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January 26, 2011

Defining the word of the year

Each year, Oxford Dictionaries choose the word of the year. No real surprise that 2010’s word (or words) of the year were Big Society.  If there was a question of the year, it might well be – what does Big Society mean?  Keystone Development Trust invited leading thinkers from within our sector to contribute to a short book on the subject.  This piece by Jess Steele argues that community anchor organisations must be the foundation stone

Extract from Jericho Road by Jess Steele, DTA

“On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will only be an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s history “ – Martin Luther King

The Coalition Government is busy drafting legislation to ‘give’ a series of rights to local communities. After many years of the rhetoric of ‘community empowerment’, the cliché that ‘local people know best’ and the fundamental failure to do anything practical about it, this new language of community rights has to be welcomed. Whether it has any more impact than its predecessor is yet to be seen. But we will not wait to see if they mean it this time: we must make it true.

In the real unequal world, where we need to exalt the valleys and lower the mountains1, rights are not legislated by government. The Equal Pay Act did not close the pay gap, anti discrimination laws do not end prejudice. In his Civil Rights Message on the day the Alabama National Guardsman were called to enforce the rights of two black students to attend the university, JFK said that Congress had to act but that civil rights would only be achieved by the human decency of every American citizen. He also famously acknowledged that “those

who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Given the parallel shock-and-awe of spending cuts, welfare raiding and mass asset disposal his words are more relevant to us than they have been for twenty five years.

Community anchors – independent, neighbourhood-based organisations led by local people – have a long history and an impressive geographical spread across the United Kingdom. They are committed to social justice through collective social action, creating local wealth and keeping it local, building resilience for themselves and throughout their communities. This is a well-networked movement of bi-focal organisations that care about and support each other across the country as well as dedicating passionate energy to their own fine-grain patch and its people.

This movement is the foundation of the Big Society, the good society, the Great Society. It is collective local action that will transform the Jericho Road, and it is the bonds between localities that will make sure this is not an isolated right won by the few, but a control-shift that genuinely enables people in any neighbourhood, however high their mountains or low their valleys, to get on with what needs doing. This is not a bid for power-over, for ‘communities at the helm’ of big budget regeneration – we know that time is over, for what it was worth. This is a demand for power-to, for groups of local people to be allowed to make our own change, using whatever resources we can collectively marshal. The challenges ahead are undeniably frightening and the opportunities are hard to grasp before they slip away. We need co-ordinated practical actions across a range of fields, and we also need a clear way of agreeing and explaining what we are trying to achieve.

To find full article and others in the publication click here