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…

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