Some organisations I'm involved with in various ways, primarily through research (namely: WHALE Arts, Prospect Community Housing Association and SCORE Scotland, along with the City of Edinburgh Council) organised a community action event in Wester Hailes on Saturday and I went along. It used Open Space - a technique I'd never seen before, but that I was very impressed by. Here are my random thoughts on the event in no particular order.
It was diverse! As I said to many people on the day, it was the most ethnically diverse room I've been in since I moved to Scotland. The 2011 census showed that only four per cent of Scotland's population is from a Black Minority Ethnic background (BME), which means most events in Scotland are as white a ream of photocopier paper. Also, SCORE brought along their youth club, so it was diverse in ages too.
A lot of issues that really matter to people were discussed: the kids complained about being bullied on buses or of being made to carry out religious worship that was not part of their faith; BME people spoke about racial harassment and intimidation; people spoke about massive delays in getting an appointment at the GP; people spoke about cyclist/pedestrian/motor vehicle conflict; people spoke about dog shit; they spoke about dog shit some more; they also spoke about youth anti-social behaviour.
Cultural differences: the cultural differences also became apparent, in two key ways. Firstly, as Pinkster and Droogleever found in the Netherlands, there were different cultural expectations of parenting among new-migrant communities (often from a Muslim or Evangelical Christian background) and the white working class community that was leading to tensions around youth anti-social behaviour. What was seen as "kids being kids" by some people was seen as appalling behaviour and disobedience by others.
Also, the new migrants were clearly quite committed to the neighbourhood and wanted to make a difference by doing things. However, a lot of the longer-term activists had seen the same issues repeatedly over 30-40 years, seen many solutions thrown at them and were a bit world weary: "we've talked about this all before and nothing's been done" was a common refrain. I'll be writing a journal article on this it was such an interesting dynamic.
People found their own solutions: a brilliant example of this was a group that spoke about what could be done with a particularly bad local problem around legal highs. They agreed three actions: to work more closely with Police Scotland and the Council (fair enough) but also to organise a petition to give to the local shop telling them to stop selling legal highs; and a wee lad was also going to make some posters about the dangers of legal highs. This was asset-based community development working very well.
Evidence: related to my previous very sweary post, in just about every bit of discussion, or problem raised, I could put my fingers on a piece of academic, or good quality, evidence that would either illuminate the problem or provide a very practical solution. At the end of the day when the agenda was turned into a set of action points, I could have gone down the list and said "this is what the evidence says, this is what you should spend your resources on to do something about this". There is a crying need for universities and the academics in them to be providing this sort of knowledge for local communities and local authorities, not just using them as research objects.
I tried to keep my input to a minimum as I don't live in Wester Hailes, but I suggested that there should be more, very cheap, experimental interventions run in the neighborhood to try and make some of the little quality of life changes that are required. You're not going to cure poverty, but you might make your immediate neighbourhood a wee bit better. The whole Open Space event could easily be joined up with a community budgeting initiative like £eith Decides.
And, in the spirit of my last blog post (warning, contains copious swearing) I also put my money where my mouth was yesterday and spent a tenner on some random bits and bobs and dabbled in some guerrilla gardening in my local park, including doing a wee litter pick. I might do some guerrilla maintenance next - repainting the play equipment.
What really impressed me about Open Space was its openness. It is specifically designed to be very agenda-less and open up debate and discussion and move people towards practical solutions to problems very quickly. It was far better than anything involving agendas and Post-It notes I'd been to before. Sadly, very few people from local public services were there - three people in total. No local teachers or neighbourhood workers. If the City of Edinburgh Council is going to have 21st Century Public Servants(PDF) then they need to be working with communities at events such as this.