Lights on a dark horizon

by Tony Nickson

I was invited to talk about priorities, opportunities, positive stories about the voluntary and community sector; to light a candle in the gloom of austerity and cuts at the first Lewisham Congress on 2 October. Here's the essence of my talk below:


Who am I talking about – what is the voluntary and community sector?

The sector  is a huge collection of disparate organisations. There is no single boss, it doesn't have a chief executive, or president – or mayor.

Some organisations are great huge things, turning over millions – like Oxfam, or Save the Children. Most are actually quite small. Eighty per cent of all charities run on less than £100,000 a year. Most of those run on £10,000 a year or less. In Lewisham –  last count - we have about 800 organisations – mostly at the smaller end of the spectrum, again with  many more 'below the radar' voluntary associations  not necessarily constituted or registered as charities. A colleague told me recently that the voluntary sector in Lewisham is actually the third largest employer in the borough.

So what about priorities and opportunities?

I think that the main challenge to the voluntary and community sector is about responding to change. Not just the changes that we're seeing immediately because of the cuts and austerity, but a whole shift in public and community life towards a competitive market and away from cooperation and collaboration.

We've become increasingly individualistic. Richard Layard, the founder of Action for Happiness says, 'We are suffering from a philosophy of excessive individualism, in which many people are encouraged to believe that their proper goal in life is to do the best they can for themselves rather than contribute to the lives of others.'

Our society is manifesting greater inequalities. Thirteen million people are now classed as living in poverty, of which over 8 million come from families who are in work. Nearly a million people used food-banks in 2013/14, compared about 350,000 the year before. In Lewisham there are wards where about 40 per cent of the families living there are living in poverty. When I started in this post two years ago there was talk of two foodbanks being set up, I think there are now more than seven outlets.

Why do I bring more gloom? Where's my candle...?

There are two responses to this kind of change that come to my mind. They are different and complementary and – I think – show where the sector's priorities are. Both responses are about direct and focused action.

One them is about anger. We don't stay calm we get angry. And that anger leads to a challenge of the status quo – we see the 'real' world, we don't like it that much and we take action for social change.

This includes protest, dissent, direct action – not necessarily led by an organisation as such or any self appointed 'voluntary sector leader', but something more earthy. We are seeing this kind of action being led by communities getting organised – rather than community organisations so much taking the lead.

The Lewisham Hospital Campaign is great example of this kind of action. It was not a scattershot rant against privatisation, but a forensically focused campaign designed to achieve a specific change (which it did).  I think we will see more of this kind of action in the future.

Not all of us want to take action in this kind of way. Coming back to poverty, the immediate response across the country, and here in Lewisham, was to feed people who didn't have enough money to put food on the table. People in my neighborhood are hungry – we need to help – now! And we did. There was no strategy, no master plan, but a simple human response to human need. This kind of action is not just confined to a direct response to a crisis like food poverty.

There are a lot of creative, exciting - and really fun - things happening locally. They are often generated by people who simply want to do something to make things better, to run counter to the prevailing competitive, isolating culture and do something –dare I use this word among such hard-bitten professionals – do something 'loving'.

Again, we're seeing action happening with no specific top-down strategy, focused at the very local level. Community cafes become hubs of activity for local people, innovative arts projects and flashmob events, arranged and put on by loosely organised groups of people. People like Bold Vision and Artmongers in Lewisham are inspirations in this way of doing things.

Below the radar are our walking clubs, sports clubs, luncheon clubs and lots of other things. All of these things don't happen for free; there is always a room to hire, transport to pay for, volunteers to support and such like.

I've been talking about the very local, neighbourhood level activity because I think this is where were moving. Voluntary and community organisations we work with are in desperate need to find new ways of working together. We know that we need to this if we're going to be effective agents of change.

This is a counter-cultural movement – towards a co-operation and collaboration, blurring the boundaries between different parts of civil society and trying to find more creative ways of working together.

We need to do this so that together we can recognise and mobilise the skills, the drive, the anger and the creativity in our local neighbourhoods. It's really about building 'community capacity': knowledgeable, capable communities that are able to take action.

In Lewisham we've talked together about creating 'family friendly' zones, or 'loneliness free' zones within a kind of Lewisham Village  –  an idea based on the the African proverb, 'It takes a village to raise a child'. Well, maybe it takes a village to raise a person, to prevent loneliness – to organise a street party.

With the spirit and creativity that already exists in our 'villages' and is bursting out in various different ways, it could be a lot fun.