The austerity years have left a big gap in public services. But, says Martin Graham FRSA, even if we are to see better times, closing this gap must involve re-stimulating people’s commitment to doing things with and for each other.
For the last nine years, I have been working, particularly in deprived areas of the West Midlands, seeking to rebuild community spirit, street by street through ‘Street Associations’. Our strapline is ‘friendship, fun, belonging, a helping hand’ and it is all about bringing people together in a meaningful way, to bring connectedness at the very local level, with things like a quiz night, picnic, barbecue or children’s party, just for ‘your’ street. Normally the idea is very well received, with 88% of residents in nearly 2,000 doorstep interviews saying they would welcome an increase in community spirit. But what I hear all the time is that “people here prefer to keep themselves to themselves” and, from older people, “when I was young, everyone knew everyone; now I don’t know anyone”. And even, “I try to greet younger people, but they don’t want to know”. Or, “I smile at people but they think I’m mad”.
‘Keeping to ourselves’ is a contemporary ‘giant’, equivalent to the five – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – named in the 1942 Beveridge Report.
Saying 'hello' to strangers
There are big regional and local differences here, but the direction of travel is clear. Even the idea of smiling or saying ‘hello’ to someone on my own street whom I don’t know conjures up the fear that they might wonder what I want, or suspect me of being one of those people they can’t get rid of. Or would I be invading their ‘private space’? Altogether, it has come to feel ‘inappropriate’ – too difficult – and often the result is that I blank them and they blank me.
On a social level, the consequences of this are profound and wide-ranging. If we can’t even smile or say ‘hello’, nothing downstream of that will happen, such as making new friends, giving practical support to those who need it and generating a sense of belonging and of real community. It entrenches loneliness and isolation and exacerbates anxiety and depression. It causes social skills to atrophy and creates an atmosphere of unfriendliness and corrodes any real sense of belonging. And the public sector is left to pick up the pieces, expensively and inadequately.
In partnership with the Centre for Citizenship and Community, we did an in-depth survey of people’s social connections in Kingstanding, Birmingham, and it was heart-breaking to see how many people really only related to one, two or three people for practical or emotional support, advice or because they just liked spending time together. So often it was ‘my mother’ or ‘my daughter’ who fulfilled these needs, plus perhaps an old friend who lived in another part of the country. Very little resilience there. Three quarters or those named were family members, and only 5% were neighbours. One man said, “I talk to the mirror, tell it the problem and then work out what to do about it”. That was his recipe for gaining emotional support.
But are we really all determinately introverted, miserable and antisocial? Not at all. Go out with a baby, or a puppy, and loads of people will stop and say, “How old is he?” and so on. Similarly, stand at a bus stop and most stand in silence but, if it starts tipping down with rain, people will talk. People just needed an excuse to connect and there is a desire for contact, if the context allows it. There is also a need. In one of our surveys, 74% of respondents agreed with the statement that “I prefer to keep myself to myself” some of the time, often or always but over three quarters of people also agreed that “I feel it would do me good to be more sociable”.
Could an encouragement, a nudge, to make more contact work, counteracting the idea that being friendly is ‘inappropriate’? We have found that it can, and does.
Permission to smile
In May 2018, we launched a pan-Birmingham campaign called ‘Permission to Smile’. The large banners (850 of which popped up around the city in parks, on major routes, libraries, supermarkets, churches, mosques, community centres, GP surgeries, schools) had messages like ‘help melt the ice’ or ‘social warming’, coupled with the Permission to Smile logo and the message ‘Greet someone today’ and, more recently, ‘Join the friendliness revolution’. The campaign generated huge support and has been very high profile.
The impact of this does not easily lend itself to being measured, but school gates have provided one opportunity. Imagine that you are standing with a crowd of parents waiting for your children to come out. Some chat, but others stand apart. But with a banner encouraging people to smile and greet means it could become a bit embarrassing not to do so. As one local commented the result was: “A bit more banter at the school gate. Others are making an effort to be more friendly". Another said: “To be honest, I never used to smile with my eyes, but seeing the banner made me decide to really go for it!” while one parent noted: “My daughter keeps coming home and telling me to smile!” Most tellingly, 94% said that “a campaign that encourages friendliness with those around us” was necessary.
If this is scratching where it is itching, what more could be done? We started working with churches, community centres and other local organisations to put on Permission to Smile Tea Parties. Attracted by the campaign’s high profile, residents are turning out in force and on arrival find a table reserved for their own street. So they sit with near-neighbours, get to know them and together hear about the opportunity to rekindle genuine community through together forming a Street Association, to bring people together long-term. It is working and each tea party is creating a legacy for local streets.
We can achieve as much prosperity as we like, but if we aren’t for each other, what have we really got? Surely the key thing is that other people matter to us, and we to them. Permission to Smile can be a start in taking things in the right direction and we have a new strategy. Could the campaign, then, also be a model that could be taken to other towns and cities, and even, one day, go national?
This is where RSA Fellows might come in. To make the most of the opportunity, a network of talented, connected and motivated individuals would need to be formed and organised to begin to expand the reach and effectiveness of the campaign. Social networking can be effective in one city (it has been), but would be far more effective if other towns and cities where doing the same thing, as social networks are no respecters of city boundaries. And, at the national level, a whole new layer of communication channels (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines) would come into play.
I would love to hear from Fellows who feel the same and might like to join us in making it happen.
Martin Graham is director of Uturn UK CIC, which has pioneered both the Permission to Smile campaign and the Street Associations initiative. Previously, he was founder and director of the charity On the Move International and, prior to that, chief executive of the Kent Chamber of Commerce & Industry. He holds an MLitt from Cambridge University in political philosophy.