Towards Paris 2015: Some questions for how we organise in the youth climate movement

How the world responds to climate change in the next three years will shape the future of our planet. Climate change is the playing field on which all other social justice struggles are now being fought. I really feel that this is one of those “where were you” points in history. In years to come future generations will ask us what we were doing when we needed to stop the climate crisis. But it’s also a point to stop and reflect, or at least to try and get better at reflecting as we go. Some important questions for how we organise include:

  • How do we build an inclusive and diverse climate movement?

  • How do we communicate our message effectively?

  • How do we work strategically for climate justice?

These are questions I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on, and I’d like to share some thoughts here.

  1. How do we build an inclusive and diverse climate movement?

The chance to be involved in climate activism with young people across Europe is an enormous privilege which not many people get. As a young, white man who has had good educational opportunities I can expect to be very comfortable in the activism and policy spaces where the climate movement operates. I can expect to have my opinion listened to and generally respected, even if if you do not agree with me. When I enter political or policy making arenas I can expect others there to look mostly like me; white men who have had good educational opportunities. The European environmental movement is remarkably homogeneous. That is to say, those engaged often have a similar, privileged background. It is important for our work towards a more just, equitable and sustainable world to make ourselves aware of our privileges. This the first challenge I want to highlight. Our work as climate activists calls for huge changes to the way the world works in order to respond to the climate crisis. But the fact is that we are often amongst the greatest benefactors of how the world works right now. You can see how this could be a conflict of interest! Unless we are actively challenging the structures which give us our privilege then we are helping to maintain them. Practically, this means things like asking ‘why?’ when we find ourselves in rooms full of privilaged, white young people in our climate work- and then working to create more representative spaces.

Duncan Meisel of 350.org writes about the need to build an intersectional movement, one that crosses boundaries to link of all kinds of social and environmental injustices. Our responsibility as climate activists is to ensure that all those who are affected by climate change are supported and empowered to be heard in the conversation, not just those who are as privileged as us. That includes people of colour, Travellers, Roma and Sinti, and marginalised and economically disadvantaged communities. We also need to reflect on how we reinforce gender inequality and patriarchy in our ways of working. By asking this tough question we have the opportunity to strengthen our movement, support greater participation and more diverse perspectives on climate justice.

  1. How do we communicate our message effectively?

We need to tell the story of climate justice in a way that helps others to come to terms with climate change and begin to take action. We’re involved in climate activism, I hope, because we believe that climate change is the greatest threat to social justice, human rights and the earth’s eco-system ever seen. We have seen the evidence from science and believe in the need to take action. But why are so many others not active to solve climate change? I read recently in Organising Cools the Planet the theory that climate sceptics and the Right in general are very convincing because they can tell stories that provide easy solutions to people’s fears and worries. If we are going to support people to come to terms with climate change and begin to take action we need to start creating spaces in our communities where we can have a dialogue, where people can come to terms with their fears and start to embrace alternatives. This is a slow but necessary process.

We also need to think about how we communicate in our campaigns. In the UK the Common Cause research group has shown that negative messages will often fail to motivate people to change, and in fact can reinforce the negative values we are trying to challenge. Think about it: who likes to be criticised for the choices they have made? We unconsciously justify our choices even when they are unjust or unsustainable. We need to be careful about the use of ‘naming and shaming’ in our campaigning. That is necessary at times, but we need to also be able to tell the positive story of alternatives, of sustainable and just communities.

  1. How do we work strategically for climate justice?

I guess the first two questions have began to look at this last one already Here I want to share some quick thoughts:

  • Be aware of our privileges and work to create a diverse climate movement. Just solutions can only be created by including those most affected, and when it comes to climate change they are most often excluded from the debate.

  • Think about how we communicate to help people feel safe about expressing their fears and coming to terms with climate change.

  • Think about actions you can take at all levels, local, regional, national and . It is ok to want to work at different levels, but how can they compliment each other? How can we push for the same objectives no matter what level we want to work on?

  • We need more people to be engaged in more activism! In the youth climate movement we are often very good at “high level” campaigning and lobbying. That is important but it will not be effective without joining up the other levels. How do we work at local level to push up?

  • Political processes are made to seem intimidating, we need to break them down. And the truth is everyone is pretending to know what they are doing when they don’t.

  • Protest is important, but there are other tactics. Who are our allies? Enemies? Blockers? Who do we need to convince/push? What needs to happen in the background before the protest to move the political process?

  • Learning by doing is better than learning then doing. We all make mistakes.

  • Engage in dialogue, build alliances- create our climate movement!

What does all this mean practically?

Good question. These thoughts are written not to say ‘this is how it’s done’, but as part of a process of sense making I am going through. I am trying to deal with these questions in a few specific ways:

1. Working to build alliances between social justice and environmental concerns in Ireland, particularly in my work with the Community Workers’ Co-operative and Young Friends of the Earth Ireland and through my work as a PhD student.

2. Supporting a project to highlight the lack of a gender perspective in Irish environmental and climate policy and to highlight the role, voices and stories of some pretty amazing women activists in Irish environmentalism.

3. Working to find funding that could support marginalised young people, particularly from the Global South, to participate in climate activism and the UNFCCC process.

I invite any readers to reflect on these questions for their own work and feel free to get in touch, here or on Twitter (@jamiecgorman). I would be really happy to have these conversations as we organise towards Paris in 2015!

Perspectives on Environmental Justice for Community Development

Some thoughts offered to participants at the Community Work: Principles, Policies & Perspectives conference of the Department of Applied Social Studies, NUI Maynooth: 14 November 2013.

Sometimes when I think about community development and the environmental justice movement, I feel its a little bit like two estranged members of the same family. They have so much in common and yet the rarely speak to each other. Yet now more than ever, we need to have a family reunion.

As we gather today in Maynooth, the governments of the world are meeting in Warsaw for the 19th annual UN climate change negotiations. So far they have failed at the 18 previous attempts to agree a global deal that could halt climate change. Climate science proves beyond all reasonable doubt that humans are causing climate change. And it is increasingly clear that climate change is the single greatest threat to human rights and social justice we have ever faced.

The scale of this challenge calls for systematic changes to the way in which we think and act in the world. It is no longer enough to simply  ‘think global, act local’.  It’s only through collective processes for social change, such as those practiced by community development, that the root causes of this climate crisis can be overcome.

So our challenge as community development practitioners and policy makers is to not to ‘think global, act local’, but to ‘think structurally, act strategically’.

The question, of course, is what does that mean for our practice? This morning’s speakers have made clear the links between the social and the environmental, and I’d like to propose three very simple steps that might help to bring about that much needed family reunion:

1. Practitioner analysis

The first step is joining the dots between community development and environmental justice in our own practitioner analysis. The principles of community development articulated in Towards Standards, are very much in line with those of environmental justice- which recognises the effects of pollution and unsustainability are most felt by those marginalised communities which have the least access to resources and power. Environmental justice, like community development, places a specific emphasis on the participation and empowerment of those most disadvantaged communities.

Making the link in our practitioner analysis between the social and environmental is particularly relevant now as our Government and the EU are planning responses to climate change and the transition to a ‘low carbon future’. Any such transition must not happen without specific commitments to social justice and equality. Whether in Ireland, or globally, poor and marginalised communities must not be forced to pay the price for the pollution of an elite few.

2. Dialogue

Building on the development of our own practitioner analysis, the second step is dialogue; beginning conversations in the communities where we live and work. And when the issues at stake are so massive and overwhelming, as they are with climate change, there is a real need to create spaces where people can, as Peter Westoby suggests, ‘reveal their fears, come to terms with their doubts and gradually embrace alternatives’.

These processes of conversation are the bread and butter community development, which deals daily with structural issues of poverty, racism and gender inequality in people’s lives. Bringing environmental issues into these conversations we can build on people’s lived reality of environmental injustices. Many people who live in marginalised communities experience the reality of a poor quality environment- whether its dumping, poor infrastructure on halting sites or lack of consultation on planning issues. The links are there to be made.

3. Alliance building

Building on these dialogues, which must begin in our own communities, the third step is creating alliances between those groups concerned with social justice and equality and those concerned with environmental issues. Despite the huge negative effects of austerity on communities we have not seen the sort of mass collective action on austerity that has been brought about by the dangerous gas mining process called fracking,. Communities all over the north west and County Clare are coming together to take collective action on that issue

Yet the reality is that the State’s neoliberal social, economic and environmental policies are all interconnected. Fracking and austerity go hand in hand as part of a broad neoliberal project. If we are to have any chance of overcoming the challenges that neoliberalism poses to our communities and our environment there is a pressing need to build broad coalitions which brings together communities fighting injustice from every dimension: social, economic and environmental.

At a national level community development and the environmental movement need to build alliances. With initiatives like Claiming Our Future and the CWC joining the Stop Climate Chaos coalition that work has began. At local level there is potential to reach out anti-fracking groups, to local authority energy agencies, to communities concerned about wind farms and the Transition Towns movement

So returning to our thinking structurally and acting strategically, I’m asking you to chew those three ideas over:

  1. Let’s build environmental justice into our own practitioner analysis;

  2. Let’s begin dialogues in the communities where we live and work;

  3.  Let’s join our issues together and build broad alliances to challenge systemic social and environmental injustices of neoliberalism.

G8 protest shows need for community focused resistance

This piece first appeared online at New Internationalist.

change not charity banner on fence

When a riot police officer eating an ice cream in the back of an armoured car pointed me in the direction of the assembling protesters in Enniskillen on Monday 17 June, I knew that while it was certainly no Battle in Seattle, this would be no ordinary G8 demonstration. Around 1,000 activists had gathered in the County Fermanagh town which was hosting the two-day 2013 G8 summit.

Global neoliberalism is moving to kill dissent with kindness, whether it’s the British government’s ‘Big Society’ or the mantra of governance and transparency in the Global South. Potentially transformative concepts are being employed to give the illusion of social change. This is why groups like Bono’s One campaign are not just arrogant, they are dangerously reinforcing the status quo of neoliberal, capitalist models of global development – not to mention their inherently racist notions of charity.

Enniskillen, on the other hand, didn’t have the polish of Bono or Bob Geldof. It was much more inspiring than that. The atmosphere was more akin to Sunday fête than the anti-capitalist pitch battles seen at previous G8 meetings. Bizarrely, a blues band entertained protesters as they assembled and curious locals sipped tea whilst sat in camping chairs along the route.

anti-fracking campaigner

The march itself was made up mostly of people from northwest Ireland and Northern Ireland. These communities have found themselves at the forefront of the fight against neoliberal unsustainability. Many had never been to a protest before their lives and livelihoods were threatened by fracking – a process which has the potential to cause large scale social and environmental injustices. Yet through their campaigning they are developing a critical analysis of power and models of development.

The march made its way through Enniskillen’s streets before travelling three kilometres to confront the £4million ($6.2 million) security cordon which separated the world from the G8 leaders. The sun beat down on the long procession as it left the town.

As speeches took place by the security cordon, about 20 protestors managed to trample the razor wire fence and cross over the barrier. They were soon facing a line of riot police.

‘Do not attempt to come any closer’ called a police officer. ‘Or we will be forced to take action.’

The word ‘action’ presumably being a euphemism for something more violent, the activists stalled and the momentum was lost. One of the stewards from the main march arrived and a discussion began. After a tense few minutes they receded, accepting the need for unity and solidarity with the community participating in the protest.

This dialogue in a mucky field in County Fermanagh was of global importance. This is a time of massive flux for social movements. Regime toppling protests are occurring all over the world, communities are questioning things which were for too long regarded as simple common sense. It’s a messy process which must begin by recognizing that none of us have the answers; we must forge them together through dialogue and solidarity.

It is only through that process that we can deconstruct the nonsense of ‘common sense’ neoliberal exploitation of people and the planet and stand with the powerful process of communities developing their own analysis of society.

In Ireland and Northern Ireland the anti-fracking community activists are posing important questions and challenging the status quo. The same thing is happening across the world, most visibly in Turkey and Brazil. Everywhere communities are reclaiming transformative concepts from neoliberalism and fighting for justice, equality and sustainability.

For anyone interested in social change this is an important point for reflection on our practice. We must ditch our dogma and hold our agendas lightly. The fires of change are beginning to glow in communities across the globe, we must continue to support these rather than trying to light our own.

G8 mobilizations need solidarity, not stage management

This piece first appeared online at New Internationalist.

While the rain barely stopped pouring, spirits remained high as activists marched, danced and sang through a highly militarized Belfast city on Saturday 15 June for the Big March for a Fairer World. Around 1,500 people took to the streets from trade unions, campaigning organizations such as Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth, and various community groups to oppose the policies and practices of the powerful G8 leaders meeting in Fermanagh from 17 to 18 June 2013.

fracking protest river

In advance of the demonstration, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) armoured cars and specially loaned British Army Land Rovers moved in convoy down every street and clusters of police officers in padded battle-dress, some with machine guns, gathered on the pavements.

Having navigated through the heavy police presence, I joined activists from Friends of the Earth who organized the anti-fracking themed section of the march. Environmentalists from across the UK and Ireland brought with them blue pieces of cloth ‘river’ with messages of defiance and hope from communities resisting fracking.

‘My daughter woke me up at 3 am, I’ve been awake since then’, said Niall Bakewell of Friends of the Earth, full of energy and while co-ordinating the chaos.

Bakewell bellowed out the words of an old Woody Guthrie song, ‘All You Fascists Bound to Lose’, suitably altered for the occasion:
I’m gonna tell you frackers
You may be surprised
The people in this world
Are getting organized
You’re bound to lose
You frackers bound to lose.

Even those of us who are tone deaf got carried away in the enthusiasm and soon we met with the main march.

As a steward I carried a small black knapsack. It contained some energy bars, a ‘pee-mate’ and some empty milk bottles, ‘in case we get “kettled” and people need to relieve themselves,’ cautioned Bakewell.

Kettling is a tactic used by police officers to control crowds by cordoning off groups of protestors. It is often used to break the spirits of activists, who are sometimes allowed to leave only if they surrender their personal details to the police.

When I explained the contents of my bag to a group of unassuming, middle-aged anti-frackers it got a nervous giggle. The heavy police presence on the streets was disconcerting even to those who grew up in ‘the Troubles’, as Northern Ireland’s 30 year armed conflict is euphemistically called.

The Friends of the Earth ‘river’ meandered through the streets, swaying to the beat of a samba band.

‘The anti-frackers seem to be having the most fun,’ noted one TV camera operator.

‘Well what’s the point in being here if we can’t have fun?’ replied a middle-aged woman from England.

After the camera operator moved on we continued talking. The woman was shocked by the heightened police presence. ‘You wouldn’t even get this with the Met in London.’ London’s Metropolitan Police are notoriously heavy handed when it comes to civil society dissent, having raided a squatted convergence space and arrested 57 activists earlier that week.

Despite the heavy police presence, the march remained peaceful and crowds gathered at Belfast’s City Hall to listen to speakers who had to shout to be heard above the sound of the police helicopters overhead.

After the march we headed back to the Friends of the Earth office. Buoyed by the solidarity and success of the day, activists from across both islands discussed how we can work together to resist fracking over hard earned mugs of soup.

I nabbed a spare ticket for the Big If concert being organized by the churches and development NGOs in the botanic gardens. I was eager to see how this stage managed NGO campaign compared to the spontaneity, energy and enthusiasm of the activism on the streets.

The Enough Food for Everyone If… campaign is run by a collation of organizations and calls for the G8, especially David Cameron, to act on hunger.

The Big If event seemed little more than a polished distraction from the real issues, and although I found myself tapping away to Duke Special and Two Door Cinema Club, and enjoying the speeches from the civil society leaders from the Global South, the whole thing felt a bit hollow.

‘Come on everybody, let’s Tweet Prime Minister David Cameron!’ called TV presenter Zöe Salmon who was presiding over a crowd which seemed smaller than the march.

Freedom to dissent now equates to a Tweet and the anti-fracking community activists who attempted to unfurl a banner were not allowed a peep. Big If organizers cornered them immediately.

‘We need to stay on-message, we can’t have other banners’, explained one of the event co-ordinators.

I declined my Big If wristband and left with the anti-fracking group. As I departed, Salmon was inviting the crowd to Tweet Barak Obama.

What’s changed since the G8 last graced our shores?

The G8 last landed on our Atlantic Archipelago for their 2005 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. Much has changed as civil society and global citizens meet in Belfast for the Fairer World Festival and in Fermanagh for the G8 not welcome events this weekend.

In the eight years which have passed, we have been battered by the greatest financial crisis ever, while climate change continues to spiral out of control and the solutions to the converging crises fail to break out of the thinking that created it.

Yet we have been buoyed too, by movements for democracy, equality, social justice and environmental sustainability which have sprung up across the globe and show no sign of abating. There is a sense that this is part of a greater process of social change taking place around the world, from the current struggles of the Capulcus in Turkey, to the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.

There has been a fundamental shift in how we think about democracy. While messy, unpredictable and hardly ‘productive’ in a traditional sense, social movements like Occupy have allowed people to experience participatory democracy in an otherwise non-participatory world. That alone is a worthy outcome.

Important critiques of patriarchy and neoliberialism continue to emerge from feminist networks in both the Global North and Global South. Ever controversial, Femen has succeeded to grab headlines, while others such as African Feminist Network Nyangoma or India’s Gulabi Gang are less well known in Ireland or the UK but equally exciting.

Indeed each of the states that make up the unelected and unaccountable G8 has seen protest, and sometimes violence, sweep their streets since 2005. The UK itself saw riots in 2011, while France has faced similar waves of violence in its ghettoised suburbs.

Even authoritarian Russia has been shaken by Pussy Riot, while in stereotypically unquestioning and ordered states, civil society is awakening: Germany’s refugee protests are challenging institutional racism; Japan is seeing a wave of environmental protest in the wake of Fukusima and Canada’s Tar Sands controversy continues.

The shift in how NGOs have approached the G8 is subtle but important. The grand demands from celebrities to ‘Make Poverty History’ have receded to a mousey ‘What If?’ which seems palatable in the current climate of austerity: There will be no cash on the table, so don’t ask.

Of course,  you can still get the wristband, t-shirt and concert tickets, but in the wake of global movements for social change the sanitised ‘What If?’ campaign feels quite tired; more a case of ‘so what?’ than ‘what if?’

And what if what’s happening organically on the streets and in communities across the globe is much more real and much more refreshing than an orchestrated camapgin by development NGOs ever could be?

Hunger, nutrition and a shocking lack of justice: Thoughts on the Hunger-Nutrition-Climate Justice conference

This blog piece presents some intital thoughts on the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice sponsored confernce on Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice taking place in Dublin next week, 15-16 April 2013.

The conference is taking place during the Irish Presidency of the EU, as the EU continues to block progress on actions to halt climate change and Ireland publishes a Climate Action Bill with no sign of climate justice. This piece highlights some of the key climate justice failings of the conference.

Human rights based approaches must move beyond supporting communities to deal with the crisis

  • The human rights based approaches advocated by the conference are a positive step forward in a debate that has been held for too long in privileged policy circles.
  • However, when the conference fails to address the core issues of emissions reductions, market mechanisms or technology transfer, the ‘empowerment of marginalised people’ means supporting people to deal with the effects of climate change rather than challenge the root causes of unsustainability.
  • With this in mind, the inclusion of ‘100 developing country delegates […] bring their community’s experiences to share’ at the conference seems to little more than a PR exercise at consultation (but I am open to being pleasantly surprised).

Climate Justice means binding emissions reductions targets

  • States must make commitments in line with what science requires and that reflect historical responsibility, per-capita contributions, and capabilities to act. We must drop emissions by at least 40% by 2020 & 90% by 2050 (below 1990 levels).
  • States have ‘common but differentiated responsibility’: All states are required to take action to reduce emissions but the developed countries of the Global North, who have benefited most from polluting, have the responsibility to act first and take the deepest emissions cuts.
  • This conference makes no reference to the failing institutional architecture at an intergovernmental level which has seen ongoing inaction at the conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Climate Justice means ending reliance on dangerous market mechanisms to regulate carbon emissions

  • This conference does not seek to address the dangerous policies at international level such as carbon trading (trading in the right to pollute) and trading pollution for forests with schemes like REDD and REDD+. These policies can best be described as seeking to profit from the climate crisis by creating markets for carbon.
  • Rather than critiquing these mechanisms, the conference papers (p. 42) suggest the issue is simply ‘helping communities understand the dynamics and technical aspects of carbon markets as a financing source’.

 Climate Justice means technology transfer

  • Despite this conference’s emphasis on building local resilience to climate change in the Global South it fails to address the key resilience issue of technology transfer. Developed countries of the North are hindering resilience by failing to provide for the transfer of knowledge, skills and technology to those communities facing climate change.

Why is technology transfer so vital?

‘For developing countries, the need for the transfer of climate friendly technologies has, for a long time, been seen as one of the major aspects of the progress of sustainable development. However, most climate friendly technologies are developed in industrialised countries, although potential for these technologies to make significant reductions in carbon emissions is located in developing countries, where fossil fuel consumption is increasing rapidly. In sum, migration of global energy systems to lower carbon pathways depends upon their successful transfer and absorption of low-carbon technologies to and within developing countries’

Source: Shashikant, S. and Khor, M., Intellectual property rights and technology transfer in the context of climate change, p. 9.

 Climate Justice begins at home

  • This conference imagines Ireland as a world leader on climate justice. The reality is very different. Ireland is the 6th largest per capita polluter on the planet. Our government has consistently failed to legislate for action on climate change. The current proposed Climate ‘Action’ Bill fails to set the legally binding and ambitious carbon reduction targets needed, fails to institute an independent commission or any form of accountability for polluters. In short, it lacks any hint of climate justice.
  • Climate justice, human rights and community sector campaigners from Ireland have almost entirely been refused entry to the conference.

In and Against the Neoliberal State: The need for autonomous community work in a post-Social ‘Partnership’ world

This is the second of two articles which began life as essays for a course in community work.

It explores the role of community work as a way of organising in an increasingly neoliberal Irish state and highlights how only autonomous work can challenge the hegemonic interests of the white male elites.

Community work, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a distinct form of organising for social change, more information on which can be found here, and here.

Partnership with the State means administering the State’s agenda, which is the agenda of white male elites

Partnership with the State means administering the State’s agenda, which is the agenda of white male elites

The State is our creation

The State, as a republic, should be the creation of all people who inhabit it (and not just those permitted citizenship in a society with racist border controls). It should conduct its business for the public interest and pursues its policies in the public gaze under public control in a participatory manner. As the embodiment of all inhabitants acting collectively, the State should take measures to eliminate poverty, inequality and injustice for those inhabitants.

However in reality powerful hegemonic forces ensure that the State favours the interests of the indigenous white male elites who took over from British and Anglo-Irish white male elites in the last century. Almost a century of ‘Holy Catholic Hypocritical Patriarchal Ireland’ (Sweetman, 2009) made this clear, and in the current crisis it has been evinced again and again by such policy choices as the augmenting of fiscal support for companies and executives while social welfare provisions and community sector organisations are decimated (Harvey, 2012).

Today, despite the hardship it is causing, the State continues its ‘love affair’ with neoliberalism (Lloyd, 2010:57) which places impoverished “residual” communities, women and minorities in completion with each other rather than questioning elite patriarchal interests and reclaiming the State for all (Ledwith, 2006:14; Bowden, 2006:24). Community work stands in opposition to the maintenance of elite interests to the detriment of oppressed, marginalised and subaltern groups. In this way, the purpose of community work is redistributive social change for social and environmental justice. In order to achieve this purpose community work emphases collective action, empowerment, social justice, equality and anti-discrimination and participation.

This article is predicated by the assertions outlined above: the State is our creation; it has been made to act in the interest of powerful elites to the detriment of the marginalised; and community work is an oppositional force for social change which represents the interests of those marginalised. Based on these assertions I will explore the current challenges to community work, assessing the purpose, methods and outcomes of the work as they are articulated by the sector- and as they are conceived by government and funders. I suggest that community development in Ireland has indeed lost its way by being ‘aligned’ with local partnership companies and made to implement government policy on behalf of the very elites it sought to challenge.

However I will show that there remains enormous potential for autonomous community work, working in a broad alliance with other non co-opted civil society actors, to build resilient communities and address poverty, inequality and unsustainability. Here I will assume community resilience to be ‘the ability to respond constructively to the unknown-to the shocks that come upon us in society […] from anywhere’ (Wilding, 2011). I take Wilding’s sense of community resilience further and suggest that rather than remaining within narrow communitarian lines, critical community resilience can provide for prefigurative politics and a space to effect conscientisation from which the oppression of elite hegemony can be challenged.

Current Challenges: In and a part of the State?

Community work often describes itself as ‘in and against the State’ (Chanan, 2009). As a result of partnership and alignment it seems we are now more in and a part of the machinery of the State. Since the dawn of the partnership era, the community sector has levelled significant criticism at Social Partnership, ‘the reality [of which is] often one of confrontation or cooption. In the latter case many groups more or less accept the terms or dictates of the agency in order to obtain whatever support is available’ (CWC, 1989). The pitfalls of partnership have been well documented in the national context (Llyod and Llyod-Huges, 2009:36-40; Chanan, 2009: 52-63), at local level (Loughrey, 2002; Punch 2009) and outside of Ireland in the UK (Pitchford, 2008).

These authors have shown that communities have found local and national authorities to be unresponsive to their needs; consultation to be tokenistic and ignorant of minority voices; and engagement experiences to be disempowering and at worst dehumanising. This is all despite, or more likely because of, the increasing use of technocratic policy interventions administered en masse without tailoring to the needs of those receiving them, let alone allowing communities to shape such interventions for themselves. The reality is that the values of community work, espoused in Towards Standards (CWC, 2008), is at odds with the commutarian neoliberalism of the State.

In the 1990s the State had to make some concessions to alternative voices and temper the residualising effects of its neoliberal policies. Now though, capitalising on the crisis itself, neoliberalism can be freely imbedded in the social policy of the State as the Government uses the ‘shock’ (Klien, 2007) of the economic collapse to generate a debilitating discourse of debt which precludes any critical opposition to the policy choices the State is making by framing these choices as necessary steps to foster recovery. In this context, the government has generated a paradigm so powerful that it can dictate to community organisations that once had leverage because the government relied on them to provide a necessary service. As a result, community work’s sustainability in its current form has been brought into serious question.

 Purpose, Methods & Outcomes: ‘Mobilising people to produce at the margins’?

The broad acceptance by community workers of the Local Development Social Inclusion Programme, indicated by the CWC (2011), is very worrying.[1] Workers remained narrowly concerned with sustaining staff and funding (with some ideological grumblings), despite the reality that the Local and Community Development Programme’s (LCDP) high level goals and dictated time allocations no longer resemble community work nor can it act as a vehicle to build resilient communities while addressing poverty or inequality[2]. After attempts at disarming the vocal critics such as the CWC, through funding cuts, the deconstruction of the state’s only community development programme aimed at eliminating poverty and inequality was taken by the sector lying down.

These findings act to support the assertion of Geoghegan & Powell (2005:10) that despite attempts to shape a radical agenda in Towards Standards, community work is rooted in a liberal humanistic framework and practitioners do not seek to explicitly challenge structural inequalities. This suggests a more complex picture than simply being co-opted by the State; this must be deciphered if we are to re-establish a radical vision. Gramsci’s theory of articulation, which emphasises civil society as the space in which hegemony is shaped, highlights the powerful ability of hegemony to ‘determine the question around which the struggle rages’; to subsume challenges to ‘common sense’ into the dominant discourse (Gramsci, 1971) so that the argument is technical and depoliticised. In Ireland, this has occurred to such an extent that the neoliberal hegemony came to flourish without challenge by the very community development structures whose aim it was to promote the interests of the marginalised. This ‘is disconcerting to say the least’, notes Lloyd (2009:45).

Of course Irish community work is not alone in this; the reality is that over the last twenty years, neoliberalism, led on the world stage by actors such as the World Bank, has subsumed once powerful challenges to its hegemony into its common sense discourses (Goldman, 2005; Scandrett et al, forthcoming). Now potentially oppositional organisations ‘emphasise projects, not movements; “mobilise” people to produce at the margins but not to struggle to control […] wealth; focus on technical financial assistance […], not on structural conditions’ (Petras, 1997). Mobilising people to produce at the margins is clearly the purpose of community work for the State, using employment activation methods and supported by much scaled back resources.

Herein lies the danger of the rise of corporatist and technocratic interventions[3] which depoliticise community development replacing community work which is rooted in People’s Organisations (Alinsky, 1971) and seeks to build critically resilient communities as a strategy to address poverty and inequality.

Autonomous Community Work: Strategies to reclaim the State

State led top down community development (often partnering with capital in the form of philanthropy) precludes the fostering of a ‘people’s history’ (Zinn, 1980) and a participatory epistemology leading to an emancipating ontology (Ledwith and Springett, 2005). Such ontology can provide a real challenge to the depoliticised community development discourse, as illustrated by Punch (2009:104) in his account of the praxis developed by local activists in partnerships with academics and community workers in Dublin City Council regeneration projects. In this case, radical community work brought marginalised voices into the discourse on city development and allowed them to shape this discourse for themselves.

The communities struggled through generations of marginalisation which shaped their identity. By recognising this people’s history and using it to support the community to develop its own epistemology, the community work responses were deeply enriched and vastly more effective. It supported the building of critical community resilience moving beyond communitarianism to allow communities to become sites of resistance to the hegemonic order. This way of working fostered an emancipating ontology whereby communities for claimed their own spaces- and from this reclaimed space challenged the authority of the neoliberal local government.

By engaging in such a ‘war of position’[4]  to challenge neoliberalism, the community demonstrated how hegemony can be fought by reclaiming the State because it is ‘not so much a matter of creating movements outside the hegemonic order[5] but rather on its terrain, radicalising the meaning of democracy, appropriating the market, democratising sovereignty and expanding human rights’ (Burawoy, 2000).

For a community worker whose purpose is to build critical community resilience and address poverty and inequality it is essential to engage in a participatory practice which is rooted in the values and practice principles of Towards Standards. In light of this, and returning to the assertions with which I began, community work must recognise that

  • technocratic policy tools are ideological impositions which prohibit the development of marginalised groups’ own analysis of a situation as the first step to their conscientisation;
  • partnership with the State means administering the State’s agenda, which is the agenda of white male elites; and
  • if we are to reclaim the State, we need to begin in the margins and not in ‘partnership’ in the backrooms of the corridors of power.

It is clear therefore that to achieve the sort of social change for social and environmental justice that community work seeks, it is essential that autonomous spaces programme be created which operates independently with and by the communities and populations which have been most oppressed by the State’s neoliberalism. If we are to make any increments towards a more equal and just society community work must re-establish itself as in and against the State. In the face of top-down depoliticisation, an autonomous community work programme fosters a critical community resilience can expose the ideological realities of capitalist exploitation hidden beneath the veneer of logical technical interventions and thus make tangible progress towards poverty reduction and equality- whether in the estate of Southhill, or indeed, the states of the Global South.

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[1] 53% of those who replied to the survey were pursuing the government’s integration model and expressed some level of satisfaction with the LCDP’s ability to meet the needs of poverty, social exclusion and inequality (CWC, 2011).

[2] The goals of the LCDP are to promote awareness, knowledge and uptake of a wide range of statutory, voluntary and community services (10% time allocation); to increase access to formal and informal educational, recreational and cultural development activities and resources (40%); to increase peoples’ work readiness and employment prospects (40%); to promote engagement with policy, practice and decision making processes on matters affecting local communities (10%).

[3] As favoured by Social Partnership and the Centre for Effective Services in Ireland, & the World Bank (Goldman, 2005) & UN internationally- e.g. The UN climate change negotiations are essentially Social Partnership writ large.

[4] I share Ledwith’s (2005: 130) unease at using Gramsci’s quasi-military terminology, not least because it clouds the fact that Gramsci believed that coercive action was less effective than what Freire would later term conscientisation.

[5] Indeed this would constitute a cultural imposition or liberation propaganda in the Freirean sense.