Community as micro-sociality and the new localism agenda

Valerie Walkerdine, David Studdert, Graham Crow and Niamh Moore

The project explored the making of community through small everyday acts of communication and the sharing of affect or feeling.

The project addresses current concerns about how communities might operate within a time of austerity and it does this by bringing together approaches from history, political philosophy, sociology and the arts, situating the importance of community relationships alongside those of state, market and family.

Working with two community groups in Abergavenny, the project sought to understand communal meanings and feelings that make up the act of communing: micro-sociality. Through interviews, focus groups, oral history and community arts, the project demonstrated how community existed continually in everyday actions and how this can be developed to form the basis of a localism built from the bottom-up.

This research used interviews, focus groups and oral history with residents, as well as ethnography and artistic productions undertaken and devised by the community groups themselves.

Communities First put on a play and Abergavenny Community Trust made a wall-hanging. The project culminated with a successful public meeting to discuss possible futures for the town.

The final report is presented here. It discusses issues and thinks about obstacles and possibilities.

Micro-sociality

Micro-sociality is a concept that allows us to think about community as small everyday actions, rather than as being a thing. We can think about it as communing – something we do every day without thinking about it. The act of communing itself produces communal meanings in common and feelings of togetherness or separation.

If we begin to look at community in this way, it is not a thing which only existed at one historical moment, but which is contained in series of timeless and  ongoing activities and as such exists everywhere and all the time  to some degree or another.The position from which we undertook this project was to understand how community as micro-sociality worked in Abergavenny and then to understand if and how this could be consciously supported in order to create community support, activities and services from the bottom-up.

The aim of the project was to understand micro sociality in the town and to address the ways in which this might be harnessed to support local agendas and community control.

We used interviews with residents from north and south Abergavenny, focus groups and oral history interviews. We trained local people to carry out these techniques too, and funded each community group to make an arts based intervention to present the results of the research in their own way.

We worked with two partner organisations: Communities First North Abergavenny and Abergavenny Community Trust.

Town meeting

We held a town meeting on the 4th February 2013 in King Henry VIII School, which addressed issues arising from the research in a series of round-tables. The meeting brought together the two community groups, town and county councillors, young people from King Henry VIII School, as well as elderly people from the town. In addition to this, issues about funding, especially the end of Communities First funding for North Abergavenny and the lack of funding for the proposed Park St community centre were on the agenda.

There was a lively and varied discussion supported by MC, comedian Steve Saint.

Here is the format of the meeting (PDF).

A number of different groups presented views for discussion.

Young people:

Elderly people:

dee

Dee Criddle presented the following about elderly people:

The issues that we have as older people have to be addressed, not just by others, but by ourselves as well. And when I say ourselves I don’t mean simply people who are older now. These are issues all of us here tonight will face at some point in our lives. Ageing is inevitable and the manner in which we treat and provide for our older people now will establish the manner in which you will be treated and seen when you become older people, which you surely all will.

Reminiscing about community long gone has its place but understanding and working with community as it is now is also important.

So what are the issues for older people in Abergavenny? Well, the first one, not surprisingly, is isolation and the loneliness that results. This is typical of the entire country and its not surprising that it exists here in our town.

Tackling this isolation is a difficult and complex issue but the good thing is that this issue can be tackled by us as older people and by everyone in Abergavenny. Older people today grew up with a different sense of community – help and support for neighbours, for example, that sometimes is greeted as pushy when an older person tries to be like that now. Times have changed and so we sometimes need help to understand the different things that people expect now.

Other issues arise from the feelings of isolation. The town council for instance like many other councils all over Britain has tried to address some of these issues through things like the mobility scooter schemes. However this in itself creates problems. One person pointed to the fact she had to take a taxi to access her mobility scooter and this meant extra costs and extra difficulties. Other people point to the closure of halls and council run facilities which have hampered their capacity to escape isolation. We are sure there are good reasons for this, but this can be expensive and yet still fail – there has to be another way.

How can we help overcome these issues?

First we point to the role of the council to galvanise and encourage people. We note that there are Befriending schemes run by Age UK which involve people going and visiting older people. How can we extend this to Abergavenny? Who can publicise it? What role can senior citizens themselves perform in this? Older people have a lot to offer. Has any body asked us what we would really like? What we feel able to give?

Might young and old work together? Can young unemployed people train to run a centre for older people, giving them a skill as well as helping us? Do we as older people have to be separated off from what else happens in our community? These are practical questions which we need to work out answers for ourselves and propose solutions? Will councils listen to our ideas and work with us?

What is clear from the research and from my personal experience is that there is a community here in Abergavenny but that for many older people it is difficult to access and mobilise. This is a shame because the older people of Abergavenny have a lot to offer to the community as a whole. Older people don’t want to dwell perpetually in memories of a golden past – we would like to be active to find areas where we can contribute to feel part of the immediate world around us. These findings prove that. What I want for the older people of Abergavenny is that we work with the councils, voluntary organisations and services and that for their part, they listen to us. Give us a chance – you may be amazed what we can offer and achieve! We might have ‘one foot in the grave’ as Victor Meldrum might say, but we can still get up to a lot of mischief!

Local town and county councillors:

Lee Macpherson, the then director of Communities First Abergavenny presented some thought-provoking views about local jobs.

Abergavenny Community Trust presented their artwork, a wall hanging, made by local people with artists and developed at a number of workshops. They also presented a video entitled ‘Stone Soup’:

Here is an extract from that presentation.

We also held a town meeting on the 4th February 2013, which addressed issues arising from the research in a series of round-tables. The meeting brought together the two community groups, town and county councillors, young people from King Henry VIII School, as well as elderly people from the town. In addition to this, issues about funding, especially the end of Communities First funding for North Abergavenny and the lack of funding for the proposed Park St community centre were on the agenda.

There was a lively and varied discussion supported by MC, comedian Steve Saint.

Download the PowerPoint file of evening (PDF)

People were invited to leave comments on paper supplied on the tables. People left a lot of comments – here are a selection:

Together under one roof

Abergavenny Community Centre Trust decided to create a wall-hanging which would be displayed in their proposed community centre, for which, despite massive efforts on their part, funding is still not secured. They worked with local artists to design this and constructed it at a number of workshops for local people.

They interpreted the brief of the project as enabling them to think about how sociality can be strengthened by allowing people to have a place to come together, created by themselves and relying only on local talents to produce. This is further emphasised in their accompanying short film, ‘Stone Soup, which emphasises the central importance of building resources from the mixture of what each person can provide, to create community ‘under one roof’.

aberknit

As co-ordinator Marion Pearse says:

“As well as the steering group, there were another twenty-four people from across town who directly took part in making the individual panels, and although it’s not on display yet, it has been seen by a dozen or so people beyond the team. There is an appreciation for the symbolism we sought to capture and it appears to get people excited about being involved in community activities.

“The wall-hanging (the very act of discussing, planning, and then doing it) brought Arts people together with non-arts people, and while it felt like a risk we found that the workshops were inclusive and non-threatening. and that highly-skilled people supported others wrestling with ideas or techniques. The workshops brought different nationalities together and that helped to broaden horizons and dispel fears. New friendships and support networks were formed and people with self-worth issues felt valued and nurtured. New skills were learnt and we uncovered that there is a real appetite and a need for art / craft / music / cooking workshops and therapies. (We had to turn people away but we’ve committed to involve them in future projects.) We are addressing this need. ….We will certainly testify that the act of coming together to create something for a common purpose has been a central and cementing force in creating community understanding.”

Up the estate

The residents of North Abergavenny through Communities First North Abergavenny decided to put on a show in the form of a musical documenting the move from Tudor St during slum clearance in the 1950s and 60s to a newly built council estate north of the town. The play flows the history of one fictional family from this move to the present. It was presented at the Borough Theatre on the 24th January, 2013 to a packed local audience.

View the programme

Local councillor Norma Watkins grew up in Tudor St and provided this invaluable oral history interview.

Comments on the process of creating and acting in the play:

“The challenge of Up The Estate was to take the lived experiences of a real community and present them in a dramatic form. As a writer, it was a real privilege to be welcomed into the community and to work them in creating a piece of theatre that spoke of their experiences; a real example of art imitating life. Working with the young people of the area gave them real ownership of the experience, and seeing them grow throughout the process was extremely rewarding.” – Kevin Myers (Director)

Oral history day

We offered training in oral history interviewing to the two community groups and on the basis of this held a memory day in the Senior Citizens Hall. The newly trained interviewers conducted oral history interviews with the many people who came along.

Here are some examples:
Graham
Sheila

The transcribed interviews are archived in the Abergavenny Museum.

Results: a discussion paper

The Big Society and localism agendas bring to the fore issues of how communities might operate within a time of austerity. This project addresses current concerns by bringing together approaches from history, political philosophy, sociology and the arts, situating the importance of community relationships alongside those of state, market and family (Crow 2004).

Working with two community groups in the South Wales town of Abergavenny, the project sought to understand the communal meanings and feelings that make up the act of communing, micro-sociality. Through interviews, focus groups, oral history and community arts, the project demonstrates how community exists in everyday actions, which can form the basis of a localism can be built from the bottom-up. However, there are a number of stumbling blocks to this created by current government agendas, which champion localism, while putting blocks in the way of bottom-up localism.

Aber_report_cover

View the entire report.

Each community group made their own contribution, which presented their view of the results of the research. Abergavenny Community Trust made a wall-hanging and video to present their desire to be together under one roof, the roof of the Park St School, for which they hope to acquire a lease from Monmouthshire County Council.