rethinking home: Engaging transient and new communities in Big Local, blogs about the value of diversity in communities and the importance of place-based community development
There’s nothing quite like seeing your hometown on the list of research project fieldwork areas to completely remove the myth of the objective observer. This is where I was made, formed, for good and ill, so it’s impossible to return home objectively. My family have called this place home since the nearby hills were first mined. There’s a rootedness and pride in that. Going back, I was delighted to see that the high street and the pubs I remember were still there, as well as the character of the people who speak to you like they’ve known you your whole life.
I went along to the Big Local Pancake Party one evening to see Big Local in action, and found myself in a community that was just as lively as I remember it being, but with a make-up that was much more diverse than in the 1980s.
I don’t know how many nationalities were represented or languages spoken, but it was more than anyone could easily count. And it was great.
Talking to folk at the party it was clear that it was full of people from near and far who were experiencing changes they hadn’t chosen for themselves. A common theme was looking back to times and places when life was more stable and predictable. There was a recognition that something profoundly important had been lost, or stolen, from those in the room. Awareness of young adults walking around the streets outside like zombies because of their spice addiction seemed to underline the sense of grief becoming despair.
It is easy to write this off as mere nostalgia, but there’s nothing mere about it. Sure, nostalgia can be problematic and divisive, but it also reminds those of us classed as community development ‘professionals’ that this is a deeply personal endeavour, and we should tread carefully.
Community development is about creating, building, and sustaining communities as homes in which all people can flourish.
Handled well, being sad or angry at what has been lost can become one of the motivations that helps people resist further despair and begin to create something new.
In different ways, that is what the team from Just Ideas found in all of the communities we visited as part of this project. We found Big Local partnerships, reps and workers trying to engage with their communities as they are, in all of their diversity. And that is an extraordinary challenge. In this report we suggest that the models of community development we’ve inherited are useful, but not quite fit for purpose in communities with high levels of transience and new population growth.
This makes it a tough time for place-based community development, yet engagement is both possible and happening, as this report demonstrates. It involves not only creating ‘places of here’, but also ‘communities of now’; relationships that are made locally, but resourced in such a way that those who are passing through can pick up the relationships we all need to be human and at home in the world, and in so doing, have the potential to add huge value to the towns they pass through. This work and report has kicked off all kinds of questions in my own mind, and I hope that it does that for you, too; to contribute to the conversation we are all having that asks how we come alongside communities that have been ‘done to’ and partner with them to find power and voice in their present reality, and together create homes in which people can flourish today.
The research report for Local Trust and Just Ideas, Rethinking home: Engaging transient and new communities in Big Local by Graeme Fancourt and Richard Usher, is available here.