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Community leaders never call themselves community leaders

There they are, the heads of charities, local authority representatives and the odd famous entrepreneur, meeting David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the pair’s first joint public engagement following the formation of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government. A full page spread in The Independent shows the redoubtable Camilla Batmanghelidjh from Kids Company to David Cameron’s right. Others in the group intently listening to the Prime Minister include Rob Owen from St Giles Trust and Lord Victor Adebowale from Turning Point. These, we are told, are the community leaders invited in at an early stage to meet the new government, an action intended to illustrate to all the importance of the vision of a ‘Big Society’ driven by community action and social enterprise and the importance of ‘civil society’ organisations, formerly known as the third sector, in helping to achieve this vision.

The community. A term used with stupendous frequency, often to add legitimacy to a course of action or view relating to a matter of national, regional or local importance. The community is cohesive, benign and right about issues as it offers the shared and therefore authentic view of ordinary people on the ground. The community is not to be confused with the mob. This is a group of people, often from the same locality, who get together to behave irrationally and aggressively; to shout at murderers being driven away from court in a van for example, or to track down and punish alleged paedophiles on estates.

Civil society organisations are regularly spoken of as community organisations. The government, heavily influenced by Iain Duncan Smith the new Secretary for State for Work and Pensions, is particularly eager to engage with those charities which are community based. In his recent impressive speech in which he sets out the government’s priorities in the area of employment and social inclusion, Iain Duncan Smith tellingly refers to ‘community charities’. What does he mean? Perhaps he wants to separate these natural Big Society allies from the mega-large charities that, so the story goes, are impersonal, have lost touch with their grass-roots constituencies, manage multi-million pound budgets and are indistinguishable from bureaucratic, public sector bodies.

Amidst the pervading bonhomie that is always in evidence when a new government comes to power, an inconvenient contradiction exists that twists uneasily in the minds of many charity leaders. It is this. Frequently local communities are hostile to our organisations and show scant sympathy towards the people we help and support. Indeed, the gestation of many charities is associated not so much with the need to address a problem arising organically from within the community but to protect and support a minority group treated with suspicion by mainstream local opinion and, in extreme cases, subjected to vilification.

Take Kids Company for example. I live in south London, close to the main base from where Kids Company operates. I am grateful for the work the organisation does with some of the most needy and chaotic young people in the neighbourhood. But does the local community embrace Kids Company? There is respect perhaps, and an acknowledgement that a genuine need exists that someone has to meet. But the cause of supporting children from broken homes, some of whom are committing petty crime and engaging in anti-social behaviour, is not one naturally embraced by large swathes of the community in my part of south London and the Kids Company philosophy, based essentially on the premise that these kids need more love not more chastisement, sits at odds with the view of many.

The work of St Giles Trust raises similar dilemmas. This fantastic organisation works with prisoners in prisons across the country and supports offenders after their release. It directly demonstrates what can be achieved by employing ex-offenders within its own work-force. Rob Owen, St Giles Trusts’ highly competent Chief Executive is driven by a belief that ex-offenders can transform their lives and once again become productive members of the community. But he and others working with ex-offenders have to battle constantly to convince others that this is an objective worthy of support. And amongst local people there remains considerable suspicion and misgivings regarding those who have ‘done time’ and a fear of crime and the criminal which commonly projects into watchful antipathy in response to those charities helping the ex-offender.

My argument is not that there is no such thing as community, as Margaret Thatcher claimed there was no such thing as society in those far off days before we were helped to understand that there is indeed something called society and that it has the potential to be big. (Follow the bouncing ball now…. Big Society = good, Big Government = bad). But I don’t believe that the leaders of charities are community leaders. Nonetheless, community leaders do exist, even though they rarely see themselves as such.

Let me give you an example. In my immediate neighbourhood in Peckham, community life revolves around the local hairdressers and the adjacent Crossroads café. This is where people naturally gather to gossip and put the world to rights. They are places to visit with a purpose, playing a role within the ordinary rhythm of life. It was my old friend Gerard Lemos, I think, who noted that dysfunctional communities were usually characterised as places which had few natural centres but often had a building self-consciously called a ‘community centre’, usually a decrepit, peeling building, infrequently used and ripe for demolition. George, who owns the hairdressers, appears to know everyone and he takes responsibility for making sure that things, in the small world which is his immediate locality, tick over nicely and that people are (there is no other way of describing it) looked after. This includes those people we like to call ‘the socially excluded’. George took it upon himself, for example, to keep an eye on Posh Tim. Posh Tim is a well-to-do chap with a drink problem who lives in a bedsit and wanders aimlessly around the streets of our part of town. He has the reddened face of the hardened drinker and a nose heading south-west from the centre of his face, suggesting that a number of drink-related adventures have befallen him. ‘He’s got a good brain though’, said George as he snipped at my hair, ‘he reads The Times you know’. How posh is that? For a while, George gave Posh Tim the job of sweeping up the hair on the floor of the salon for a few quid, but then disaster struck when Posh Tim collapsed over his egg and bacon in the Crossroads Café.

George and Ertan, who runs the café, had an idea. It involved me. With, I admit, a degree of reluctance I had confessed to George that I was Chief Executive of a local charity working with the homeless. Posh Tim might not be literally homeless but, George pointed out, ‘he’s like your lot, what with the drinking and all’, so surely Thames Reach can help him. And help him we did. Thames Reach manages a tenancy support service in Southwark. Our tenancy support workers visit and assist vulnerable people living in the community. My colleague rang George the following week and George formally ‘referred’ Tim to the service. Tim was visited, bought a fresh set of clothes, cleaned up, taken to his GP and eventually connected to the Community Mental Health Team as the underlying problem turned out to be his poor mental health.

So there you have it. There is too much expectation being placed on neighbourhoods to, through some mystical, organic ‘bottom-up’ process, run themselves and a sugar-coated view prevails in government of the essential goodness of local communities when collectively we are often intolerant and steeped in prejudice. But there is such thing as the community, there are community leaders and, at a local neighbourhood level, we do sometimes find ways of caring for our most vulnerable members. But please, please let us not pretend that the Chief Executives of charities are community leaders.

It could be worse of course. I was at a particularly tedious meeting recently, trying to stir myself from a slumber induced by the sheer monotony of the banal discourse when an esteemed colleague described the individuals around the table as ‘Thought Leaders’. I looked up to share the joke, only to find that this had been said in all seriousness. The dear old voluntary sector. When it comes to earnest pomposity, we will never be outflanked.


elisicia said…
Your blog entry mirrors some of my thoughts about big Society, although yours much more eloquently written ;)

I too have found myself in meetings where the agenda stated all kinds of altruistic items for discussion however, mostly pomposity was the order of the day. Not too long ago I attended a Big Society conference, eager to understand and hoping to be convinced. I was not. Although I seemed to be alone as most of the people around me were enthusiastically nodding their heads in collective agreement, Big Society would be, after some initial hiccups, great. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure there are some good ideas and motives behind Big Society. But, rightly or wrongly, I believe it is a rather easy option for people who will never likely need the services of Thames Reach to think that members of the community will be able to support those who do need the support of homeless organizations. There is such stigma and fear surrounding the person begging on the street, that if all it took was some simple community cohesion and willing community members to help them out than there was never need for a soup kitchen, or social workers, etc. Prejudice, ignorance are rife in our communities, I am not trying to stand on a soapbox here, but simply trying to campaign for organizations like Thames Reach and my own, that do an important job to remain alive, successful and wholly supported by government.

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