Our CEO Helen Goulden blogs on a Tale of Two Cities, our new research on the importance of communities being given ‘permission to act’ to tackle the sharp effects of a range of inequalities.
Following a year-long study in communities across one city in the UK, today we launch a Tale of Two Cities, generously funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The study asks an important question. If those in positions to influence, or those in positions of power were able to really listen and understand the variety of different voices in their communities, would we be able to develop new and more effective ideas on how to understand and tackle inequality? This report produces evidence to suggest that it would.
A Tale of Two Cities makes a strong case that the people and communities who are most affected by the sharpest effects of inequality are often overlooked in terms of their potential and capacity for creating positive change themselves. Their voices are not heard and they do not feel they have the ‘permission to act’; with most power to change resting in the hands of governments and public services, NGO’s, policymakers or formal movements and institutions.
But lasting societal change demands participation of people and communities to be effective. You can find the full report and the executive summary here, but for me, there are a few things that are key in our research.
“We need someone who’s going to listen. No-one listens. The city has no ears. It has plenty of voices, but no ears.”
A Tale of Two Cities is itself an exercise in using ethnographic and deep qualitative research to better understand the lived experiences of people who have very little relative to others in the city around them. It has surfaced voices and experiences that challenge some of the dominant views about particular kinds of communities; communities and people so often still described as ‘hard to reach’ and described by what they lack and what they fail to do. This research underscores once more the ongoing and critical need for local governments and institutions to develop their capacity to listen deeply to the messages coming from communities experiencing the effects of deep inequality.
“It’s like you’re saying to people, this is what you’re worth; this is where you deserve to live”
The lack of amenities and facilities in some communities is highlighted in this report, as it has been many times before. A lack of transport, minimal shops, a prevalence of cash converters and betting shops, with credit being seemingly only accessible through the shark that goes from door to door; these businesses and lack of infrastructure shape a community’s actions and thoughts. If we have to travel four miles to get to a credit union or doctors surgery, if the open spaces in communities are abandoned and not cared for, if we have among us ‘ everything … that breeds poverty’ then this sends a powerful and overwhelming message to those who live in communities. And the message is ‘you don’t matter’.
‘We’d never be allowed to do that.’ ‘People like us don’t do things like that.’
A Tale of Two Cities shows just how easy it is for those within formal institutions or governments to quash people’s desire to act in ways that benefit their communities.
Mutual support and attempts to create change within a community can be quashed through the formality of regulations, which might be easy to overcome with a little support but a powerful barrier to someone trying to get something off the ground. It might be that people are losing Carer’s Allowance for participating in other activities that provide mutual support, such as taking their grandchildren to school. It might be through powerful social forces that, in the words of those involved in the study reveal ‘we’d never be allowed to do that…’ because ‘people like us don’t do things like that’.
I’ve grown up at times in an environment that perpetuates this kind of thing; it’s as powerful as any regulatory barrier in stopping people act for their own and their communities’ benefit.
The recommendations contained in this report are general, but have some specific applications that we would like to experiment with further. These include exploring how to amplify the voices and experiences of people experiencing inequality and disadvantage at a far larger scale. Collectively, we need to understand the best and most effective ways of bringing communities voices into local decision-making processes. We see a deepening interest in participatory budgeting and tools for engaging in other kinds of decision making; these need to be tested further and their efficacy determined. The ability to describe and work with a community based on what it has, in terms of tangible and intangible assets, rather than what it lacks, is perhaps just to underscore the principles of asset-based community development, but it bears repeating if the messages from this report are, as we demonstrate, more broadly replicated across the country. And in contrast, there is also a clear need to address some of the gaps in facilities and infrastructure which clearly persist in spite of some good practice and initiatives; and perhaps demand much more innovative responses.
As The Young Foundation continues to work toward generating better understanding and evidence in what works to drive community-led change and innovation, we invite feedback from all our partners and those in our network to feedback their thoughts and views on the recommendations contained within this report. You can do this by tweeting us with your thoughts: @the_young_fdn #taleoftwocities.