Stirrer special edition back from the printer

For a while we’ve needed something we can hand out at anarchist/radical bookfairs, on protests and to any people interested in what we’re doing to explain what we’re about. Sure we can give them a printed copy of the Stirrer but that’s generally us commenting on local issues from our political perspective rather than explaining where we’re coming from as activists. To resolve this, we’ve produced a special edition of the Stirrer on two sides of a sheet of A4 which explains our roots in class struggle and community activism, arguing that to achieve real change, you have to build from the grassroots upwards. It’s fairly generic in its content so it’s a resource we can use for the rest of this year – or until we run out:) All things being equal, we hope to be at the Bristol Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday May 12th and we’ll be handing them out then. Hopefully our message about building from the grassroots will get a positive reception and we’ll take it from there…

As ever, we don’t have a massive budget and can’t afford long print runs so we’re making the paper available as a downloadable PDF from here.

This is the full text of the paper…

Class struggle from the grassroots

WHERE WE ARE

Surveying the political, economic and social landscape, the curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ has never seemed more apt. The last few years have seen a series of events that have caught most commentators off guard as the world becomes more unpredictable and volatile by the day. The political, economic and social system we live under is in crisis. We’re in a situation where a united anarchist movement should be putting a fractured, divided ruling class on the ropes while pressing the case for fundamental change and the overthrow of a system that’s reached its use by date. It has to be said there’s some work to do before this can be realised…

BUILDING OUTWARDS AND UPWARDS

Real change will only come from the grassroots upwards. If you don’t build and facilitate a movement for change from the level of the neighbourhood and also the workplace and college upwards, nothing is going to change. Taking to the streets for militant, angry protests (yes…there was a time before the People’s Assembly!) has a role to play but if there isn’t a firm base at the level of the estate and the neighbourhood, there’s not going to be a meaningful movement for change. This is what the South Essex Stirrer and our partners at Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) strive to achieve – building a base for change in our neighbourhoods and working outwards and upwards from there.

Lessons learned on the estates

As to how building from the grassroots happens, sorry folks, there’s no definitive template you can apply. From our experience in working with BASHA, every estate is different and has it’s own issues and characters. It’s a case of getting out on the doorstep in your neighbourhood and talking to people to find out what they want. It’s also a case of learning from the experiences of others and applying them to the situation you’re facing while bearing in mind the ultimate aim of what you want to achieve.

The vast majority of people are apolitical and generally don’t think about politics until it’s coming close to voting day. That’s if they’re intending to vote – when it comes to local elections, the participation rate tends to hover round the 30% mark. Also, when you start talking to people on the doorstep, pinning them down to a particular part of the political spectrum isn’t easy. Someone may be quite radical on some issues but reactionary on others – you just have to use your own political nous to decide if there’s a basis for a dialogue in these situations.

We found that doorstepping isn’t the time or place to adopt a holier than thou attitude with people. Listening to someone in order to understand where they’re coming from without interrupting or hectoring them earned us enough respect to start a dialogue. Sure, we come across a few hardened racists and it soon became clear we’d be wasting our time pursing the argument as well as compromising our own security. In those situations, we terminated the exchange and moved on while making a mental note of where the bigots lived!

Get stuck in!

When it comes to gaining respect, one thing that works is getting your hands dirty by getting stuck in on activities such as a neighbourhood clean up or building a community garden. Whether it’s organising it, facilitating the residents in running it or going along and learning some lessons from well organised residents who know what they’re doing will depend on the situation you face on the ground. The thing is getting stuck in and being seen to do so…

It’s a case of what needs to be done and what works given the circumstances and the resources to hand. Our experiences are determined by the demographic we’re dealing with and the political colour of the local authority area we’re working in. The issues we deal with and the solutions we offer are going to differ from those facing activists in a London borough such as Newham. However, the experiences of activists operating in all areas, regardless of the different circumstances they encounter, need to be shared to put all of our struggles into a broader, unifying context.

RESPECT THE DIFFERENCE AND GET ON WITH IT!

We’re living through some pretty unpredictable and potentially volatile times and the anarchist movement can’t afford to indulge in navel gazing. One example of this is the obsessive focus on various aspects of identity politics and the call out culture that accompanies it. We recognise that identity politics originated as a necessary response to oppressions experienced by certain groups – for the record we’re fully behind any group fighting for justice.

Where identity politics has been going wrong in our view is rather than aggregating those experiences of oppression into an all encompassing movement to achieve justice, there’s been a tendency for too much of it to slip into divisive, competing victimhoods. Thankfully, there are some strands of thinking on intersectionality that encourage linking together to fight oppression – these tendencies will get our backing without reservation. Basically, respect the difference and unite to fight the oppression!

MOVING FORWARDS

The current situation could be the best opportunity we’ve had in a generation to start bringing about radical change. If we don’t get our act together, we’re facing the direst threat there’s been for many generations. We’re not just talking about the threat to us as activists but also to our class, regardless of ethnicity, creed or gender, who as we’ve already seen with social cleansing from London and the Grenfell Tower disaster, face a direct threat to their existence. A number of middle class activists may not see this threat – those at the sharp end being forced out of the capital or having to constantly look over their shoulder in fear of the immigration squads or a racist attack live with it every moment of their lives. We want to find ways of moving things forward in what’s a challenging and difficult period so we can all realise our aim of overthrowing the crap we have to put up with and bring in a saner, just, equitable and sustainable society.

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Havering Tories and dog whistle politics

The leaflet shown above was produced by the Tories in Havering for the upcoming local elections in May. As you can clearly see from reading the leaflet, it’s a return to openly reactionary dog whistle politics and as such, has generated a lot of controversy: Labour condemns Tories for racially charged attack on Sadiq Khan.

It would be all too easy to simply dismiss this as reactionary and not bother to deal with the points made in the flyer. We think it’s worth going through some of the key points because once they’re put under any degree of scrutiny, they simply don’t stand up. As we’ve said elsewhere, de-bunking is a better strategy that simple condemnation..

The first bullet point refers to ‘massive population increases from London’. Havering has been a London borough ever since the creation of Greater London on 1st April 1965. The reference to movement ‘from London’ is wrong – they should be referring to movement within London. A lot of the housing built in Havering from the start of the 20th century onwards was to facilitate the desire of people to move out from the crowded streets of inner London to the suburbs. This is something that has been going on for over a century. What the Tories are doing is playing on the prejudices held by an element of the demographic they’re targeting about the movement of people from inner London to outer London. They are dropping a not very subtle hint that some of those moving out from inner London may be of a different ethnicity to the largely white, 50 years old plus demographic they’re targeting for votes. This is classic dog whistle politics in action.

The second bullet point talks about vast numbers of high rise blocks. Surely the Tories in Havering would have noticed a transport link called Crossrail running all the way from Reading in the west through to Shenfield in the east and passing right through Romford. This has created the ‘Crossrail effect’ which is boosting property prices all the way along the route and fuelling the development of clusters of apartment developments aimed at people commuting into London. You would have thought that rising property prices and the potential nest eggs they could provide would be good news for the Baby Boomer demographic the Tories are targeting with this leaflet. However, it would appear that while the rise in property prices is welcomed by these Baby Boomers, some of them are not so keen on apartment developments that may have a higher degree of ethnic diversity than they’ve been used to.

What the leaflet fails to mention is why there’s such pressure to release land for housing development in Havering. Central and inner London has block after block of high end luxury apartments that are nowhere near fully occupied and whose function is to act as investment vehicles for the super rich who buy and sell them for a profit. Developments which were warmly welcomed by none other than the previous Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. So, it would seem that Havering Tories are railing against developments that are pretty much a direct consequence of the policies of Boris Johnson! When you have housing in central London built to function as an asset instead of providing somewhere for ordinary Londoners to live, it’s not surprising there’s such pressure on locations such as Romford for housing developments where people can actually live.

All the way along the estuary, local authorities are being asked to identify land that can be released for development to meet government designated housing targets. If local authorities fail to come up with a plan to identify land suitable for housing, central government have said they will intervene and undertake the task themselves. In effect, the Tories in Havering are questioning the housing policies of their Tory government. Basically, the high rise apartments planned for locations such as Romford are coming because allowing for the provision of them is part of central government policy and as things stand at the moment, there’s little a local authority can do to overturn it.

The third bullet point talks about ‘building on our cherished open spaces’. If there were schemes to concrete over spaces such as Raphaels Park, Bedfords Park and the like, it would be understandable if people were getting outraged. If there was any hint of a threat to those spaces, we’d be joining in with the outrage! From what we understand, a lot of the high density apartment blocks scheduled for Romford are going onto brownfield sites. Also, as they’re apartment blocks, by their very nature, they’ll be going upwards and will have a relatively small footprint. Yes, there are issues with infill proposals in some neighbourhoods which are posing a threat to loved and used recreational spaces and residents are rightly opposing those and by and large, we support their efforts to resist this.

Then there’s ‘Havering ruled by Mayor Khan’. Now, as anarchists and housing activists, we don’t have a lot of time for any mayor of London, regardless of political affiliation, who they are or where they’re from. However, this statement has to be taken apart and shown up for what it is. As we’ve stated before, Havering has been a part of Greater London since 1965. As part of what is now the Greater London Authority, Havering like every other London borough is subject to the policy decisions of the elected mayor which happens to be Sadiq Khan. The Mayor of London has a policy remit that’s more of an overview of Greater London than day to day interference in what goes in in each and every London borough. It’s obvious what’s going on here…it’s the Tories playing on the fears of a certain section of their target demographic about someone with a ‘foreign sounding’ name having a say in how their lives are run. Even though Sadiq Khan was born and raised in south London. Again, this is classic dog whistle politics…

Politics in Havering has always been a bit odd. It’s a local authority that quite often has ended up as ‘no overall control’ after elections with a fair bit of horse trading being undertaken to form an administration. The borough has generally had more than an average number of independents as councillors whose politics can sometimes be hard to pin down but in general, they tend towards the centre right of the spectrum with some going a bit further. The area has always had a reputation for being right wing. The MP for Romford, Andrew Rosindell is way off on the right of the Tory party.

All of this explains why given the type of support the Tories in Havering attract plus the reputation of the area, they felt confident enough to bring out a leaflet that’s almost a parody of reactionary dog whistle politics. However, what happens in Havering has to be put into the context of what’s happening across the country in that it’s just a more prominent example of a drift towards a more reactionary political and social climate. It would be comforting to dismiss what’s happening in Havering as being nothing more than what a lot of seasoned observers expect of the borough but that would be wrong.

Which means we have to up our game to deal with this. Understandably a lot of people are going to condemn this leaflet as reactionary and racist. All well and good but what has to be done is to take each point in the leaflet, demolish it and use those arguments to persuade people that the Tories aren’t worth their vote. We hope we’ve made a start with this piece. We’ve seen other people we know of in Havering also producing point by point rebuttals of the claims in this leaflet. We need to use the force of argument and persuasion to totally de-bunk reactionary tosh like this and then advance our own ideas of how to take things forward in a radical, progressive direction. We have a lot of work to do…

Identity politics – a new section on this blog

I’m probably making a rod for my own back but I’ve put everything I’ve written over the last couple of years about various aspects of identity politics in one section on this blog – Identity politics. It’s probably fair to say that all of these pieces are me thinking out loud while trying to get to grips with complex and contentious issues and unwittingly dropping a few clangers along the way. Rather than have these pieces scattered all over this blog, I’ve put these writings in one place to make them easier to access. If for some unfathomable reason, any of you want to quote from any of these pieces, please bear in mind they’re attempts to either reach an understanding or express an opinion and should not be considered as definitive, scholarly statements in any way!

Once you’ve read through these pieces, apart from some links to readings in the list, you’ll notice the absence of anything on the issue of gender identity. This is because a) I’m still struggling to get my head round what’s a complex, sensitive and controversial issue and b) as the issue has not touched my lived experience and is not in my remit as a community / housing / class struggle activist, to be honest, I don’t feel that I’m qualified in any way to write about it.

As ever, constructive criticism and civilised debate on what has been written are more than welcome…

Dave (the editor)

A few words on how we work

Recently on our sister blog, The South Essex Stirrer, we posted up this piece: A few thoughts on neighbourhood community hallshttps://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2018/03/10/a-few-thoughts-on-neighbourhood-community-halls/ It’s about concerns expressed by a number of residents on the ¾ estate in Vange over safety issues relating to parking and traffic on Fridays when the neighbourhood community centre is used as a mosque. It’s one of those issues that if we don’t get involved with our analysis of it, there are those on the right and possibly, the far right who will be only too happy to take ownership of it. That would make it very difficult for us and our partners to continue to operate on the ¾ estate.

We’ve been working for a while with Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) and more recently, the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) on ways to encourage residents on the ¾ estate to get involved in making their neighbourhood a better place to live. This has involved practical actions such as community clean ups as well as using what resources we can muster to put pressure on Basildon Council to get their act together and do the job residents pay them their council tax for. VHCG was set up last year, partly as a result of a meet up and estate walkabout involving local residents, BASHA and a rare appearance from the two ward councillors. VHCG have quite a lively Facebook group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/180311358699122/

The VHCG Facebook group can best be described as a broad church that reflects the range of opinions that will be found on any estate. Which means that sometimes opinions will be aired that we will not agree with. Opinions that some people in some of the activist circles we know will deem to be beyond the pale. Opinions that may well prompt some activists to ask what on earth are we doing working with VHCG in the first place. A caveat – it has to be noted that the few people who do express opinions that some will regard as dodgy have never, ever been seen on any of our community clean ups. The people from VHCG whose work we do facilitate such as the clean ups and lobbying are pretty sound as far as we’re concerned.

The VHCG Facebook group gives us an insight into what people’s concerns (and occasionally, prejudices) are. Which means we can intervene by whatever means necessary to offer our viewpoint on a contentious issue and work to change people’s opinions. It’s a continuous process that won’t get instant results but if we stick at it for long enough, we gain people’s respect and that’s when we can start to change minds and win people over. It’s pretty much what we did way back in the 2000’s when we were involved with the Independent Working Class Association – direct engagement with working class people. As we have stated many times before, anyone who wants to see fundamental change is going to have to have the working class with them because without us, you will not achieve your goal!

Working in the way we do with BASHA and VHCG means there are inevitably a few grey areas. We know what we want to get out of this process so keeping that in mind, we can deal with the grey areas. Working at the coalface on isolated, deprived and forgotten estates on the fringes of a failing new town means finding an ideologically pure community group to work with is an impossibility. We have to work with what we find which means things can be a bit messy and complicated sometimes. We accept that and just get on with the process of engagement as best we can.

We could get huffy, throw the toys out of our pram and refuse to work with community groups that may include people whose views we don’t agree with. We could retreat to a hermetically sealed activist bubble where everything we hear confirms our world view and refuse to engage with those whose views we find disagreeable. We could but – it would be a massive abrogation of duty. Retreat raises the question ‘if not us, then who?’ Well, there’s a motley cast of UKIPers, ex UKIP ‘independents’, and lurking in the shadows, a few people off to the far right who would be only too happy to step in and fill the vacuum. So, this is why we work in the way we do with BASHA to make sure that there are at least a few estates in Basildon where these elements won’t be able to make an appearance without reckoning with our input.

This is the gritty, messy and complicated reality of what we deal with out here along the Essex shore of the Thames estuary. It’s not easy and there are times when we’re tearing our hair out in frustration – however, it has to be done. We’re not asking for plaudits or kudos for the way we work. All we’re asking for is an understanding of what we’re trying to achieve in terms of engaging with and winning over working class estates to a broader vision of change. As ever, constructive criticism and informed debate on the issues raised in this piece are always welcome.

A few thoughts on neighbourhood community halls

This piece was originally posted on our sister blog, the South Essex Stirrerhttps://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/ We’re posting it up here because we think it illustrates the issues we face working with community groups on estates facing problems arising from neglect and deprivation. Problems that if ignored and dismissed, will eventually be picked up and acted on by elements from the far right. Suffice to say that engagement with estate based, mainly apolitical community groups can be a messy and complex business but is necessary if we’re going to defeat the forces of reaction…

We’ve been made aware of parking issues occurring on the ¾ estate in Vange on Fridays around the community hall on Vange Hill Drive – this is a day the building is used for a religious gathering. This isn’t the only example of a community hall being used for a religious gathering with attendant parking and traffic problems. This is an issue with a number of religious denominations across the region we cover…

Community halls on estates were planned and built with the intention that they were for neighbourhood use. Use for anyone in the neighbourhood regardless of who they are, where they originated from and what deity they may or may not choose to worship. Catering for a neighbourhood, the assumption was that a fair proportion of the people attending events at their community hall would walk to and from events and only those living a bit of a distance away or with mobility problems would drive or be driven to them. Car parking for the community halls was generally provided based on these assumptions.

For a variety of reasons, a number of community halls are being used for events, some of them religious gatherings, that will attract people from across the borough and not just the neighbourhood. If such a community hall is on an isolated estate with poor public transport, then people travelling there from a distance will be coming by car because there is no other option. Even if there are reasonable public transport links, it may well be the case that sadly, in the increasingly divided and polarised society we live in, worshippers of some denominations might not feel safe travelling in by bus or train and choose to drive simply because it’s the safest option. This is where a car park in a community hall designed for neighbourhood use is overwhelmed and vehicles are parked in neighbouring streets that more often than not, were not designed to accommodate them. Understandably with parking in less than ideal conditions plus attendant traffic issues before and after large scale events, residents do have legitimate concerns about safety that need to be addressed.

What we are talking about should in an ideal world be seen as a planning problem that with goodwill on all sides, can be resolved by constructive negotiation and rational decision making by council planners and the relevant councillors. The problem is that with some of the religious gatherings we’re talking about, prejudice from those opposed to them can get in the way of any rational planning solution. A solution that would allow the worshippers concerned to identify a suitable site that can provide sufficient parking, would ideally would be reasonably well served by public transport and lastly, doesn’t cause any disturbance to neighbouring residents.

We’re in a bit of a bind here… Firstly, residents are afraid to raise legitimate concerns about safety regarding parking and traffic issues for fear of being branded racist. Secondly, because some councillors do, through the use of winks and nods, court an element of the electorate who could be regarded as racist, they will block solutions involving the siting of places of worship in appropriate locations in a bid to hang onto that support. With residents feeling they can’t voice their concerns for fear of being branded racist and some councillors doing their level best to block the construction of places of worship in a bid to pander to the prejudices of some of their supporters, solutions to the problems are not forthcoming. As a result, tensions and resentment can start to grow, particularly if the knuckle-draggers from the far right sense an opportunity to stick their oar in and twist the legitimate concerns of residents to suit their own nefarious, divisive and hateful ends.

Let’s get a bit specific and discuss the issue of the community hall on Vange Hill Drive, it’s use by the Muslim community and a solution that was proposed but for various reasons, was not allowed to come to fruition. Back in 2014, the Islamic group using the community hall on Vange Hill Drive wanted to set up a new centre on the Burnt Mills Industrial Estate: Faith leader defends Islamic centre planhttp://www.echo-news.co.uk/news/11441496.Faith_leader_defends_Islamic_centre_plan/ They favoured this site because it wasn’t near any residential areas and wouldn’t cause any disturbance. The move never came to fruition. One of the objections was raised by Cllr. Kerry Smith who back in 2014 was still a member of UKIP. Smith is now an independent and is currently the ward councillor for Nethermayne on Basildon Council and the Basildon Westley Heights division on Essex County Council. Smith’s objections were based on traffic issues. Issues that with some goodwill on all sides and some rational decision making could have been resolved. Industrial estates by their very nature are designed to cope with high levels of traffic and have a pretty good level of parking as most people working on them drive to and from them. On that basis alone, in our opinion, we have to conclude that Smith’s objections were spurious to say the least…

Having worked alongside our friends from Basildon & Southend Housing Action and Vange Hill Community Group on clean ups and community gardening on the ¾ estate, we can see how a large influx of vehicles parking up in the Vange Hill Drive area, for whatever reason, will lead to safety issues. We understand the concerns of the residents and want to see a solution that will suit them and the worshippers that come in on Friday (and any other worshippers from other denominations on other days). What has to be done is to challenge those councillors who put a block on any reasonable solution because of where they draw their support from. We would like to suggest to residents in the Vange Hill Drive area that they ask Cllr. Kerry Smith why, back in 2014, he was one of those who stood in the way of a solution that would have been of mutual benefit to them and the worshippers using the community hall. Until councillors like this are challenged as to what their agenda really is, there never will be a solution to the issue and unwanted and divisive tensions will rise…tensions which will hurt all of us who want to build cohesive, friendly neighbourhoods where everyone looks out for and cares for each other…

The Estuary Alternative manifesto

We’ve just sent the artwork for The Estuary Alternative paper off to the printer. It reads more like a manifesto than anything else so, in the interests of explaining what The Estuary Alternative project is all about, we’ve reproduced (with a few minor amends) the text of the paper below. We hope it conveys the centrality of grassroots community activism to our overall strategy. As ever, constructive criticism and informed debate are always welcome…

Building a new world in the shell of the old

Our sister project, the South Essex Stirrer, highlights what’s wrong with the increasingly dysfunctional political, economic and social system we have to endure. People have a pretty clear idea of what the Stirrer doesn’t like but wonder what alternative can be offered instead. This is why we set up The Estuary Alternative in a bid to start looking at different ways of organising our lives.

Radical change isn’t going to come about without an upheaval that will sweep away the existing order and replace it with a society that’s more just, equitable, sane and sustainable. What can be done in the meantime is trying out different ways of organising our lives. It’s a process of starting to build a new world in the decaying shell of the dystopian one we’re in at the moment. That process necessarily involves a fair bit of experimentation to see what does and doesn’t work.

The emphasis is on bringing decision making about how we organise our communities and lives down to the grassroots. Obviously there are power structures in the way that put obstacles in the way we’d like to deal with issues such as housing. However, when you start to look, there are plenty of opportunities for projects that can start to make a difference in the here and now.

Here are just a couple of ideas as to what can be done…

Neighbourhood community gardens that give people more control over how their food is sourced. As well as empowerment from having more control, there are other benefits such as collectively working with your neighbours, access to fresh fruit and vegetables plus the exercise put in to cultivate them and a reduction in energy inputs involved in transporting food. Given the disruption to the food supply chain that’s likely to happen with a chaotic Brexit, this will boost neighbourhood resilience and cohesion in what could well be difficult times ahead.

Repair cafes where anything from tools to broken radios can be fixed and have their lifetimes extended. One benefit are the skills learned in repairing items as opposed to simply dumping them – skills that increase self reliance and boost confidence and self esteem. There are also the environmental benefits that come from reduced consumption of raw materials and a reduction in waste. On a more subversive note, doing this slowly undermines the unsustainable, consumer driven, production for profit rather than need model we currently have to live with.

There’s a lot more that can and should be done. The important thing is being prepared to have a go at launching a grassroots initiative that can play a part in building a new world in the shell of the old – this is what we’re looking at in this edition of our paper. Feel free to let us know what you think and send in your ideas for bringing about change at the grassroots.

Building neighbourhood solidarity and resilience

With all of the grassroots community projects we promote and do our level best to support, there’s one key fundamental and that’s generating a sense of neighbourhood solidarity. We’re not talking about an exclusive sense of solidarity centred on one particular group – we’re talking about the kind of solidarity that respects the variety of people that go to make up a neighbourhood.

The kind of solidarity which recognises that while people can be very different from each other, they can all play a role in making a neighbourhood a better place to live once they recognise that’s what they want to achieve. The kind of solidarity that our rulers and their mates in the right wing media hate because it means people have seen beyond their games of divide and rule and encouraging us all to be nothing more than selfish, atomised, uncaring producers and consumers. It’s the kind of solidarity we’ll need in an increasingly uncertain future as we face a Brexit where no one in power in either the UK or the rest of the EU can explain to us mere plebs what its consequences are. In addition to this, there are also the ever growing risks posed by climate change to consider…

These will impact on food security – the first manifestations of which will be steep price rises. Extreme manifestations could well be shortages of certain foods… This is the kind of scenario where life in an atomised neighbourhood where no one knows or trusts their neighbours could start to get uncomfortable to say the least. The kind of scenario where neighbourhood resilience cannot happen because everyone is fearful of everyone else. The kind of scenario where the authorities can control us because we fear and can’t trust each other. Basically, a nightmare scenario that no caring human wants…

Which is why we support any community project that brings people together, regardless of their backgrounds. At the end of the day, whoever we are and wherever we’re from, everyone wants to live in a neighbourhood where people look out for and care for each other. A neighbourhood that in an age of failing public services can provide networks of support for its more vulnerable members. A neighbourhood that’s taking steps to take control of its food supply with community gardens/allotments, food buying groups and the like. A neighbourhood that once it gains a degree of self confidence about looking after itself, will start to ask some searching questions about power, who exercises it and how it has to be brought right down to the grassroots.

So, while The Estuary Alternative may on the surface seem to be a ‘fluffy’ project, what we’re about is building the new world in the shell of the crumbling one we have to endure at the moment. The key to success in that project is building neighbourhood solidarity and resilience so we can not only survive the challenges of the dysfunctional world we currently live in but we can also start to build the saner, juster and more sustainable one we desire.

Guerilla gardening – just do it!

guerrilla gardening
the activity of growing plants without permission on land that belongs to someone else or on public land, with the aim of improving the environment or producing vegetables or flowers for people to use or enjoy

Starting a project to make a change in your neighbourhood can seem to be a daunting prospect. Yes, there are grassroots community projects that are complex and there are probably good reasons for that – changing the world is not an easy business and a degree of organisation is required. However, there are things you can do which don’t require a lot of organisation or hours writing funding applications. Guerilla gardening is one of those things you can do…

If there’s an awkward shaped smallish plot of land in your neighbourhood that’s been neglected and no one’s sure who owns or has responsibility for it, why not do a bit of guerilla gardening? Canvas opinion in the immediate neighbourhood to see how much support there is for the idea of transforming the plot from an eyesore into a community asset. Find out who’s willing to help you work on it and then work out a plan for what you want to do.

You could ask for permission if you want but if the land has been neglected for years, then whoever is responsible for it obviously doesn’t care about the impact of their neglect on your neighbourhood so…just get on with it! There’s a welcome, non-violent anti-authoritarian aspect to guerilla gardening that should be embraced. While at one level, it’s about making your neighbourhood a better place to live, at a more fundamental level, it’s asking questions about land ownership and control.

The other benefits are building a feeling of solidarity and cohesion in your neighbourhood as people get together to work on a common project. A project that as it matures will give people a sense of pride in and responsibility towards their neighbourhood and boost community morale. A confidence booster that can inspire people to take on bigger and more complex projects that will start to lead to real, meaningful change.

Start small, gain confidence, start to think bigger but above all…just do it!

Getting started

There’s no one way of building and running a grassroots community project.

Because of factors such as demographics and location, the issues projects have been set up to address will differ from each other so they have to be structured accordingly. What also influences the development and structure of a project is who steps up to the plate to start it off and keep it running.

What’s important with any grassroots project is making sure it genuinely involves as many people in the neighbourhood as possible. This will give it the legitimacy it needs to grow and will also ensure a steady number of committed volunteers as everyone feels they have an equal stake in it.

Before anything happens with getting a project off the ground, it’s vital you talk to people in the neighbourhood. Listen to them, find out what they want and how they think it could come about. Try to get as many people as possible involved. Not everyone is going to be able to commit a massive amount of time to a project but even if they can only offer an hour or so a week, value that contribution. Life is complicated and there are valid reasons why a lot of people can only manage to offer an hour or so a week.

Even though someone can only offer a limited amount of time, if the project is operating in their neighbourhood, they have to be seen as having a stake equal to someone who can contribute more hours. Creating a hierarchy of who can have more say in how a project develops based on the number of hours they can commit to it will alienate people and eventually start to deny it the legitimacy it needs to function. Inclusiveness, collective decision making and accountability are key factors in the success or failure of a successful grassroots project.

On the back page of The Estuary Alternative paperhttps://www.dropbox.com/s/ujlgie04y5u7jo3/The_Estuary_Alternative_No2.pdf?dl=0 – in the Resources section, there’s a list of all the grassroots community projects across the south of Essex that we’re aware of. Each one has a different story and background you can learn from. The whole point of setting up The Estuary Alternative is to encourage all of these groups to talk to each other to exchange experiences, ideas and skills.

A step in this direction has been taken with the formation of the Essex Social Strategic Alliance whose flyer is reproduced on the back page…a flyer we hope will have to be updated frequently as the alliance grows! By linking up, we can be greater than the sum of our parts…that’s how we’ll start to bring about real change…