Making change happen in Bristol: A NEON report

Barriers to change

‘There is no denying that Bristol has a vast wealth of people, communities, organisations, initiatives and businesses working towards making their work, lives and local areas more sustainable. This passion and dedication, however, has not always made as much change as could have been hoped for…whether this is because of a lack of authority support, lack of public uptake, lack of funding, or lack of joined up thinking is not easy to determine.’ – Emmelie Brownlee, Bristol Green Roots

1. Lack of resources

‘Its a money thingTamsin Evans, United Communities ‘More than just a roof’

‘Resources are always stretched’ (Steve Watters, VOSCUR). This was a feeling shared by many working for change. A lack of time and money put increased strain on many projects and organisations. Funding on project-by-project basis makes it challenging for change initiatives to do the long-term work required; short funding cycles and limited amounts of money make it harder to pay people for the work they are doing – an aspiration many of these organisations have but struggle to realise in practice. This puts up barriers to those who might wish to get involved in certain projects who cannot do so because of income/time constraints. And those that are involved often burnout – this work is challenging and without time and financial security to do it, people end up doing too much.

The wider context of austerity is also putting up barriers to change initiatives. Funding cuts to advocacy and activist organisations like the Black Development Agency in Bristol forces change initiatives to fold. As Sado Jidre said ‘as Britain becomes more diverse it seems there is less attention to racism and racial disadvantage and more attention to immigration and multiculturalism as negative phenomena’.

Spending cuts across society put pressure on groups to deliver – ‘a lot of people in unions are firefighting’ (Tim Lezard, NUJ), ‘‘50% of our members are based in the 20% most deprived areas of the city. Meaning we have to make an impact with limited resources’ (Paul Hassan, VOSCUR). ‘At one time officers had the flexibility to support what was going on, now there is no money and fewer people to do the work after all the job cuts’ (Helen Holland, City Council).

2. Lack of connection

‘The biggest barrier to change is that people with shared values work across an array of different projects but dont engage with each other’ – Mark Burton, Bristol Pound

Whilst there is a lot of activity in the city, very little of it is joined up. This means there is a lot of repetition, competition, and missed opportunities to learn and develop. This poses a barrier to further change as siloes develop and possibilities to collaborate, build and grow are missed. ‘There is a lot of resistance within the unions to changing how things are done’ (Tim Lezard) Without learning from and joining with others with common cause, many change initiatives fail to build the power necessary to implement the change they wish to see. As Jamie Pike said ‘people don’t have power over the system they are in so if they are involved in something subversive it becomes sacrosanct – that is why we are so siloed.’ We become protective over ‘our’ project, ‘our’ issue.

As one respondent said ‘everything we do is about building the power of our organisation’. Whilst this can lead to the success of individual organisations and projects, ultimately it leads them to focus internally, making them less likely to collaborate with others, and perhaps ultimately being less successful in the future – no one organisation or project will achieve the scale of change required by each project individually.

3. Power

‘Who has the power? Who pulls the strings?’ – Sarah Pugh, Shift Bristol

Those in power – the decision makers, the politicians, the business leaders – often block these changes. This is true at the national, local and even intra-organisational level. Some said that the levers for the change that needed to be made rest at the national level – national legislation is required for example to safeguard tenants’ rights, to shift the financial system, to stop cuts to social security and advocacy organisations. Sado Jidre felt there is a ‘strategic government decision to cut equalities.’ At a local level, there is a perception that the mayor holds all the power: ‘having the mayor has made leadership more visible, but more is needed to ensure that democratic checks and balances are in place’ (Paul Hassan). With the new governance structures the mayoral model has introduced, there appears to be confusion about how to make change happen: ‘council officers don’t know what levers can be pulled’ (Louie Herbert). ‘There is a hunger for the council to do amazing things – but does it really have the power?’ (Sarah Toy). There appears to be a lack of knowledge about where decision-making power sits, who controls what, how to make a shift.

Power and privilege are also at play within those change initiatives themselves that shape the kind of change that is asked for and ultimately advanced. Several interviewees raised this, confirming that ‘class and privilege stuff is still in there’ (Sarah Pugh). ‘People pertain to certain values but they are in bed with power…there has been a commodification of grassroots action…and the green agenda’ Alon Aviram felt. Sadro Jirde stressed that ‘it matters who is around the table’.

It was noticeable across several interviews that individuals felt there were hierarchies within the movement – that elites co-opted ideas and actions, ultimately making them less radical and transformative. A somewhat damning critique of certain initiatives stated ‘similarly troubling was the extent to which creative, artistic, and self-described radical projects facilitate neoliberal governance and a minimal security state. If the production of self governing ‘empowered’ subjects through grassroots provision fails to challenge the material inequalities then projects like those described… might be thought of as brilliant examples of the ‘big society’ wherein voluntary, creative and community orientated labour work to reinvigorate a lagging economy’ (p.31, Social Centres and Everyday Anarchist Praxis).

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

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