Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A balancing act

Martin Smith
This post is written in response to an article posted by Jenny Morgan on the Open Democracy site on 15 September, which I just became aware of today. Jenny was in Dudley attending a meeting of the 5 Estates Project, which was initiated by Martin Smith and other volunteers from Tenants and Residents Associations in the Netherton area, who are reaching out to isolated migrant newcomers and challenging myths about migration across their estates. However she talks evocatively of a freezing wind battering the faded bunting of the Fountain Arcade in Dudley, and of it not just being the weather that is forbidding. She is referring to prejudice, discrimination and racism against migrants.

I feel moved to bring balance to this representation of Dudley by presenting another perspective, which focuses on great things people are doing and we can all build on to make progress in Dudley, rather than writing the area off as being stuck in the past, or labelling Dudley as a place which has a culture of excluding newcomers and a ‘local dialect, impenetrable to English-speaking outsiders’.

It’s a real pity that while Jenny was in Dudley with Kenneth Rodney on what sounds like a dismal day weather-wise, she didn’t seek refuge from the wind in the warm and welcoming Caffé Grande on Stone Street, which is next-door-but-one to Kenneth's office. Martin who runs the café not only offers great coffee and cake, and healthy eating options, but also hosts reggae and soul music nights, our Social Media Surgeries for local clubs and groups, and has recently welcomed a local neighbourhood watch group to hold their meeting in the café. Looking at the recent news on the website I see that the cafe is also supporting an upcoming talented singer from Dudley.

While I agree that Dudley Town Centre is struggling, as are the other town centres in Dudley Borough, including Brierley Hill and Halesowen, this is not peculiar to Dudley (see some of Julian Dobson's blog posts, such as this one about ghost towns). And while Kenneth is reported as saying that Dudley lacks vision, I think what is sad is that a vision Dudley did have, for which special planning permission was sought, was to build a huge out-of-town retail development, including the Merry Hill Shopping Centre. My understanding is that the decline in the high streets of Dudley Borough started when Merry Hill opened, local traders feel that it sucked the lifeblood from the High Streets. So the evocative description of Dudley in decline, in my view, is as much a result of the ‘vision’ of the planners in Dudley as it is the recent recession. Perhaps the challenge is to ask how can we better harness the vision of the people of Dudley? I am convinced they have vision, but perhaps aren’t often offered appropriate safe spaces in which to express it.

And for me, rather the diverse and independent local businesses of Dudley Borough (like Caffé Grande and the Egyptian Scarab Café and gift shop) than the identikit retail outlets and chain coffee shops of Birmingham, whose profits go to multimillionaires who evade taxes, rather than recirculating back in to the local economy.

However I feel I understand the essence of what Kenneth might have been getting at in contrasting Dudley with Birmingham. Birmingham feels vibrant with its diverse population and cultural offerings. Dudley Borough is less than a third of the size and much less diverse, and perhaps from the outside the pace of things feels slower. But surely that would be the same when contrasting any borough or town with the second city of England? Whilst I can find the pace of change frustratingly slow in my work in Dudley, what I wouldn’t wish for either is a knee-jerk local authority, acting before they have thought.

It’s interesting to compare my experiences of Dudley MBC and supporting empowering approaches to working with communities, to those of Birmingham. Between 2000 and 2005 the Labour government funded the development of Community Empowerment Networks (CENs) in 88 local authority areas across the country. The aim was to develop local civil and civic action, and improve representation and community influence in statutory sector led partnership structures. An awful moment for Birmingham CEN was when the staff were suspended by pressure exerted on the employing body by the Local Authority. For no good reason. They were soon reinstated. Once government funding had ended, Birmingham City Council and its partners didn’t choose to continue resourcing the CEN, and CEN members gathered voluntarily to set up Network4Birmingham (‘Big Society’ in action in the last decade?). Travel a few miles west to Dudley and what would you find? Dudley MBC and its partners, through the Dudley Community Partnership, using shared funds to continue resourcing Dosti, Dudley’s CEN. That funding doesn’t end until March 2012 … 6 years after many other CENs shut down due to lack of support from the local statutory sector.

And it was thanks to the passion and drive for social justice of a worker of Dosti, Katherine Rogers, that Martin Smith was supported to develop what is now the Five Estates Project. The Centre for Equality and Diversity were, we felt at Dosti, the appropriate partner for Martin and his TRAs, and we invested a lot of time and energy in gently brokering the relationship to try and ensure that it would become the successful partnership that it is today. A lesson in why there is a need to carefully balance the amazing ‘get-up-and-go’ of Dudley activists with the slow burn of developing relationships and trust between people and the organisations or groups they are involved in.

Mona Bhatti
People like Martin Smith are the reason I’m still working in Dudley after 14 years. Back in the late 90’s it was Betty and Geoff Clayton, Mary Growcott, George Williams and Allan and Myra Miles. More recently I’ve been inspired by people who I see gently and sensitively challenging the status-quo and working slowly towards social justice in ways which bring others with them. Martin and his colleagues involved in the 5 Estates Project in Netherton. Mona Bhatti and the Asian’s women’s group she has started in Brierley Hill. Naghmana Kauser and the women at Dudley Asian Women’s Network. I mention Dudley Asian Women’s Network because they are also dealing with the racial harassment which Kenneth talks about (and let’s remember that prejudice isn’t peculiar to the people of Dudley). At an event earlier this week hosted by Dudley Asian Women’s Network we heard from a woman who has accessed their services and support, and started volunteering with them. She wasn’t an Asian woman. She was a newcomer from Hungary.

There is lots of activity taking place to recognise and celebrate the voluntary action of residents of Dudley. Next Thursday evening will see out annual Volunteer Awards event (I'll be tweeting from the event, probably using #volawards - follow @DudleyCVS to hear all about amazing volunteers).

Senior decision-makers in Dudley are embracing an approach to the ‘Big Society’ which, like Kenneth has done, recognises that people in Dudley (and across the globe) have been doing this for decades. We call it Our Society in Dudley Borough.

So don’t be deceived by what you might glimpse on a day trip to Dudley, whatever the weather. Behind the walls of houses and community buildings, and inside the local council offices, there are hundreds and thousands of people with ‘get-up-and-go’. You simply need to make time get to know them.

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