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April 23, 2008

Streetwide – Worldwide: Where people power begins

For as long as anyone can remember Tony Gibson has been a pioneer of community action and people power. In a new book, he traces his experience of what works at a local level to help folk realise their own human resources to get things done. Here’s an article by Tony about the book.

Radical Economics

I was a teenager in the 1930s (phew! That might put me off the map!). It was a time like ours today. We were troubled spectators watching from the sidelines as far away disasters came closer.

Dictators and invasions on the up and up. Abyssinia, Spain, Czechoslovakia. Back home, massive unemployment in the ‘distressed areas’.

Plus the arms race -a David Low cartoon showing a flock of bewildered sheep confronted by a gaggle of carnivorous beasts emerging from the portals of their conference centre, telling- those sheep: “Sorry, we can’t resolve everything. It’s all because of your aggressive instincts. “

Then, in the 1940s, came the f Blitz. Local government bombed out and ineffective, and people at street level taking over, improvising shelters in church crypts and warehouse basements, fighting fires with stirrup pumps alongside the Auxiliary Fire Services, setting up rest centres in local clubs where people could come up for air –and , a cuppa, and maybe a sing-song – in the lulls between the bombing.

Those local clubs and a sort of survivor’s joie de vivre saved the day. And when the local authorities recovered from their break- down, there was, for a while, a new and better relationship between Us and Them.

Later, working in war-torn Sicily, Italy and China, I witnessed the same process of self-discovery in the face of disaster.

SINCE then, following up in other parts of Europe and in Mrica, the Caribbean and the
USA, there have been opportunities to develop tools –like Planning for Real -which help to bridge communication gaps: home-made 3D models of a key building, or a derelict area, or a housing estate, or the bus routes in a town -coupled with Now Soon Later priority charts -eye-catchers attracting attention wherever people foregather, getting everyone off their butts and clustering around, trying out alternatives with the help of a thumb size ‘option’ cards, gradually sorting out agreement about

What needs doing, Where and When. As to Who can help in the doing -the first step is an informal survey, done by a handful of residents, each going house-to-house with a
skills list, extending from being able to do a skateboard kick-flip to computer technology and accountancy, via cookery, gardening, music-making, joinery and chatting people up to get them involved.

The process has caught on in many parts of the world. The reason people give is that it brings Us and Them -whoever they happen to be -together, literally on the same footing, exploring possibilities and priorities side by side, not confronting each other in a public meeting or across an official’s desk. Our motto: Eyes down, hands on, rubbing shoulders and a lot less Big Mouth. Gradually identifying what we can all agree on, How ‘best to get cracking, and Who else might lend a hand.

A Kenyan village pastor summed it up: “We have discovered that we are sitting on gold -our own human resources to get things done.”

THE SELLING point about the Planning for Real technology developed through the
Neighbourhood Initiatives Foundation, and later the Scarman Trust, and parallel approaches linked to net -time banking, BizFizz, Slivers of Time -is that the talk is an informal supplement to ‘hands on’ action.

‘Leadership’, if the notion is needed at all, is shared. The key is joint ownership. A bunch of teenagers taking part in a city-wide Planning for Real, planned and planted a row of saplings boarding a main road.

A year or so later, a van driver inadvertently backed into a young tree and crushed it. The teenagers were ready to massacre him “for damaging OUR tree”.

In another city, long after a successful Planning for Real, the chief executive rang me up out of the blue to say that he was commissioning a bigger project –the transformation of a disused college campus -“because my officers are still talking with residents and all the time both sides are using each other’s first names”.

The joint action planning is a bit like a family party tackling a jigsaw puzzle together. Aunty and the kids working on a few jigsaw pieces. Granny and the uncles sorting out another lot. And then the clusters connect and the: whole picture takes shape. No need for anyone to ‘take the lead’ -and if Granny tries it, she’ll be quietly ignored.

The dangers and opportunities confronting us Now, Soon, Later are part of our everyday lives. Teenagers and granddads in the same leaky boat. Our response so far as been too often hamstrung by our dependence on competing leaders who rely for on words to allay our misgivings.

Words “that are substitutes for action, often a cover-up. Spin masks sleaze. The gun-runners, money- manipulators, forest-destroyers get away with their several kinds of murder whilst our religious, racial and cultural affiliations are seen as obstacles to the combined operations needed to repair the damage.

A French cartoon stays in my kind. Two toddlers, boy and girl, face to face, inspecting what lies within each other’s knickers. And the caption: “Vive la difference!”

Being different, not being separate. And all of us with shared awareness, street crime, dog shit, traffic dangers, drug peddling, alcohol abuse, inadequate play facilities, the needs of the frail and housebound. These are common concerns and could be shared opportunities” to tackle them together.

The facts speak for themselves; no need for doctrinaire statements. And so do the opportunities: bulk buy co-ops, credit unions, multi- cultural festivals, advice centres, gardening clubs, teenager fashion shows, keep-fit classes -you name it.

IT’S LATE in the day. It is crucial to reach across the barriers of race and religion which are creating a new and lethal apartheid. It’s not being nice to each other (that’s incidental). Well-meaning homilies don’t go far enough either. What matters is the fellow- feeling that comes from joint efforts and gets results, with a bit of laughter and chat along the way.

No mission statements, ego-trippers, committee-mongering. Leadership, if it is needed at all, is team leadership, with a canny eye to the needs and opportunities that everyone can agree on, here and now.

Common ground as the base, shared achievement as the spring- board to bigger things. As Tom Paine put it -making Common Sense.