Over the next few days I want to return to some recurrent themes in recent posts – the Big Society and small groups – and (tomorrow) I’m hoping readers can help get a research project off the ground.
I must admit that my job at the moment feels a bit unbalanced. A lot of time is being spent addressing governance issues – both at the national and regional level. It is important to get governance right, act as honest brokers in regional disputes and respond to legitimate concerns or complaints. But it is equally important that our primary focus is on delivering our charitable mission and continuing to enable more Fellows to engage with the Society and each other. I will use a future post to share the conclusions of a major survey of Fellows’ opinions, but the top line is that the overwhelming majority of Fellows (by about 5 to 1 in a large and representative sample) are positive about the direction in which the RSA is going right now.
So I prize moments when I can shift my focus from how to balance disparate views about the governance of our Society to how we can maximise the RSA’s impact on society. One such moment came in a recent conversation with former Fellowship Council chair, Tessy Britton. We were discussing the main lessons from initiatives like Tessy’s ‘Travelling Pantry’ for the debate about how cash strapped public agencies tap into the hidden wealth which lies in every community.
I particularly liked a point Tessy made about community organisation. Thinking about engagement often starts from the idea of mobilising complaints and opposition to the actions of public authorities. But Tessy’s work starts from creating projects – which is, of course, the same starting point as our own RSA Catalyst. Indeed Tessy argues that the content of the project - which could be anything from baking bread to creating a pop up facility for social entrepreneurs – matters less than the fact that it is creative. From this she has concluded that while reactive and oppositional groups create bonding social capital (networks between people who are alike or think alike), engagement focussed on generating new capacity and projects is more likely to create bridging capital (between people with different backgrounds, skills and approaches).
There is something intuitively appealing about this idea. While campaigning against something often means people signing up to the same actions in pursuit of the same demand (everyone collecting names on a petition, everyone turning up to the demo), creating something new in the community will mean drawing on the different insights, talents and resources of group members.
But even while I want to believe Tessy is right I can see some of the objections. First, groups campaigning against something can be diverse and develop approaches which combine multiple forms of action (as well as the petitions there are t-shirts to design, Facebook pages to create, letters to write). Second, creative groups can themselves be quite homogenous or end up with a small group doing all the work. Third, groups that start off oppositional can evolve into a source of new ideas and initiatives.
Given the caveats, is there still a core truth: that the question ‘how do we create’ is inherently more likely to generate long lasting community capacity than the question ‘how can we stop…’? Given that most activists I know think that the main source of energy in communities right now is being generated by anger and protest about cuts (we will see the national manifestation on Saturday) this seems like something worth exploring.