CHE Voices

 CHE Voices — the Centre’s new blog — is a space to deepen and reflect on the themes touched on in CHE’s ongoing community education programme, and current thinking and practice in human ecology.


16 October 2017

Good neighbour, bad subject — Solidarity and resistance in the age of Brexit

By Jonathan Robertson

On a large piece of paper in the Pearce Institute is written a Henry Thoreau quote: “I am as desirous of being a good neighbour as I am of being a bad subject”. As part of the Unbrexable conference, Isabel, James and Nicky from CAMINA* took inspiration from this to run a workshop exploring ‘solidarity and resistance in the age of Brexit’: What does it mean to be a good neighbour? And what does it mean to be a “bad subject”?

Participants were invited to respond to a series of photographs – a man in a balaclava filling in a pothole, protestors blocking a detention centre, people helping at a food bank – projected onto the wall. How high a level of neighbourliness did they depict and how high a level of civil disobedience did they portray? Is there a time to stop being neighbourly? Does civil disobedience have to be dangerous? Can an act be both neighbourly and civilly disobedient, as Thoreau aimed for? When people are faced with the multiple challenges of Brexit Britain, whether they see it on the streets or on the news, what are the pathways towards solidarity and resistance. And what are the blocks? “There are many people who dare not participate in a strike or other political actions”, educator Augusto Boal once wrote. “Why? Because they have cops in their heads. They have internalised their oppressions”.

The remainder of the session was an opportunity for the participants to be part of an activity created by Boal called ‘Cops in their heads’. The design of this activity was based on a European context where oppression is more internalised and less outwardly apparent than in Boal’s native Brazil. James and Nicky acted out a scenario set in the office of a refugee support organisation. Nicky’s character wanted to attend a rally at a detention centre, which her boss permitted her to do as long as she completed her work-tasks around it. In the end though Nicky’s character found excuses not to attend. After running through the scenario once, we focused in on Nicky’s character and the voices within her head which ‘talked her out of going’. The participants were invited to act out the voices in Nicky’s head — “it could be dangerous”, “I should really prioritise my paid work and my health”, “what difference would I make anyway”…


The final stage of the activity gave space for the other participants to approach and enter into dialogue with the participants who acted out the voices in Nicky’s head. This was a chance to both challenge and reflect on the blocks and self-limiting beliefs that, as Boal says, prevent people from participating in strikes or other political actions. At a time when fresh causes for civil disobedience emerge daily, the ‘Cops in their heads’ activity gives the chance for all of us to really dive into and pick apart the blocks and internalised oppressions that prevent us from acting.

* Critical and Alternative Methods & Ideas Network for Action (CAMINA) is a project which hopes to support and connect critical education activity and those practising critical education, across Scotland and Spain. See http://caminaproject.weebly.com/.


5 September 2017

Emotional citizenry: Building connections with hearts and minds

By Kye Askins

“Good morning, my sister!” Samira beams at me, almost every Thursday morning.

“Good morning to you, my sister!” I smile back, and we hug warmly.

We’ve been greeting each other like this for nearly two years now, at a Drop-In centre in the southside of Glasgow, where we both volunteer on Thursdays. Our verbal conversations haven’t gone much beyond basics, since Samira speaks little English and I speak no Tigrinya. Yet we talk to each other with our bodies: hugs, smiles, eye contact, hands on arms or around shoulders; and we listen to each other’s body language, moods and intentions. As we cook together, do arts and crafts together, drink tea together, sing together, set out and clear up the Drop-In space together, we increasingly build a connection: a bond that is embodied, emotional and thoughtful. I care about Samira, and I feel that she cares for me.

People sitting at a table, doing craftwork

I see this kind of relation everywhere across the Drop-In: between staff, volunteers and attendees; between people of diverse ethnic, age, educational, religious and national backgrounds; between people who come regularly and people who maybe only attend once or twice. People find their way to the Drop-In for different reasons, and come with different support needs, whether volunteers or attendees. It caters to local – broadly defined as the Gorbals and nearby, but open to all comers – people who generally share marginalised and fragile socio-economic positions, with one or more attendant issues across a range of physical and mental health capabilities, housing context, under/unemployment, recovery from alcohol or substance misuse, seeking asylum or settling in as a new migrant, and so on. We are diverse in many ways, yet we come together with a desire to engage, a will to be part of something, a searching for company and connection.

People talking, sitting in a circle of chairs.

So, despite the differences that politicians and the media constantly emphasise through narratives that serve to fragment society – around migration, ethnicity and religion, especially Islam – people have plenty in common (not least precarious financial situations in an era of austerity). Many conversations, including between people who share little common language, revolve around politics, receding welfare support, and care from government. There is deep anger at changes to benefits and the sanctions system, the detention and deportation of asylum seekers, a lack of affordable housing, the use of zero hours employment contracts, and rising mental health issues. Anger at wider structural inequalities amid a concern for each other.

Brexit
Brexit has been a central topic of conversation. The Drop-In is used by migrants from across Europe and the world, all worried about being less or unwelcome, and about their continuing place in Glasgow. Scottish attendees and volunteers rail against how this wider political landscape and the withdrawal from Europe contradicts how they perceive their country; as Chris says, “We’ve always been a welcoming country, my Scotland is an inclusive Scotland. Now we’re painted, as part of the UK, as xenophobes!”

The thing is, people recognise that, while they face different barriers, having to struggle is what connects them. The Drop-In is a space where people can think about and discuss their positions, planning how to survive and improve their lives; a place where links can be forged through debate and ideas.

People looking at a wall mural with a sign saying "sharing ideas"Shared emotions
This thinking and talking is already caught up with other senses and emotions. At any given time, we don’t necessarily have or experience the same emotions or feelings as each other, but everyone has feelings, and we can recognise each other as emotional beings. We interact through emotions which emerge from the ebb and flow of our talking and listening, playing games, doing arts, crafts and other activities, preparing and eating food.

Jim teases Adama about his recent haircut, Adama rubs Jim’s bald head and says at least he has hair to cut, and both men laugh…

Christine teaches Julie to arrange flowers, and as they both breathe in the scent they reminisce about gardens they remember from before/elsewhere…

Cath is washing up after lunch with Ibrahim, when Scottish country music starts playing in the hall. They both drop what they’re doing and start dancing arm-in-arm round the kitchen, laughing…

Michael, struggling with depression, hasn’t attended the Drop-In for a while; as he comes in, a loud chorus of “Hi, nice to see you” rings around the hall. Dan gets Michael a cup of tea, and they sit sombrely, talking now and again, but mostly just being beside one another in silence. Later, Romy persuades Michael to join him for a game of table tennis, which gets very energetic, ending with smiles and a handshake, though still few words…

Maryam is more talkative, discussing problems with her asylum appeal while cutting onions, standing next to Tanya, also chopping veg. Conversation moves on to Tanya’s issues with her teenage daughter, then a companionable quiet punctuated by both women’s sighs. Later, as they serve lunch, Maryam and Tanya pass plates and pans to one another wordlessly, connecting through the task at hand. Before they leave, they arrange to meet next Monday for a cup of tea at Maryam’s house…

Sonya is talking on her mobile. She finishes the call, and sits down heavily on a nearby chair. Susan goes to sit next to her, and within a moment, as soon as Susan says “Is everything OK?”, Sonya is in tears and Susan is holding her, comforting her. These women met a year ago at a nursery their children attend, and Susan (Scottish, grew up locally) introduced Sonya (from a south African country) to the Drop-In. They now see each other all the time, around the area, and their kids play together…

Making bread, Bob, raises his eyebrows with a comical face, points to his very misshapen loaf and shrugs. He doesn’t need to say anything, we’re being invited to giggle with him. Sandra pats him heartily on the back with floury hands…

 

Two people hugging, one dressed as a chefPeople cookingFriendships are fostered though activities, through sharing space, through bodily connections, through being, thinking and feeling together. There is a palpable desire to engage, to build local community, and to (re)make society at the local level. We may have uncertain futures, but we are claiming our right to belong.

 

Emotional citizenry

I’ve been volunteering at the Drop-In for over two years, and recently also did some research with people there. The findings resonate with previous research in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, conducted with a befriending scheme that paired more settled residents with asylum seekers and refugees. In that project, we developed the idea of emotional citizenry, which sets out a broader, more inclusive kind of citizenship that goes beyond a fixed status (with passport, based on defined state borders) that people can or cannot achieve. Rather it is citizenry as a process, grounded in the complexities of places, lives and feelings. Such a process is clear at the Drop-In. People encounter one another through everyday practices: emotional citizenry is living as part of interconnecting communities that reach across all kinds of scales, and is already taking place.

People eating a communal dinnerFraming citizenship in this way poses some questions. How might individual relationships anticipate collective change? What policies and actions are required to support living together in the super-diverse and mobile societies of the 21st century (which Brexit cannot un-make)? It points to how grassroots initiatives may disrupt top-down politics and dominant discourses, and to a role for third sector organisations in facilitating social change.

I see Samira and other folk from the Drop-In quite regularly around the neighbourhood, and sometimes in Glasgow city centre. We always wave or nod across a street, and often stop, say “hi” and have a chat. And that’s really important to me. I feel recognised, part of (albeit loose and fluid) community, that I belong.

I feel Unbrexable. We are Unbrexable!

(All photos are courtesy of Magda Kaminsha. All names, other than the author’s, are pseudonyms.)


18th August 2017

Unbrexfast — A Reflection

By Juana Adcock

Brexit by now seems like a giant train wreck that nobody knows how to shift or lift, and which is rapidly becoming an accepted part of the landscape. Any concrete decisions are stalled and the same tired arguments are rehashed time and again, making us feel the opposite of ‘strong and stable’ and encouraging us to lose interest. But through this boredom, we risk missing the important decisions that are being made without us, so events like Unbrexfast are an important way of reigniting interest, providing critical education and reflecting as a means to guide our actions in the future, and helping us imagine ways in which to move forward.

After a round of introductions, we shared a delicious vegetarian/vegan breakfast and chatted away amongst ourselves, before coming back to the larger group and describing some of the topics that had come up: our food system and food security, the aspect of care in our society and how it relates to grassroots movements, and communication and xenophobia. We then split into three teams and each was asked to look at one of these issues: defining it, talking about the resources that were already available, and thinking about what else would be needed to address that issue.

Our food system
This group decided to talk about ‘food system adaptation’ rather than ‘food security’, because the word ‘security’ may have some negative connotations. They also spoke about the local and the global: how to address local issues with global responsibility – for example Fair Trade – and supporting transparency in the food chain.

There is currently a lot of talk about rising food prices, but actually many prices are artificially depressed (e.g., products such as milk have no fair trade standards for a large part of their production). So what we’ll really be seeing is the actual price of food, which will be a shock and could be quite traumatic, especially for people already needing to use food banks. So how do we protect the most vulnerable and educate ourselves about food and its production? Food standards, workers’ rights, permaculture, animal welfare, GM free crops: all of these are needed. Examples given as good models were the Emilia Romagna cooperatives in Italy and the amazing Via Campesina movement that started in a little town in Spain. The main idea was that we should not leave it up to someone else, but that we need to take action ourselves.

Realising what networks we already have locally in regards to food can help us to understand how to better address the issue, and tools like the Green Map initiative can be useful (and has already been done for Glasgow’s West End). But at the moment, there are no easy answers to a lot of hard questions.

The Good Food Nation Strategy came out of the Community Empowerment Act. Every local authority has 2 years to write their food strategy, but currently don’t really know what to do, and are undergoing consultations. Talks are still underway as regards to what a “good food nation” means. It was suggested that the consultation was maybe not asking the right questions, Perhaps the important questions are how we can make food growing relevant to people? How can use this to create jobs? Can we create market gardens? How much food do we need? Do we need a specific target e.g., to produce 50% of our food in Scotland? And how do we link to European peasant movements, as well as the existing local food movement? Overall, more thought needs to be given about how we do things, especially if there is need to scale-up food production in Scotland. For example, a number of community gardens previously maintained by grants have now been abandoned, indicating a lack of joined-up thinking. However, It’s important to note that there need not be a single model for this; several models could exist at the same time, tailored to the specific needs of different communities.

Care and grassroots movements
The group discussed the global trend towards eroding communities, breaking them apart by various political mechanisms: the processes of gentrification, urban planning strategies, and the restructuring of economic activities. This means people become more isolated, feeling very unsafe, at risk of physical violence from other groups, and feeling powerless because they don’t always understand what is happening and the decisions are always being made elsewhere. So it is important to create safe spaces for those affected, offering them the time and resources that will allow them to think about things beyond their own immediate survival.
Community and communal spaces, integration networks, and places like Galgael, provide people with safety in the face of different kinds of vulnerabilities. Although equality policies may often seem paternalistic, and organisations may be seen to be merely ‘ticking boxes’ to adhere to them, they are still worth defending. But it’s important to actively nurture emotional connections rather than just focusing on gestures of solidarity; to support diversity and not just push for integration.

Communication
This group had quite a broad discussion, noting that a lot of communication consists of people trying to advance their often rather narrow and set views, seeking to justify those views rather than engage in a dialogue. However, in some communities in Scotland, there’s a growing interest in the Art Of Hosting approach, Theory U and the U lab platform, and the perspective of Living Systems i.e., how people are inseparably part of the natural world but are often seen as being isolated from, or somehow immune to the effects of, natural processes.
In terms of ways forward, there are a number of very active groups around different themes, but what they need to do is to improve their communications. There are a range of really good thinking techniques and practices available, including those listed above and other practices such as Non-Violent Communication (NVC), but it’s necessary to find ways to practice these, and add to them and change them. The notion of “Act as if you own it” was repeated several times, as well as Harry Burn’s theory of “Just do it” (rather than hoping for the government to eventually solve the problems). How can communication be achieved across Scotland, to join up different networks and get a stronger civic voice for Scotland? The problem is that if each network acts alone, they tend to run out of steam, and then 10 or 20 years down the line not much has changed.

So the best chance for survival is if different networks can find ways to link up. More opportunities are needed to meet and engage with those people that we wouldn’t normally meet in everyday life. Training in communication techniques is needed, as well as the space to practice and be supported in using them. Currently in place are the Centre for Human Ecology, Galgael, and the Govan Folk University. These are all a start in creating our own institution of learning; one that truly comes from those community voices and encourages real, engaged communication as opposed to the arid and divided discussion that often arises from party politics.

An ongoing conversation
Through events like Unbrexfast, the CHE is looking to build channels of communication and see where it takes us. The next step is all an all-day Unbrexable event that is taking place on the 2nd of September, which will be more in the style of a conference, with a full day of workshops and more guided conversations. Stay tuned!

About

The Centre for Human Ecology is an independent academic institute, network and registered charity based in Glasgow, Scotland, with an international membership of graduates and fellows. It exists to stimulate and support fundamental change towards ecological and social justice through education, action and research, drawing on a holistic, multidisciplinary understanding of environmental and social systems.

Contact

email: info@che.ac.uk
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