"Citizenship is a commitment of our soul to the benefit of the human race .... It is we, the citizen, who must contribute to the hovering potential of our time."
With these words Ben Okri brought Yes We Can to a close. He received a standing ovation. His belief in the latent power of people like you and me to lead the change we want to see in the world, and to build the communities in which we want to live, captured the energy that had filled the Council Chamber in Norwich City Hall all day.
Yes We Can was a citizen takeover. Curated by Norfolk & Norwich Festival, RSA, and Writers’ Centre Norwich, it was designed to celebrate impactful community-led work, share ideas, and catalyse action. At every stage of the day, it was designed to be a starting place from which ripples would spread.
Yes We Can was inspired, partly, by an article by Anthony Painter in which he argued that person to person social justice – essentially communities delivering services directly to each other, in collaboration with the mechanisms of state – would define the 21st century. Rather than replacing the state, as David Cameron’s Big Society sought to do, person-to-person social justice would enable the best of both worlds to be brought together through technology-inspired innovation.
There are many examples of this: the Evergreen cooperative in Cleveland, Ohio, which ensures that money is spent in ways that support and benefit local economies; the Cuckoo Lane surgery in Ealing, which is run not by GPs but by nurses; Repower Balcombe, seeking to entirely power the Sussex town of Balcombe through community-owned and cooperatively generated green energy. Technology is being used to bring people together to foster and promote real world connection and positive community action. The Good Gym, which offers the chance to get fit and do good at the same time, is a brilliant example of this. I wondered whether festivals might be forums to share these stories and inspire people to start creating their own.
With writer and activist Robert Ashdon, who is currently engaged in the Norwich Mustard cooperative, we conceived an idea for a day of citizen action. We invited doers and activists to share their work. There were four central topics around which conversations revolved: community-led approaches to health and wellbeing, to food and the environment, to integration, and to economics and finance. Everyone in the room had a microphone in front of them, discussion was collaborative and generative. Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, outlined his vision for a deliberative democracy revolution. Jo Hunter of 64 Million Artists discussed a vision of creativity and wellbeing. Rosie Sexton from Norwich Integration Partnership discussed the impact that crowd funding and collaboration with Bicycle Links had on opportunities for refugees. Revd Heather Cracknall inspired with her vision of more community spaces, and Barb Jacobson from Basic Income UK urged a structural shift to unlock the power of citizenship and volunteering.
The day was packed with ideas, proposals, and collaborations. What came through clearly is that we need a mixture of short-term actions that can be taken today, with longer-term ambitions. That action goes hand in hand with, but isn’t dependent upon, structural change, and that individual activists need frameworks that network them together and help them do their own thing.
So, here are the top tips we can all take to support a culture of citizen-led activity, within our Norfolk communities, and in the wider world.
1. Get involved in Norwich Sharing City, a non-profit campaign for Norwich to become the UK’s leading sharing city by the year 2020, and join a global alliance of connected cities that are embracing the rise of the collaborative economy.
2. Buy your coffee from The Feed in Norwich Market and support community integration and opportunities for people who have experienced homelessness.
3. Join The Good Gym – there are runs around the country. Norwich runs take place every Monday and welcome runners of all fitness levels.
4. Check out the Transition Network, a movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world. Inspiration and networks are to be found right here.
5. Join Kinda Listening, which enables people to benefit from a listening ear and human connection, and help Linda Allen continue to expand this brilliant project.
6. There are already more Community Fridges in Norfolk than anywhere else in the UK. A Community Fridge is a communal place where surplus food is shared between people in a community. Get involved, get free food that would otherwise go to waste, or set up a new one. See Hubbub for more details.
7. Switch your produce order to Norwich Farmshare and support local and sustainable growing.
8. There is a campaign to encourage Ofsted to make measures of wellbeing as important as academic achievement. Visit Wise-Up to find out more about how you can support this.
9. Communities need spaces to talk to each other. Places of Welcome is a growing network of local community groups providing their neighbourhoods with places where all people feel safe to belong, connect and contribute. Create one for your community.
10. Giving is a way for us to support and promote change beyond our own communities. If you want to give money to charity, consider using an effective altruism site like https://www.givingwhatwecan.org which promotes giving to charities which achieve the most significant impacts for money spent.
12. Check-out www.lumi.org.uk, a new digital sharing platform which facilitates sharing of community spaces, skills and equipment.
13. Apply for a Get Together grant from Norwich City Council to support an initial meeting to explore ideas for collaboration. There are no reporting requirements, and further grants are available to develop the ideas you come up with.
There are many, many others.
It seems to me that we live in a time of hunger: where people want to do more, to break out of the narrow confines and echo chambers we’ve boxed ourselves into. There is a feeling that activity is most effective when it is relationship driven, and personal. Technology, ironically, can sit at the heart of this: driving new ways of conceiving our agency in the world. These are times of change. We can all do so much.
Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri closed the day with his provocation on citizenship originally written for the Citizen Festival last autumn. In it, he made no secret of his belief that it is citizens who drive the future.
We hope to reprise community action days in the future, and to take them into communities themselves. There is a need to ensure we don’t keep talking within our echo chambers. As another participant captured so brilliantly earlier in the day: ‘we are better together. And by together I don’t just mean with people like us.’