Making change happen in Bristol: A NEON report

Bristol’s Hamilton House, where social enterprise Co-exist is based

How change happens in the city

‘I think there is scope at a local level to radically change things – but on a much smaller scale’ – Louie Herbert, ACORN Bristol

1. People and Relationships

‘Everything we have done has been by the grace and goodwill of people who have given up time, money, opportunities for their well-being and a paper, including ourselves running operations as volunteers’ – Alon Aviram, Bristol Cable

Common to all conversations around the enablers of change were the people involved. Visionary, creative, and generous individuals who have made things happen, worked to create change, and pulled the levers that have then enabled the project to succeed. The people involved in these change initiatives are a part of the city, although many are not themselves Bristolian – ‘There is a sense that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s what you contribute that counts in Bristol’ (Paul Hassan). People are attracted to the city because of the culture that is presented to the world. Students come to study at the city’s universities and stay, migrants from the rest of the UK and the world beyond find their way to the city, and sub-cultures are created across Bristol in its many villages which themselves generate change initiatives often specific to the micro-populations of that particular area. It is unclear what encourages people to stay – perhaps an environment where experimentation is welcome: if one project or initiative fails there is plenty of opportunity to join or start something new; perhaps the strong sense of community which encourages people to put down roots quickly; perhaps the fact that Bristol is a city of immigrants from other cities and towns, from other countries that makes it easier to feel at home here…

As well as the specific people involved in projects, the relationships and collaborations that have emerged have also been vital to the success of many projects. There is a sense that projects are more likely to flourish when they involve those with a stake in the issues: ‘be fully engaged with communities’ (Sado Jidre); ‘do with not for people’ (Louie Herbert); ‘get sections of the community involved who haven’t been involved politically’ (Alon Aviram). This process of engagement and active participation has created energy around some change initiatives, leading to success in several cases. It is the skill and passion of certain organisers that have led to some projects being more inclusive than others.

2. Pre-figurative action

 ‘Instead of waiting for that ever far away moment of revolution, or for leaders and authorities to sort out our problems, we recognise that we can make fundamental changes here and now.’ – Nate Eisenstadt, Social Centres and an Everyday Anarchist Praxis

Shift Bristol runs courses and events on practical sustainability

Seeing what works by just doing it is a common practice in Bristol. There are a number of initiatives that have been established to experiment, to find the cracks in the dominant systems, to create the world we want to see right here right now. As Emmelie Brownlee wrote in her book ‘Bristol Green Roots’: ‘The most successful campaigns, organisations and initiatives in Bristol have been the ones that have demonstrated the positives of change by making the changes themselves’. Once projects are set up, their very existence seems to enable further change to take place. This seems to be the case with a number of anarchist social spaces that have emerged across the city in the last few decades. Many began as squatted buildings, in which alternative economic practices of sharing, collaborating and voluntary exchange took place. An example would be Kebele that has become a cooperative and continues to offer an ever-diversifying range of activities and ‘DIY services’ with ‘the values of trust, voluntarism and cooperation build in.’ (p.11, Social Centres and an Everyday Anarchist Praxis). And in a different way, United Communities, that wants to ‘enable residents to set up projects – swaps, repair cafes and so on’ (Tamsin Evans).

Some felt this was a self-reinforcing cycle – the more Bristol has become seen to be a place of ‘leading by doing’, the more it attracts people keen to operate in that way. However it is also interesting to ask whether there are structural aspects of Bristol’s culture and institutional make up which makes it easier for people to ‘just do’ than other places. One of our researchers own reflections on the city was that innovating is welcome (so long as you don’t tread on others toes), space to meet is easy to find (although not if you want it to be accessible and cheap), and people are willing to give things a try (certain people, in certain parts of the city). Interrogating what creates the culture of a place is more complex than the scope of this paper allows, but it is important to note who is ‘doing the doing’ – not everyone finds it as easy to access the spaces and audiences of the city, apply for grants and small pots of funding that are available, or make use of the networks that exist.

3. Endorsement

‘There is a willingness in the local authority to do the right thing’ – Jamie Pike, Co-Exist

Although not uncontroversial, the mayoral model in Bristol has focused the spotlight of leadership in a concentrated direction. George Ferguson, Bristol’s first elected citywide mayor, has been in post for two years. He is seen by many as a gatekeeper of change: if he is in favour and supportive of your project it may go far. His role in the creation of the Bristol Pound is a key example of this. As Mark Burton said, ‘George took his salary in Bristol Pounds and became a strong advocate…he identifies a creativeness and playfulness about Bristol that made it possible’. The role of decision makers and those with power in the city is seen as vital to the success of many initiatives: ‘you need decision makers, people with power, to understand’ (Sado Jidre). Without their support, change initiatives may struggle to advance.

This is an interesting key complementary factor to have emerged alongside the sense of importance of the culture of ‘just getting on with it’ – both were seen to be critical, and reinforce each other. This is a point which can get lost in celebrations of innovation, and challenges to places – or people – to ‘be more innovative’, if the drive to make this happen focusses only on building capacity and ambition with the potential innovators, without also seeking to strengthen and make more ambitious the receptiveness and willingness to proactively support innovation and experimentation within existing decision-making and power structures.

Kat Wall is a local organiser at the New Economy Organisers Network (Neon) in Bristol

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