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Community spirit Power and leadership

Unity, community and change

In response to David Boyle’s essay and timeline on the history of community development, academic and documentary filmmaker Colin Prescod examines how the conflicted processes of community development can play out through social upheaval, struggle and action.

David Boyle’s A history of community development is wonderfully provocative, in the very best sense of the word. He offers the essay as an opening; an invitation to others to contribute to its complex and ambitious purpose. Further, he explicitly invites respondents to suggest two or three events that might be added to his timeline of community development, which accompanies the essay.

Regarding that complexity, my observation is that we need more ways to describe and fix on the imaginary idea of community itself – to understand what is meant, what is touched upon, when we invoke it. And as to additions, I want to suggest an added category as distinct from event: the 20th and 21st century remaking and refreshing of community by so-called migrant settlers in big metropolitan cities.

In this blog, I want to focus mainly on the conflicted processes of community development – what David refers to as “experiments by communities taking action” and “moments of community inspiration”, and what I call more plainly social upheavals, campaign struggles, and change-actions.

Confronting the powers that be

Community development is often tied up in the broader fields of urban development and metropolitan renewal, wherein communities and community initiatives emerge repeatedly ‘out of the ghetto’, so to speak. This is a testimony to the effectiveness of community power in the reshaping of the world’s mega-cities and centres of various imperialisms. But in our pulling together of histories of community development, there is a frequently overlooked, particular and telling strand about the making and refreshing of community that is related to migrant-settler presences in our big metropolitan cities. This is both an old story and a new story.

The people who had gathered in the street to block the Immigration Enforcement van were connected to a variety of local community campaigns.

There are often no obvious markers of major moments or achievements of community attainment, because the moments themselves are often fleeting – though the achievements can be lasting. But one such moment worth marking as significant occurred to me as I set out to write this blog.

On Thursday 13 May 2021, in Glasgow’s Southside community, there was a truly remarkable show of what David calls ‘community power’, as a day of protest led to the release of two men who were being removed from their homes and detained by UK immigration forces. The Guardian reported that “Campaigners have hailed a victory for Glaswegian solidarity and warned the Home Office ‘you messed with the wrong city’”.

There is a longer, vital story of migrant rights as a key site of community development.

The following day, the same newspaper filled out its report on the incident with more telling details. There had been a standoff between police and a crowd that had swelled to hundreds, including families celebrating Eid; and the police had deployed horses and riot gear. The community had come out in defiance of the state’s authority, and specifically its Home Office ‘hostile environment’ policy against migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

The people who had gathered in the street to block the passage of the Immigration Enforcement van were connected to a variety of longstanding local community campaigns – among them, the 2005 Glasgow Girls campaign by seven Drumchapel High School students to prevent deportations; the Maryhill Integration Network; and the Glasgow No Eviction Network. This was a news story about community development. I contend that it should be weighed as both a momentous moment in that story, and one connected to a longer, vital story of migrant rights as a key site of community development.

Explore a history of community development

Struggles for Black Community

Some four decades ago I made a series of four shortish (38 minute) documentary films with the Institute of Race Relations, for the then-new Channel 4. The series title that I decided on was Struggles for Black Community.  The films were first broadcast in 1982 and are now available from the IRR as a boxed set, digitally remastered in 2008.

Individually, the films uncover the historical emergence of four distinct migrant-settler Black British communities, or more accurately, communities within communities – from vignettes of Black communities standing their ground against harassment, violence and threats of repatriation in 19th century Cardiff, to Black workers organizing in Leicester in the 1970s, through to extraordinary anti-racist demonstrations in Southall and West London in the late 70s and early 80s. Using testimony taken only from community activists, these films tell the complex stories of communities forged in conditions of conflict, contradiction, coercion, and, yes, cohesion.

The legacy of these struggles is in the changes that they bring about – often by slow degrees.

They each demonstrate the manner in which struggles for, by, and within communities are part and parcel of the history of what David refers to as community development – struggles for new kinds of community, and, struggles that question what determines who belongs to a community.

The legacy of these struggles is in the changes that they bring about – often by slow degrees. The histories that have been opened need to be filled out with these stories, so that we can connect moments like the action that took place in Glasgow this year to the stories that came before it.

Community and belonging

The migrant-settler story is one of ever-changing challenge and related ever-changing struggle(s) for citizens’ rights – and for the right to fully belong – against the backdrop of xenophobic, racist, imperialist cultures that were and are embedded in old and exclusionary notions of patriotism (community at the level of nation) and belonging (who deserves rights).

Migrant-settlers organise because we have to. In the main, this is because full citizens’ rights are not delivered willingly to us.

But although all too often overwhelmed by the negative experiences of rejection, injustice, unfairness, personal attacks, and general sheer nastiness of these societies, migrant-settlers also often connect with individual residents who treat us fairly and with humanity, out of their own native traditions of conviviality. It is important to remember that through the years, migrant-settlers have actively sought and recruited the assistance of these ‘friendly natives’, and made community with them.

Migrant-settlers organise because we have to. In the main, this is because full citizens’ rights are not delivered willingly to us. We usually find that we have to make a fuss in pursuit of these rights – be it through complaints, campaigns, loud demonstrations, sometimes riots, protest movements or self-help organisations. We also build militant communities. And often, the matters that we make a fuss about turn out to be matters that need to be addressed for the good of the entire community and society.

About the author
Colin Prescod

Colin Prescod has lived at the same address in West London, a stone’s throw away from the site of the 2017 Grenfell residential tower disaster since 1958.

Now retired, professionally, he has been variously an academic sociologist over 20 years; a documentary filmmaker of Black British community struggles against racism and for belonging; a theatre-maker/playwright; a museums and archives curator.

He has also served voluntarily on a number of community and cultural committees and organisations – most notably, as Chair of the Council of the Institute of Race Relations in London.