“The canary in the coalmine”: The importance of Civil society for us all

5th Dec, 2018

Launch of Civil Society Futures Report

I recently attended the launch of the Civil Society Futures report, following an independent inquiry into how civil society in England can work together and achieve greater impact. The two year long inquiry, chaired by Julia Unwin (ex-CEO of Joseph Rowntree Foundation)  produced three reports:

Civil Society Futures – Civil Society in England: Its current stage and future opportunity

Civil Society Futures – The Story of our Times: Shifting power, bridging divides, transforming society (Short report containing trends

Let’s Talk About Race: Civil Society and Race Equality

This timely inquiry looks at how civil society in England can re-energise – by strengthening its connections, its unity, its message – in order to create the changes our society needs. This is not about how “others” are going to drive radical change: The central message for us all is that it is civil society which needs to come together and be the change we want to see. We need to be brave, and we need to do it quickly.

Some nuggets from the day

“Civil Society is the canary in the coalmine”: Many issues highlighted which point to a fractured society: Austerity; Inequality; Environment; Brexit; Democratic deficit. Civil society is the glue which holds us together but needs re-energising in order to do its job more effectively

“The state is dependent on civil society”: The state needs civil society to do its job properly. Civil society needs to step up, or wider society will suffer. How we behave puts power in our hands

“A PACT is needed”: We need to defend our rights, and build resistance in order to change civil society for the future. Power – use it properly, shift it to where knowledge and connections are; Accountability – to each other and to beneficiaries; Connections – with each other; Trust – to share power and knowledge need to trust each other

“A skilled new generation”: We need to step aside and let younger generations drive their future

“Darkness, trouble, frustration, anger but above all HOPE”: All of these were found when engaging younger people across England in the Inquiry

“We don’t want your pity, we want access to your resources – to drive change”. This from a letter from young people to English civil society – arguably the most powerful performance of the day, from youngsters in Gloucester, Bradford, Leeds and Manchester. Beautifully read by one of their group. The letter in full here:

Story Circles: We heard from communities who were tackling knife crime and disengagement in Peckham; The challenge of prising money from private developments to create better democracy and spaces at a local level in Barking & Dagenham; LGBT Muslims who were creating safe spaces and supportive networks for LGBT people of all races in London.

“How do we take back the findings in the Report to our own communities?” There was a debate about how to put into action the findings of the Inquiry – in particular the perception within civil society itself as having the power to change. This debate will run on for some time, and not without questioning from some who believe the findings should be aimed at the political establishment.

Immersive experience: The event took place in a great civil society place, https://www.coreclapton.org/. This community space offers events space and a variety of spaces for yoga and other similar activities. The food reflected the local ethnic diversity and was excellent. Lunch was preceded by a great beatbox performance from talented Gloucester youngsters GL4, as their creative response to the Inquiry in which they were engaged

An immersive theatre performance took the (blindfolded) audience on a journey through a range of sounds, smells and tastes to explore the true meaning of power, accountability, connection and trust through the medium of food. A unique and thought-provoking experience from @indigenousknow. Not for the faint hearted!

So what can we draw from Civil Society Futures?

A thought provoking day, and here are some initial thoughts on how we, as communities, can respond.

• Civil society will only strengthen and become more effective if we shift power from where it currently sits to the communities we serve. The usual suspects are going to need to step back in order to make way for communities to do more

• The community / voluntary sector is going to need to read this report and have an open debate about how ordinary people, and in particular younger people, can get their fair share of knowledge and power

• We need to work harder to identify as “civil society” – the sector is currently fragmented and there is a disconnect between traditional charities and smaller enterprises

• We need to look at where civil society works better and learn some lessons, rather than reinventing the wheel, bringing together work which is currently going on to create common cause to strengthen civil society

• Voluntary sector bodies have a crucial role in starting and continuing both debate and activity to strengthen civil society

• We must do much more to engage and empower young people. Perhaps take the debate into schools and colleges?

• How about creating voluntary Civil Society Ambassador roles to lead a local campaign in schools, colleges, universities, community groups?

We live in chaotic times, when the world rules-based order is being undermined by events across the globe with a new wave of populist leaders intent on whipping up nationalist fervour. There is an urgency now to look to the future, and understand how we, as civil society, can create a world which is fair, inclusive and prosperous for all. Civil Society Futures has made an important contribution to the debate. We could do worse than heed it, and act.

Follow the debate at https://civilsocietyfutures.org/  

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