Now, at the youthful end of the 20 teens, the world is engaged in a flurry of activity, piety, consumption and self-realisation. Widespread belief in concepts like ‘healing’ and ‘synchronicity’ and the ‘illuminati’ combined with part-time, freelance employment patterns, seem to characterise the age. Indeed it feels very much like we are at the dawn of a new age. One of uncertainty, spiritual awakening, conspiracy theories, suspicion of authorities, public sector cuts, job diversification and insecurity; enter “The Big Society”. One of the greatest insults of “The Big Society” ethic is on the one hand this assumption that people can be fooled into thinking that wide-spread volunteering is somehow something new. Of course throughout history and for example in the late 70′s people engaged in voluntary activity in their droves. The difference is that today every contribution has to be quantified, monitored and evaluated in terms of how much money has been saved by the organisation in question.
But what about giving from the heart? What about the organic creative energy that humans are capable of providing to one another when the conditions make it possible? Grassroots endeavours to empower people are called upon but faced with low funding opportunities and yet more regulations and bureaucracy, aspirations for collective creativity are thwarted.
Looking back its clear it was not always this way. The Roundhouse founder and playwright, Arnold Wesker, supported the 42nd resolution at the TUC in 1960 with the cry “the arts should never have to pay for itself”. In the 1960’s people expected to get paid and they were! The few part-time locally devised theatre groups on the alternative circuit had mushroomed by the 1970’s to over sixty full time groups being funded by the Arts Council. Jobs were handed to newcomers freely. A friend of mine in her late 50’s described her involvement in Kentish Town’s local alternative theatre scene as open, democratic and ‘well paid’! Many of the arts institutions we value in the UK today were born during this era.
My view is that activism is at its healthiest; it’s most fluid, non-hierarchical and productive, where people live, locally. The home, one’s dwelling, that of your neighbours and the issues of your local high street are tangible and yet they also draw on matters of wider concern. Indeed, 50% of people believe getting involved locally can change their area, compared to just 30% that feels getting involved nationally can change the way the UK is run. Right now, perhaps the greatest opportunity for creativity and empowerment comes from localism.
While the Occupiers outside the London Stock Exchange, a mix of festival goers, activists, free-thinkers, academics, the pious and the party seekers, may seem to have spoken out against the crushing influence of big business on an international scale, they also created a complex social scenario, where diverging opinions, lifestyles and approaches sat in physical proximity to one another – side by side. It captured the zeitgeist of our time and posed the question: how do we express global concern on a local scale and how does one localise the global economy? Beneath the militants’ many tents, there was a common desire to converse publicly, in physical space and face to face. And it inspired many. My own successful funding bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund to deliver programme of local oral history and research education to Kentish Town youngsters as well as performing arts rehearsals and a carnival event, came to include regular local meetings to be held non-hierarchically, just as they had done at the Occupy sites over the autumn and winter of 2011. Yet what I have found is that the support for local voluntary groups is compromised because legal barriers and stipulations such as CRB checks, stringent school curriculums, prevent it. Schools are pressed for time, resources, staff and energy. Meanwhile the volunteers one would seek to be involved are either overworked or struggling to find employment as benefits cuts loom and rents rise. Despite this, the Many Cultures One Community? project has grown from a small group of individuals with a shared vision of bringing carnival to our streets to a crowd of community and performing artists, local activists and historians. All the same we are unavoidably complicit in a system which not only prospers from poorly or unpaid labour but encourages it.
Two years on from the formal launch of “The Big Society” programme, in the wake of the Localism Act, and introduction of free schools, community arts groups are far from being strengthened. Cuts to the voluntary sector of £3.3bn are planned up to 2016, and these look set to fall most heavily on local authorities with the most disadvantaged areas. Kentish Town’s Many Cultures One Community? project is inspired by the past, it is a product of the past and it could build a precedent for the future.
We will explore the relationship between housing and the money lenders and focus on the power of music and theatre to empower communities, in our exhibitions and talks. It is a pilot project which could give a moral boost to communities thirsty for opportunities to come together, share resources creatively and improve the collective standard of living. The aim is that it would be repeated in other wards in the Camden Borough, other boroughs, London-wide and throughout the UK to help record the stories that make and break communities.
True to the best aspects of the Big Society, Occupy and this emerging open-minded culture the aim is to experience together, to self-organise in order to create and express collectively; to enrich communities. All of us seem to ask the same core questions: what are we growing here? what is it for? and are we capable of more?
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Sara Newman is a freelance community events coordinator who has combined her journalistic experience and academic background in history to create the Many Cultures, One Community? project. As a martial arts practitioner for 7 years and personal fitness instructor she takes an active interest in being in the body, keeping an open mind and sharing community mindedness through action and philosophy.
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