Tag Archives: community building

Starting a Community Garden

To go from gravel covered ground to a vibrant community garden of raised beds is going to take a lot of work, so we thought the sooner we started the better. The 5th of March was chosen and we stuck to it and we had a number of brave and wonderful people brave the weather to join us:

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We planned a number of activities so that all ages could participate even at this stage of the community garden, from planting seeds to planting sacks. We set up a few tables in the foyer though, so people could plant some seeds to take away and grow food on their windowsills, and if possible to bring us back a plant or two that could grow and flourish here.

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The sack planting was a bit chilly but very cool, and tomorrow’s post will be a complete how-to on how to make your own. They are very useful ways to grows vegetables in small urban spaces like balconies or a little patch of paved garden.

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The key learning, however, is that it is not too early for strawberries.

The main things for Saturday, however, was to build one of the large herb beds we want to set alongside the path across the Precinct site, so people can pick fresh herbs for their meals as they walk from Cable Street to the Limehouse DLR and back.

We started with the large but fairly flimsy structure that our first load of firewood was delivered in. To get it in out of the first drops of rain, I had already sawed this in two as you can see:

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To shore up those flimsy sides we broke up two other pallets (given to us by a wonderful foreman name of Gary running a building site off Commercial)

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And screwed it all together:

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At that point it started to hail. We brought it all inside the hub.

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Paint doesn’t usually last too long on outdoor beds, cracking and peeling with sun and rain and, er, hail. But we have gallons of marine paint left over from painting the trim on the containers and that is much more resilient, so we went ahead and used that to paint our first herb bed. Half orange and half turquoise.

It isn’t the best paint to use inside and in enclosed spaces, but we made do…

community garden

community garden

We’ll be lining it and filling it with wicking materials to conserve moisture despite the windiness and exposure of our site, then soil and plants, probably also adding a bench to make it somewhere people can sit and enjoy the fragrance once it warms up a bit. Looking at it, I wonder if it doesn’t need a few more planks and a little more solidity, but we’ll be keeping some of the spaces as things will grow as happily out of the side of it as they will from the top. We’ll be posting another how-to once it is all done, but for a first day this was absolutely lovely and we got so much accomplished.

Best of all, I think, was the time we were able to work outside and chat with people on their way through who just came up to to find out what we were doing, to say how happy they were that this vacant piece of land was finally being put to a community use, and even just how much they loved gardens. It really felt like we were creating a sense of community then, and gave us a good taste of what will be possible when the sun is shining and people are looking around for things to do outside…

I’m going to end this gratuitously with a puppy, Nala is the Precinct Art Space’s newest tenant and made Saturday even more wonderful than it was before. Along with always having strawberries, may we suggest trying to find a puppy to join you…

community garden

[also posted on St Katharine’s site]

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Learning from Civic Systems Lab: Designed to Scale

Civic Systems Lab - Designed to ScaleThe community garden is only one of many community projects we are looking to start up in my day job. Multiple linked efforts that will begin to create a strong, caring and supportive community here. Much of the inspiration has come from Civic Systems Lab, particularly Tessy Britton and Laura Billings, and it’s been wonderful to go through their team’s detailed (and free!) research report on The Open Works research project in West Norwood — just down the road from me now! If only I had moved a year earlier…

This report is for several different audiences — foundations like Lankelly Chase who helped fund it, politicians and government workers like those of Lambeth Council who partnered in this particular project and really should be funding similar projects in the future. For that reason it uses a certain language, but it also manages to be very geared towards those who wish to do similar things in their own community, particularly the last chapters.

It focuses on participatory culture, building on many years of work studying best practices and building this kind of connectivity — a most impressive work of praxis. Civic Systems Lab’s report on Open Works studied on a most basic level whether multiple small-scale community projects engaging people on a daily basis could create real and lasting change on a larger scale.

So much of my life has been spent assuming that that is so — and happily the report agrees. It notes, however, that neither government services and commissioning cycles nor top-down organisation of services operate to support such efforts. Rather they work (just as market forces do) to segment and separate people from each other — serving the elderly, the disabled, the Spanish speaking, etc.  Rather than building networks and collective efforts, they often destroy them to replace them with one-way relationships of dependency and service.

While I personally and politically am fully committed to full government funding for social services and a safety net, there were always fundamental issues with how these were delivered that no efforts to save them should ignore. We need full funding for better ways of creating healthy and caring communities — like this one. While this does actually fit into Cameron’s hated Big Society in many ways, it doesn’t have to — and this report for survival purposes I respect, has left either possibility open.

Civic Systems Lab – Designed to Scale

Their key findings in their own words:

  1. Building a dense participation ecology at scale is possible.
  2. A fully developed prototype of this dense participatory ecology is estimated to take 3 years to build.
  3. High levels of micro participation could be a key component for building local sustainability and resilience in a neighbourhood.
  4. Micro participation needs to reach a threshold to be effective. — early estimates are that around 10% – 15% of local residents would need to be participating regularly at any one time (c. 3 times a week) for multiplier effects to be achieved. This estimated level of participation greatly exceeds any current levels of participation through existing models.
  5. Two levels of participation typography are needed for the ecology to work… a fully developed participation ecology should consist of two levels of activity. The first level is a highly accessible and inclusive network of commons-based co-production activity built into everyday life. Building on this foundational level of mass participation in micro activities, the second level would see the development of community businesses, co-operatives and hybrid ventures through platform incubation programmes.
  6. Moving the centre of gravity through the platform approach has the potential to create a new collaborative model between citizens, government and other institutions.
  7. The estimated costs of building and maintaining a participatory ecology represent a low percentage of public spending for an area. (21)

Resilience

I don’t know when we forgot that a mutually supportive and connected community was key to our survival…perhaps when we no longer faced starvation and the need to build our own homes. But sometimes I feel like we are facing a starvation of the spirit here in the developed world, even as people starve in other places intimately connected to us through trade and consumption yet removed from our immediate knowledge. From exactly those places, the development literature grown around decades of aid (making little impact as you can see) has brought us terms such as resilience. It is still perhaps useful here, and will be ever more so through austerity’s bite and the onset of deeper poverty:

Resilience as an integrative construct

The construct of resilience offers a useful lens through which to discuss how neighbourhoods might be re-organised for both individual and collective wellbeing. People and families need to find ways to manage the ongoing ups and downs of life, and this is done through a combination of resources which are collectively referred to as ‘protective factors’.

Resilience resource indices include:

  • Biological factors (e.g. regular physical exercise, genetic resilience factors).

  • Individual factors (e.g. optimism, agency and executive functioning).

  • Interpersonal/family factors (e.g. secure family relations and close social ties).

  • Community/organisational factors (e.g. green space, volunteering).

The resources used to cope in challenging circumstances are not evenly distributed in or across neighbourhoods – perpetuating unequal access to resilience resources. (24)

I translate that in my mind to more concrete things like access to healthy foods and time for exercise, access to education and the ability to have power over your own life and the political and economic forces impacting you, close and supportive relationships that provide love and intellectual discussion and laughter, and a networked and supportive community.

I think that physical space should be separated from that as its own factor — access to nature, to growing things, to earth, safe and decent housing that makes you feel like you’re home, safe neighbourhoods that encourage you to spend time outside rather than flee, public spaces that encourage chance meetings and bring different people together, perhaps also transportation that ensure no one is trapped and all have good access to all parts of the city. All these things that Gehl, Appleyard, Whyte, Adams and Cullen among others describe.

An Ecology of Place

They don’t quite engage with that literature or work on space, but it fits in well with the thinking embodied in terms like ecology and ecosystems, it fits in also with thinking around networks and emergence, and the growing body of work on permaculture I’ve just started to dig back into.

Where roads and pipes allow for the efficient flow of transport, water and power, this participatory ecosystem aims to create a new and essential piece of connecting social infrastructure for our individual and collective wellbeing.

The report does bring us to the geography of it all — how place and people connect and the fact that ‘Resilient places support resilient people’. Hardly a surprise, though I am amazed at how many development experts consider the two to be separate. So returning to their thoughts on what a resilient place would look like:

An ecology of place:

The projection for a fully formed ecology after 3 years of development would see life experienced through the following participation opportunities:

  • Within a 5 to 15 minute walk from your home you would have approximately 140 opportunities every week (20 opportunities every day) to participate in free activities with neighbours. These might be in spaces on your nearest high street, or in kitchens, workshops or gardens on your own housing estate.
  • These activities would be practical, low commitment, low barrier opportunities that would be open to everyone, that you could decide to join at short notice, depending on your other home or work commitments.
  • These opportunities would be imaginative and creative project ideas, some of which you would find particularly interesting and which would also help you with your day-to-day life. For example, some projects could save
    you money through bulk cooking or bulk buying, you
    could learn new things and share what you know through
    weekly short lesson skill sharing, you could share, fix or
    make things that you need everyday such as equipment,
    food, clothing or furniture.
  • The network of opportunities would also include free regular incubation programmes which might help you cultivate new interests or livelihoods. These peer-to-peer incubators would allow you to develop your ideas without any formal qualifications and could lead to self-employment or employment.
  • Through these activities you would be able to get to know many local people in very informal and enjoyable settings. These people might be like you, but also might come from a wide range of backgrounds, ages and cultures, many of whom might have very different social and work networks, and these could be helpful for you to learn or progress to employment.
  • The new local community businesses, including collaborative childcare, energy, retail, or urban farming would create opportunities for you to balance your work and family commitments more easily and affordably.
  • For families there are projects, kitchens and workshops which enable you to make baby food, toys and clothing in social settings, which save you money and build supportive social networks and friendships.
  • Your new local networks would enable you to understand what public resources and benefits would be available to you, and help you easily access professional support when you need it. (26)

I love the illustrations in this evaluation/manual, this is just one example:

Civic Systems Lab - Designed to Scale
These diagrams ‘demonstrate how this ecosystem of social projects and activities creates opportunities for people to lead sustainable lives, through self-direction, and for producing direct, collective and networked outcomes for themselves, their family and the neighbourhood. (p 27)

I quite love their ambitions as well:

A UNIVERSAL VISION
Active, connected neighbourhoods as a universal ambition

People want to live in places where they know and like their neighbours, where they can do things together regularly, where they can help to create welcoming and safe communities in which to raise their children and grow old.

***

Through the participatory ecology described in this report, neighbourhoods could be re-organised not just for practicality, but also to be inspiring and exciting places to live: expanding our horizons, growing ideas and projects, inventing new livelihoods. Examples of which already exist.(28)

Civic Systems Lab - Designed to Scale

(29)

Not bad at all.

From a community organising background (and one more built around popular education, positive community projects and working with individuals and families rather than a focus on working through institutions to amass power to challenge power which is more IAF’s model), so much of this seems self-evident. Still, I know well from working with many service-providers that this is often opposite to their normal practice (and demands of funders and government and often academics), and key to emphasise how this differs just to be very clear:

  1. People participate on an equal footing
  2. There are self-directed pathways of progression from
    micro levels of participation through to employment
  3. There are new dense networks for friendship, support
    and resources, as well as opportunities to develop new
    skills informally… (30-31)

These networks and participation need to reflect the community and all of its diversity — a challenge in a world that works to effect the opposite. I write and obsess about racism, and there are multiple other factors involved here that such an approach needs to work hard not to sustain, much less to undo — and there isn’t a great deal here about to how to do that, but I think this is an approach that can begin to tackle these issues despite the challenges:

Traditional attempts have largely failed to bring people from a wide range of different backgrounds, with different abilities and cultures, into the same spaces regularly enough to develop the connections and friendships necessary to build large bridging networks.

Experience has shown that creating and sustaining dense and diverse networks is harder than it looks. The way our systems are currently organised shows that these relationships do not develop as naturally as we would hope or as easily as they once did. (42)

This is one place where I think we definitely need to put more work and thought.

Building Platforms and Building to Scale

They also start to struggle with scale — again for us as community organisers this was always a big issue that we never quite cracked and debated endlessly.

The challenge of scale
One of the key strengths of many new participatory models is that they are small scale in nature. Typically, practical activities are done in functional local settings in small groups – and it is these highly personal peer-to-peer experiences that are proving to build relationships and generate mutual benefits. Study of many of these successful projects identified that they offer whole sets of different outcomes, and that they are productive, imaginative and engaging at a time when interest in some traditional community activity is declining in many places.

However, despite all these obvious strengths of participatory culture, we concluded that participatory projects of this kind are unlikely to fulfil their promise to transform places and people’s lives if they remain scattered, unsupported and small scale.

The reality that when things get too big, their truly participatory nature becomes harder and harder to maintain. I think, however, a broad base of people used to this kind of ecology of daily participation in multiple smaller projects with multiple relationships of trust and respect in an area could make a much more participatory society work on many different levels. I think if we created it, we could much more easily start to talk about scale with some integrity. In its absence, everything seems a little hollow and I myself haven’t much hope.

I also like their idea of platform, as a goal, as a foundation, as a construct and invention:

The Open Works project set out to discover if we could invent a platform approach that would allow us to change a whole set of existing participatory infrastructures, and accompany this with a change process that could build a larger system of these small scale experiences. (42)

More on the platform idea, that I’m still trying to get my head around:

Platforms for participation and mutualism: Unlike many government or third-sector led projects of the past, the new participatory project and civic ventures don’t seek to involve people in processes or representative structures, but are direct opportunities for participation. They operate on a platform logic: thriving on uncovering, inviting and combining multiple, unpredictable sources of input such as dormant existing resources or ideas from multiple sources, rather than just focusing on creating new products. For example with overcrowded hospitals a platform approach would look to system redesign, prevention and needs reduction, a products approach would procure more hospital beds. The former is a highly generative approach, as the wide range of unplanned, indirectly facilitated exchanges between platform participants can generate independent momentum. (151)

The scaling ideas they present are really impressive, showing how small projects could grow or serve as groundwork for or even federate into larger, more transformative ones. Here is just one example around growing and energy:

Civic Systems Lab - Designed to Scale

 

A question of Agency

Much of the literature they draw on is far removed from that of critical theory (not surprising) or community building and organising or even health and wellbeing (a little surprising but not too much). I enjoyed it, and how it presented small snippets of unfamiliar theory that I found quite thought provoking around social change and democracy, like this summary of agency as described through social cognitive theory by Albert Bandura (2006), which ‘incorporates the concept of a humans are both products and producers of their environments.’ Lefebvre says that too of course, a major innovation of critical geography, and I wonder if there is cross-pollination there, but that is to digress. They quote Bandura at length and so shall I:

Social cognitive theory distinguishes among three modes of agency, each of which is founded in people’s beliefs that they can influence the course of events by their actions. These include individual, proxy and collective agency.

In personal agency exercised individually, people bring their influence to bear on their own functioning and on environmental events.

In many spheres of functioning, people do not have direct control over the social conditions and institutional practices that affect their everyday lives. In those circumstances, they seek their well-being, security and valued outcomes through the exercise of proxy agency. In this socially mediated mode of agency, people try by one means or another to get those who have access to resources or expertise or wield influence to act on their behest to secure the outcomes they desire. For example, children work through parents, marital partners through spouses, employees through labor unions, and the general public through their elected officials.

People do not live in isolation. Many of the things they seek are achievable only through socially interdependent effort. In the exercise of collective agency people pool their knowledge, skills and resources, provide mutual support, form alliances, and work together to secure what they cannot  accomplish on their own. People’s shared beliefs in their joint capabilities to bring about desired changes in their lives is the foundation of collective agency. Perceived collective efficacy raises people’s vision of what they wish to achieve, enhances motivational commitment to their endeavours, strengthens resilience to adversity, and enhances group accomplishments.” (123)

I quite love that definition of collective agency, particularly in thinking about organising and what so much of my life’s work has been about. It’s interesting arriving at these thoughts not through Freire or Horton or Camilo Torres, but social cognitive theory.

So, a recap from Civic Systems Lab on just what is key to these participatory projects:

Emergent: The projects we have studied have all been
started by citizens as ‘ordinary people’. Not primarily in
a formal role such as community organisers, or to make
money, nor because they were invited to by governing
authority or organisation, or given a pot of money to entice
them into action.

‘Live’ and ‘lean’ development: The initiatives are not efforts to compel some other party to solve a problem, but are
rooted in practical DIY ethos.

Oblique approaches: These initiatives develop oblique or
secondary ways of addressing social, environmental, and
economic issues. (150)

Scale: Most of these projects work on a local scale. They tend to be rooted in the very tangible opportunities and problems of people’s lived experience in local areas and the social networks embedded in them. (151)

I think DIY can only get you so far and sometimes you have to fight bad things, too often really, but it’s true that the building of positive local initiatives has not received nearly enough study or attention. In some ways I agree with this, being always optimistic about what local people working together can achieve — and utterly pessimistic about how long it will take it to be smashed. But that’s for another post maybe, the rougher things become, the more necessary these initiatives will become, and in imagining an ideal base from which to create a different world, I cannot think of a much better one.

This foundational research suggests that a radical re-think of our institutions needs to occur: because of their valuable multiple social outcomes, the autonomous activities of civic initiatives and ventures are worth supporting as a complement to current developments in public service reform and innovation. The challenge is to create structures and investment mechanisms that work with the grain of what citizens are already doing together in this domain. This will be an important next step in the evolution of the relations between the state, the market and citizens in the UK and beyond. There is growing case study evidence on how, at the scale of individual projects, neighbourhoods and whole cities, this evolution is already underway, giving ample cause for optimism. (132)

I found this interesting too, a curious mix of things that on the whole I’m not sure I agree with — and it’s paragraphs like this that make me feel most that I am not the intended audience as this is not a critical study, but a practical one demonstrating not just how to do this, but why it should be funded.

What characterises the participation culture and civic entrepreneurialism we are witnessing now is that it brings together the diverse values of civic society with the new approaches and culture of 21st century start-ups. Where in the 20th Century, civic action was frequently focussed on protest against the state or market, or on demands to be included and represented in government decision-making, the new citizen participation and entrepreneurship firmly focuses on seizing opportunities that make life better or create more enjoyable places through practical action. They are marked by innovative and energetic hands-on design processes and a DIY ethos, drawing on existing resources where possible – whether physical resources in the locality, online tools or collaborative relations with people.

***

In sum, a ‘many to many’ culture has grown. People now have the access to tools and platforms to act independently of established players: market and state institutions, but also traditional local community power structures. (136)

I’m not sure what I think of ‘civic entrepreneurialism’. So I will let that go for now…and keep thinking about how this approach could lead to a deeper transformation of injustice and oppression in our society than such paragraphs allow. More nuts and bolts to follow, but this is already far too long…

For more on building social spaces…

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Food is Free: A Practical Lesson in Community Gardens

In my day job we are looking at creating a community garden among other projects — which seems like it should be easy enough if we get the right people together and just figure it out. Better yet, I have asked for a little help from local organisations of people committed to growing food in the city, and there are lots of people working in the East End on just exactly this. But I thought I would also just see what the internet had to offer, doing a little more research on projects to learn from when we come to build our own gardens.

Besides going a little overboard on permaculture books, which I’ve been obsessive about for a long time, but without much chance to do anything at all about for the past few years. I’ll be writing about those as I go through them, I am so glad that my garden-drought is ending.

Food is Free

If not free now, perhaps some of it can be free in the near future — with food banks on such a steep rise, I think we should be doing all we can to work with people to grow their own healthy veg. Only yesterday through a friend’s post, I stumbled across the Food is Free project, which seems to me to have a particularly lovely way of both framing the project and breaking down the process of bringing people together in urban spaces to grow food not just for themselves, but for neighbours.

This is making me wish I had made a little time to do this ages ago.

In explaining who they are, they write:

The Food is Free Project is a community building and gardening movement that launched in January of 2012. We teach you how to connect with your neighbors and line your street with front yard community gardens which provide free harvests to anyone.

The gardens are built and offered for free using salvaged resources that would otherwise be headed to the landfill. By using drought-tolerant, wicking bed gardens, these low maintenance gardens only need to be watered every 2-4 weeks. This simple tool introduces people to a very easy method of growing organic food with very little work. A wide variety of vegetables along the block promote neighbors to interact and connect, strengthening our communities while empowering them to grow their own food.

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They work with people who have brought friends, family and neighbours together to build bed gardens in a whole variety of available places. They’ve even put a how-to booklet together to allow others to do what they do. The simple steps summarised:

1. Declaration – let people know what you’re doing so they can get involved!

2. Location – find a spot

3. Discover Resources – look at what you have and what you need to get — and don’t be afraid to ask for things that can be reused and recyled

4. Planting! – pretty self-explanatory, just know you will make mistakes.

5. Sharing – share the harvest, it’s nicest that way.

We love how this breaks everything down, makes it sound easy to start up something in any neighbourhood. I like the way this opens up the city so that food can be integrated into improving everyday life along every street, not just for those with allotments or a car or a garden.

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What is great about this is that these kind of projects can be done almost anywhere, even in very small spaces, so they complement our amazing local city farms like Stepney and Spitalfields, as well as existing allotment spaces.

Other Examples of Street by Street Awesomeness

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There are people doing this everywhere. From Ron Finlay in Los Angeles, who helped changed LA’s laws to allow people to plant vegetable in medians and along sidewalks, to the Yorkshire village of Todmorden growing its own food all over the place, to Growing Communities in Hackney, with its patchwork farm made up of 12 market gardens.

There are also incredibly beautiful and creative ways of making plants that we normally only think of as being grown for food both decorative and inspiring. Like this wonderful archway of squash:

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Or this spiral of flowers (that could have been strawberries or tomatoes or herbs):

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From the community gardens we hope to grow on our community site now to the rooftop gardens that could lie in our future, there is so much to learn from and be inspired by as in joining this growing movement.

For more ideas, look at the amazing collection of stories about what people are doing here, on the Community Lovers Guides site. But this is probably the first of many a post on local food growing.

I like the idea of Food is Free. It should be. Especially the food that is so good for us, both as something to eat, but also something that gives us joy to plant collectively, tend and grow.

 

Full Society, Healthy Lives: Thoughts on the Marmot Review

fair-society-healthy-lives-full-report-1In my mind there are two quotes that really encapsulate what the Marmot Review is. The first is the epigraph, and for me it was breathtaking to find it here:

Rise up with me against the organisation of misery.
–Pablo Neruda

The second? A clear outline of where exactly the researchers began:

The starting point for this Review is that health inequalities that are preventable by reasonable means are unfair. Putting them right is a matter of social justice. A debate about how to close the health gap has to be a debate about what sort of society people want.

Surely it is time we started there and moved forward. It does note (and I chuckled at this, I’m not sure why):

It is sometimes difficult for many people to accept that serious and persistent health inequalities exist in England.

By ‘many people’ I assume they mean the happy middle and upper classes with reasonable health. But on the other side of the class (and race and nationality and gender and sexuality) lines, it is no real surprise that the WHO (World Health Organisation) Commission on Social Determinants of Health should have ‘surveyed the world scene and concluded that “social injustice is killing on a grand scale.”‘ Is that the kind of world we support?

Most would answer no. I also think most would agree with this:

Economic growth is not the most important measure of our country’s success. The fair distribution of health, well-being and
sustainability are important social goals. Tackling social inequalities in health and tackling climate change must go together.

I like too this call to the health profession to begin to engage with the fact that our socioeceonomic position is more determinative of our health than any prescription or therapy that they can give  — as well as to policymakers and politicians to lower our NHS bills by increasing equality and opportunity in our society:

People with higher socioeconomic position in society have a greater array of life chances and more opportunities to lead a flourishing life. They also have better health. The two are linked: the more favoured people are, socially and economically, the better their health. This link between social conditions and health is not a footnote to the ‘real’ concerns with health – health care and unhealthy behaviours – it should become the main focus.

The two main policy goals they propose are these:

  • To create an enabling society that maximises individual and community potential

  • To ensure social justice, health and sustainability are at the heart of all policies.

Wouldn’t that be great? These break down into 6 more concrete policy suggestions (and these are made more and more concrete for implementation at the end of the report):

  • Give every child the best start in life

  • Enable all children young people and adults to maximise their capabilities and have control over their lives

  • Create fair employment and good work for all

  • Ensure healthy standard of living for all

  • Create and develop healthy and sustainable places and communities

  • Strengthen the role and impact of ill health prevention

The evidence they marshal in support of these positions is so impressive, beginning with the weight of these first two graphs as shown below. The first represents over ten years difference between the wealthiest and the poorest in how long they may statistically expect to live. Over ten years. More sobering, perhaps, is the number of years available to us to live  in fullness of life and health, without disability. For the very poorest, they can expect age and ill-health related disabilities in their early fifties — it breaks my heart.

For the heartless, imagine the fucking economic cost of that.

Direct NHS healthcare costs in England associated with treating the consequences of inequality amount to £5.5 billion per year for treating acute illness and mental illness and prescriptions.228 These activities represent approximately one third of the NHS budget. In consequence, it is likely that the full impact of health inequalities on direct healthcare costs is considerably greater than this.

The review also notes:

As further illustration, we have drawn on Figure1 a line at 68 years – the pensionable age to which England is moving. With the levels of disability shown, more than three-quarters of the population do not have disability-free life expectancy as far as the age of 68. If society wishes to have a healthy population, working until 68 years, it is essential to take action to both raise the general level of health and flatten the social gradient.

Ah, to be 68 and working for the bosses while disabled, I can’t wait.

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The power of the second graph is the difference in mortality between regions. This also breaks my heart. Surely the point of a nation and a national government is to aim for some level of parity in opportunity and life.

The graphic below is  crazy too, it shows the effect of wealth and environment on intelligence (or at least, the ability to show intelligence through testing). This is about class and education, which of course intersects with health but also with our ability to become the person we want to be, live the lives we are capable of living. The review explains:

As Figure 6 shows, children who have low cognitive scores at 22 months of age but who grow up in families of high socioeconomic position improve their relative scores as they approach the age of 10. The relative position of children with high scores at 22 months, but who grow up in families of low socioeconomic position, worsens as they approach age 10.

fair-society-healthy-lives-full-report-24Are you ready to change the world yet?

From education you move into work — and poor people’s work is killing them. Worse, though, is that the lack of work is also killing them.

Getting people into work is therefore of critical importance for reducing health inequalities. However, jobs need to be sustainable and offer a minimum level of quality, to include not only a decent living wage, but also opportunities for in-work development, the flexibility to enable people to balance work and family life, and protection from adverse working conditions that can damage health.

Another graphic to blow your mind — the direct link between employment and mortality:

The dramatic increase in unemployment in the United Kingdom during the early 1980s stimulated research on the link between unemployment and health. Figure 8 shows the social gradient in the subsequent mortality of those that experienced unemployment in the early 1980s. For each occupational class, the unemployed have higher mortality than the employed.

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It’s community that I’m most interested in, perhaps because I think it is a way to mitigate all of these things while we fight to make the world more fair, and because everything goes to show that the closer and more supportive a community is, the healthier its members are. Building that kind of community where I live and work feels like something I can actually do to make a difference (that and join a union). But thinking geographically, the physical neighbourhood we live in also has a huge impact on our lives, both in terms of quality and length:

In the poorest neighbourhoods of England, life expectancy is 67, similar to the national average in Egypt or Thailand, and lower than the average in Ecuador, China and Belize, all countries that have a lower Gross Domestic Product and do not have a national health service.

Now ain’t that something? Here’s another set of bullet points on environment and health:

  • The conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age are responsible for health inequalities.

  • Early childhood, in particular, impacts on health and disadvantage throughout life.

  • The cumulative effects of hazards and disadvantage through life produce a finely graded social patterning of disease and ill health.

  • Negative health outcomes are linked to the stress people experience and the levels of control people have over their lives and this stress and control is socially graded.

  • Mental well-being has a profound role in shaping physical health and contributing to life chances, as well as being important to individuals and as a societal measure.

This evokes the complexities shaping these things a little better:

the distribution of health and well-being needs to be understood in relation to a range of factors that interact in complex ways. These factors include: material circumstances, for example whether you live in a decent house with enough money to live healthily; social cohesion, for example whether you live in a safe neighbourhood without fear of crime; psychosocial factors, for example whether you have good support from family and friends; behaviours, for example whether you smoke, eat healthily or take exercise; and biological factors, for example whether you have a history of particular illnesses in your family. In turn, these factors are influenced by social position, itself shaped by education, occupation, income, gender, ethnicity and race. All these influences are affected by the socio-political and cultural and social context in which they sit.

These are many of the things that determine where we live, and the kinds of support we can expect. Once our place of residence is decided, the other health issues kick in. So much of this is really about the physical hazards that exist in poorer neighbourhoods (and there is more work on this than is shown here), but also the mental hazards of poverty, and the lack of power and control that comes with it. The lack therefore, of even the possibility of true wellness.

There is substantial evidence of a social gradient in the quality of neighbourhoods. Poorer people are more likely to live in more deprived neighbourhoods. The more deprived the neighbourhood, the more likely it is to have social and environmental characteristics presenting risks to health. These include poor housing, higher rates of crime, poorer air quality, a lack of green spaces and places for children to play and more risks to safety from traffic. In the 30 years between 1970 and 2000 Britain saw a substantial increase in the geographical concentration and segregation of poverty and wealth. Since 2000 there seems to have been little progress in reducing this. Urban clustering of poverty has increased…wealthy households have become concentrated on the outskirts and areas surrounding major cities. During the same period, major restructuring of the British economy has led to the loss of manufacturing and traditional industries, with high levels of economic inactivity becoming concentrated in particular localities and neighbourhoods.

It is this segregation of poverty and wealth that is also the problem, a writing off of estate and neighbourhoods and what looks like the whole Northeast of the country.

Since reading Appleyard’s Liveable Streets, I’ve also been thinking a lot about how community is destroyed by streets and cars and traffic, and it is the poorest that suffer most — this graph really brings it home:

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I do like the fact that they point out that these are not just issues for the poor, however, although they clearly suffer most and resources should be targeted accordingly. They write

…everyone beneath the very best-off experiences some effect of
health inequalities. If the focus were only on those most in need and social action were successful in improving their plight, what about those just above the bottom or at the median, who have worse health than those above them? All must be included in actions to create a fairer society.

This also means health providers and community workers actually working together closely in taking on some of these problems.

Community engagement on a systematic basis is an essential element in partnership working for addressing health inequalities. Without this, reducing health inequalities will not be possible.

This approach requires mapping community assets, identifying barriers to participation and influencing and building community capacity through systematic and sustained community development.

They look at different ways this could happen. One is through focusing on building stronger social support networks to fight the high levels of stress, isolation and depression found in communities facing high level of deprivation, which can lead to ‘increased risk of premature death’. They note the effectiveness both of social networks and participation in improving mental health generally, but also the importance of including communities and individuals in the design of interventions.

They give some recommendations on how to go about things, which in the end lead to local individuals and communities being able to have power over their health, their lives, and the neighbourhoods they live in.

    1. First, identifying population needs better quality information from communities. In theory this can lead to health improvements and reduced health inequalities through an increased uptake of more effective services, particularly preventative services, and/or more effective interventions.

    2. Second, improving governance and guardianship and promoting and supporting communities to participate in directing and controlling local services and/or interventions. This will help to improve the appropriateness and accessibility of services and interventions, increase uptake and effectiveness and influence health outcomes.

    3. A third way to reduce social isolation is to develop social capital by enhancing community empowerment. This helps to develop relationships of trust, reciprocity and exchange within communities, strengthening social capital.

    4. Lastly, increasing control and community empowerment may result in communities acting to change their social, material and political environments.

       

Somethings about what not to do (but what gets done all the damn time), because the point is empowering people which in itself creates better health:

To achieve this goal community engagement practices need to move beyond what are often routine, brief consultations, to involving individuals in partnerships to define problems and develop local solutions to address those problems.

Which involves

Building active and sustainable communities based on principles of social justice. This is about changing power structures to remove barriers that prevent people from participating in the issues that affect their lives.

Promoting this approach sets a new task for political, civic and public service leadership in creating the conditions which enable individuals and communities to take control of their own lives, and in developing and sustaining a wider range of capabilities across the life course.

I like this idea of the life course, it is not one of the ways in which community organisers or planners tend to think, but makes perfect sense when looking at how negative impacts — in health and everything else — accumulate over our lifetimes and those of our children. I’ve also run into a few people, women for the most part, really trying to think about this in architecture and planning, how people age through housing and community, how their needs and desires change.

I also like how this review ties health in to climate change. They never say out right that all of this is academic in the face of massive environmental catastrophe, but it was in my mind at least. They do relate community and social health to increased green spaces, more walking, healthier work, more use of public transport  and etc which all contribute to making everything more sustainable.

I had a few quibbles of course. Any review of this kind, looking at the big picture, will have the problem I think of speaking in big categories, lumping categories of people in together as though they are all one thing. Sometimes I was a bit troubled as it threw around generalisations — such as the study of kids receiving free meals at schools and how terrible their outcomes were by whether they were irish, black, gypsy/ traveller/ roma children. That shit bothers me. I was one of those kids. Every now and then the language starts to shut our potential off, to overcome, to think bigger, to improve our lives and others like us. To set poor kids apart as if they can’t have a hand in changing this.

That might just be me on my high horse, some of this came a little close to home. It’s always a fine balance though, between recognising the power of structural injustices and constraints, and respecting the abilities of those who most suffer under them.

Even as it did make some of the distinctions above, and never forgot to mention the complexities of race and class in this picture, it also failed to look at them in any real way. Gender too is absent. It does, however, provide a good foundation for exploring these equity and justice issues further.

There’s also some technical language that highlights the bureaucratisation of the field. I quote you as an example ‘middle-level Super Output Areas (MSOAs)’ which I suppose are required for policy discussions to change public health practices as they are existing realities, yet they make you want to hit the person who coined them.

And for those in the non-profit world (and increasingly other areas) always in search of how to stay funded, there are a couple of nice passages on some things I wish all funders and policy makers could understand. Principally that things take time, projects need to grow organically and be tailored to different people and institutions in different areas, relationships and trust only come after years, not days or weeks.

Reviews often look for new interventions, particular policies that may help turn the corner or make significant impact in improving service quality. However, a stream of new initiatives may not achieve as much as consistent and concerted action across a range of policy areas. A social determinants approach to health inequalities highlights how it is the intersection between different domains that is critical – health and work, health and housing and planning, health and early years education. Success is more likely to come from the cumulative impact from a range of complementary programmes than from any one individual programme and through more effective, coherent delivery systems and accountability mechanisms….. achieving reductions in health inequalities requires coherent, concerted, long-term, cross-cutting policies, backed by sufficient investment.

There are also some practical points on how funding is killing smaller organisations, despite the fact that they are highly committed, flexible and most integrated into the communities they serve, making them most likely to be the most effective.

There is increasing concern that the current commissioning environment disadvantages the third sector generally and may even threaten the survival of smaller voluntary organisations. The range of factors includes:

  • The inability of smaller organisations to marshal the resources, including the time, skills and knowledge, to effectively compete for tenders

  • Commissioning practices favouring larger organisations and the statutory sector, for example, clustering services to be put out to tender in a single contract can lead to smaller and niche providers being squeezed out

  • Short-term contracts with insufficient time for development and consequences for staff recruitment and retention

  • The growing requirement for contracts to be delivered on tighter funding, leaving little scope for developmental work and innovation.

Recipe for disaster really, and the unhelpful bureaucratization of exactly the kind of community work that bureaucratization strangles dead and can never on its own get right.

Anyway, this report is mostly wonderful. You can download it here.

Donald Appleyard on Creating Livable Streets

51EDGFKJ6AL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_This is a splendid book of studies, both of traffic and of community. It opens with my favourite sentence of the whole book:

Nearly everyone in the world lives on a street. People have always lived on streets. They have been the places where children first learned about the world, where neighbors met, the social centres of towns and cities, the rallying points for revolts, the scenes of repression. But they have also been the channels for transportation and access; noisy with the clatter of horses’ hooves and the shouts of their drivers, putrid with dung, garbage and mud, the places where strangers intruded, and criminals lurked. (1)

I think in many ways Appleyard proves many of the things we fighting to improve our cities instinctively know, these studies should have formed a baseline for all community building and traffic interventions in all countries.

They clearly didn’t.

Look how long this was written:

Neighboring: One of the most significant and discussed aspects of street life is the amount and quality of neighboring (Suttles, 1972, Gans, 1968 and Jacobs, 1961). Its interruption or “severance” has been identified as one of the primary measures of transportation impact in Britain (Lee, 1975). (35)

And this:

Traffic as the Most Widespread Problem The dominance of traffic as a problem on all street types is the most salient–and counterintuitive–finding of the study, since crime is commonly perceived as our major urban street threat. (59)

The photographs are wonderful:

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Mrs. Hampton from Camden Town, attempting to get home in 1976:

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These good old days of fashion and street life:

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But the real innovations were the ways he made visual the data from questionnaires and observations.

There are a few people still fighting for livable streets, for instance you can see quite a splendid animation of his ideas here on the website StreetFilms, or here, a roundup of other ways these ideas continue to live on and how they are struggled over where I found the map below:

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Because I am not alone in loving most of all these wonderful illustrations, the way they show the city as it works, the city as it is lived.

My  favourites were from this study of traffic and community:

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This is the same illustration I found in Jan Gehl’s book and that brought me here:

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Here people drew the area they felt was their own territory, in light traffic it included both the home and the street, the common spaces shared between neighbors. This could not exist on the heavily trafficked streets.

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How wonderful are these, another representation of how we life in our homes, how we use our rooms and the ways that the external environment changes those patterns. It’s something I never really thought of before:

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To end, this fabulous illustration that looks so innocent yet contains some rather radical ways to improve the street.

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For more…

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Father John Groser, Rebel Priest of the East End

groserbookThis book uncovers for me some of the contributions of certain priests of the Church of England to the struggle for a better world here and now. It is a tradition I knew very little of, being more familiar with Liberation Theology such as that written by Gustavo Gutierrez and Camilo Torres, learned through the words and practice of some of the people I respect most in the world like Leonardo Vilchis and Don Toñito.  So I was happy to find this, a booklet Manifesto of the Catholic Crusade in the early 1920s by Father Conrad Noël:

if you would destroy the kept Press and fight for freedom of expression; if you would destroy the Capitalist Parliament and build a People’s Republic; if you would abolish classes, artificial distinctions, snobbery; if, while you know the most deadly tyrants are not kings but financiers, speculators, captains of industry, you would also, with St Thomas of Canterbury, destroy that nest of flunkeys, the Court; if, while you measure swords with the New Plutocracy, you are ashamed of that ancient fraud which calls itself the old Aristocracy…We offer you nothing–nothing but adventure, risks, battle, perhaps ruin; with the love and loyalty of comrades and the peace of God which passeth understanding.’ (15 – William Purcell ‘Birth of a Rebel’)

Father John Groser gave it to William Purcell telling him it was ‘a bit unbalanced, but still pretty splendid, don’t you think?’ (14). Father John was himself entirely splendid I think — how else could such a volume as this exist, written in sections by various colleagues and friends and a few pages from his son to keep alive his history and legacy and the vitality of his praxis? No activist could ask for a better tribute to their life’s work.

This form means this book is full of not only of struggle and theology, Marxism and Christianity, but also delightful glimpses into the character of the man, as well as the East End’s past and its life during two world wars. This is one of my favourite stories, of a church I hope to know better soon, and comes from Rev. Denys Giddey, Groser’s last curate at St George’s:

One evening in the blitz a small bomb dropped in the Rectory garden, which had at one time been part of the churchyard. We found that the explosion had disturbed some human remains. Father John went off to get a spade and told me to fetch a prayer book. I was then required, in the light of search-lights and various explosions, to read the Committal as he re-interred the remains. (56 – Kenneth Brill ‘Of Lawful Authority’)

I love the note that Groser takes it as understood that senior police officers see their duty as protection of property above all else. Then there are these splendid words — Charles Dalmon’s hymn for St George’s Day:

God is the only landlord
To whom our rents are due,
He made the Earth for all men
And not for just a few.
The four parts of Creation,
Earth, Water, Air and Fire,
God made and blessed and stationed
For every man’s desire. (79 – ‘Parish Priest’ – Kenneth Brill)

He was only ever parish priest in Stepney — Christ Church on Watney Street to be exact, though it no longer stands. It was destroyed early on by German bombs in WWII — I think it is hard for us now to imagine lives touched by not just one but two such great catastrophes — Father John was a chaplain on the front lines in WWI and this is part of what radicalised him and brought him to the East End in the first place.

This sentence is so reminiscent of Arthur Morrison’s opening to Mean Streets, but here these streets are transformed — the power of struggle certainly but I will allow religion as well:

Few, however, can take part in the Eucharist without a pang of regret for the ugly building, in an ugly street, in an ugly society, within which Groser ensured for them a vision of transcendent spiritual and material beauty which they are unlikely to enjoy again in its full glory this side of the grave. (96 – Brill, Parish Priest)

All of these things are grand, like his friendship with George Lansbury, his support for the docker’s strike, multiple arrests and police beatings. I’ll probably write more about those. It still surprised me to find him president of the Stepney Tenants Defense League. It began in 1938 when he gave space in vicarage for young solicitors and law students to interview & advise tenants, and clearly just snowballed from there as these things do. In May 1939 the League issued a broadsheet titled:

PERSONAL APPEAL FROM FATHER GROSER

In the nine months of our development we are able to say that we have beaten back the Landlords who have for years sucked the lifeblood of the people of Stepney. Your organisation has not only given the lead to the people of Stepney but also to the whole country. Our aim is to continue to wage the war against high rents and bad housing conditions. As well as your demand from the organisation the protection it offers, your organisation demands from you an understanding of the enormous problems that face it in it its fight.

There are 4 points on what tenants should do:

(i) Persuade neighbours to join the League and attend Meetings.
(ii) Set up committees in your streets and blocks of Buildings.
(iii) Bring in loans and donations for a thousand pounds to fight back against the powerful Landlords’organisation and to retain what has already been won.
(iv) Remember the struggles of the tenants in Brady Street and Langdale Mansions and the other strike centres are the struggles of every one of us. (101 – The World His Parish – Brill)

The League announced Tenants’ Week, gave a public showing of the film Tenants in Revolt (need to find that), and did a charabanc (charabanc!) outing to Hastings.

What did they do that we didn’t do in LA so many decades later? And we thought we were inventing it all (I know already how silly that sounds, but we didn’t really know what we were doing — I guess there aren’t so many ways to do it). I look back on my years of doing this same work and I am both thrilled to be part of this movement that stretches back over years and simultaneously dismayed that it fucking stretches back over so many years. The League even organised a fund tenants could pay rent into while on strike. Groser held thousands of pounds in this capacity. We are still doing this same thing and it makes me both happy and sad. It does emphasise to me, however, that until housing ceases to be a commodity that people profit from and instead becomes homes to be lived in and treasured, there will be tenant organisers just like us another hundred years from now.

Still, I am proud reading the events of Tuesday, 20th June 1939, when tenants of Alexandra Buildings on Commercial Street (45-55) ‘built barricades of tables, doors and sofas at each entrance and a “drawbridge” to resist the bailiffs. Six were arrested for obstructing and assaulting the police.’ They held pickets at the landlord’s offices while both the Mayor & Bishop of Stepney, Rabbi Brodie and Father Groser argued the tenant’s case inside with landlord 2 hours. Bringing politicians, priests, rabbis together to pressure slumlords to do the right thing? Shit, we did that too — but no such barricades sadly, and no drawbridge. That was a stroke of genius. The article in the next day’s Daily Herald stated Landlord Tarnspolsk agreed to stop evictions and negotiate. The barricades came down again.

Then war came, changing everything for a few years. Slowly Groser moved away from the League. But not from his politics.

Another favourite story is of the time Groser recited the following poem of G.D.H. Cole when preaching evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral. The verger conducted him to the steps of pulpit carrying a staff and bowed to him, Groser surprised him by bowing back, then said:

For I tell you one thing success cannot stomach the sight of,
And that’s failure, the sort that you can’t get away from or write off.
But that shabbily, shamblingly, haunts you and cringes for pence,
Am I wrong thus far, though I cause you offence?

Headlines in the Daily Herald the following day: ‘Means Test Denounced in St. Paul’s Pulpit’ (105 – The World his Parish)

In 1951, Groser helped to found the Stepney Colored People’s Association. In the article he wrote for their first newsletter in 1952 talking about how Stepney has ‘always been one of the most cosmopolitan areas of London, perhaps that is one of the reasons why it is such an interesting place to live in.’ and that it had ‘always provided a haven for foreigners and seamen…’ (107)

groserbecket1949you thought he couldn’t get much better, and then you find out he performed as Archbishop Becket in the 1949 film of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, directed by George Hoellering. I have to hunt that down. So he knew T.S. Eliot, John dos Passos, a few others.

He understood faith, and how Marxists have their share:

‘I believe that God has made the world for that sort of life in the world [a free and equal society], and man will not rest till he attains to it. But it is to me an act of faith which is in accord with my philosophy. It is equally an act of faith on the part of the Community Party. (From ‘Methods of Change.’ A lecture to Watford Deanery School of Religious Study, October 1934, quoted in ‘Socialist Because Christian’ – David Platt)

I enjoyed the point of view of his colleagues writing in the 1960s as though the battle is almost over, as though Keynes solved it all and we were well on our way to utopia. They look back on Father John’s more fiery days as a period over and done. Still, if only all Christians felt this way:

This incarnational doctrine leads to the necessity of the Christian’s identification of himself with human beings in need. In the 1920s and 1930s this led inevitably to participation in the class struggle. (167 – Platt)

There are more wonderful quotes, like these from the 1932 Manifesto of the Christ Church Campaign for Socialism:

“We believe that the principal duty of the Church is to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a Kingdom of perfection, a Kingdom of love, justice, comradeship, beauty, and all that we know as good.”

The first stage in the programme is the establishment of a classless and democratic Socialist State in this country. The second step is ‘the establishment of a World Cooperative Commonwealth of ‘Socialist States’.(176 – Platt)

Can you imagine? Yet this is written as though we are on our way to achieving this, as though it is nothing very radical. This chapter on Father John’s Socialism by his son-in-law David Platt is almost as eye-opening as Angela Davis’s first autobiography where she knows the revolution is just around the corner. What I wouldn’t give to feel that just once, just a little touch of it.

You can tell that he worked with people, knew people. He argued strongly for the need for a transformation of rank and file through struggle and religion:

Sacrifice and cooperation are required when men are no longer driven by fear of unemployment and insecurity and not likely to suffer from their own sins and mistakes as before. Those who fear the development of too much centralisation of power need to be reminded that decentralisation is only possible if there is a sufficient number of people who are able and willing to accept responsibility below. A voluntary and peaceful transition from one order of society to another demands the active participation of all or at least of a sufficient number of people in every area of life to carry conviction and a following. It demands a readiness to surrender voluntarily rights which stand in the way, and a voluntary acceptance of sacrifice and responsibility by people willing a common objective. (‘The Vision of the Church’s Work’. Lecture to C.E.Y.C. Conference in Oxford, September 1950. 181 – Platt)

I shall end this with his denunciation of capitalists, a position I’d like to see more from the church as we still tighten our belts and continue dealing with their crisis: Father John could not be more clear that

their economic position so binds them that they are unable to do that which is necessary to make the Kingdom of God possible for them as for other men…It is these people who are in the position of control in international affairs, and it is the same interest that dictates there…when their economic position is threatened, their loyalty to the Kingdom of God becomes secondary, because to their consciousness the economic factor is the one most important thing in their lives. (‘The Vicar’s Letter’ in Christ church Monthly, December 1935, quoted Platt 185).

There is so much more left unsaid, and a few things to follow up as well, as always: Look up Ethel Upton, social science student from LSE working in Stepney and at St Katharine’s. Find Father John’s own book Politics and Persons. Find Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, a novel that examines the horrors of the Means Test Father John spent his life campaigning against. More about the Stepney Colored People’s Association. So much.

If you want more right away, look at the wonderful page from St-George-in-the-East, packed as usual with facts and links.

And more on London’s East End from myself…

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