Reflections from Leicester – institutions are key to strong communities

WMC‘We get 30 or so on a Sunday, but back in the 70’s it would have been 300.’ Carl [not his real name] is telling me about the local working men’s club he has attended for decades just down the road from where we sit at a coffee morning in the church building where my wife Jenni and I have spent the last few months on our summer placement as part of our training to be Salvation Army officers. He has lived in the same house in West Leicester for 70 years and was an engineer and cleaner for most of his working life. He reflects that Leicester has a proud history of industry, particularly in shoe-making and hosiery, but like much of British industry, it declined in the decades after WWII.

With the decline of industry came the decline of institutions like unions and working men’s clubs like those Carl belongs to, and no matter what you think of the politics, opportunities for people to meet in communities arguably diminished. David Barclay from the Centre for Theology and Community suggests (in p.19 of this report) that ‘This erosion of membership from traditional public institutions has been compounded by a growing culture and language of consumerism which has now seeped into political discourse to such an extent that notions of citizenship are often limited to understandings of ‘choice’ rather than any more active forms of participation.’

The film ‘Brassed Off’ (a favourite of many Salvationists I have met) which follows the fortunes of a northern mining town through the closing of its pit depicts this process through the simultaneous decline of the pit brass band. Again, leaving aside arguments around the economic viability of mining, the despair seen in the film is primarily due to the loss of a community way of life even more than the loss of each individual job. Communities are often only as strong as the institutions within them; the places where people gather, meet their neighbours and ask how their day has been.

Because strong institutions are important for building community they are also essential for standing for justice. If the community does not have institutions in which to gather, they can never know how much of their life experience is shared. Where experiences of injustice are shared, the number of people that can attest to a shared injustice creates a collective voice of power to do something about it. This is why ‘Marching to Justice’ has such a strong emphasis on the importance of institutions. Be it listening to established institutions when arriving in an area (p.35), building a powerful movement for change (p.31-32), or publicly joining together in action (p.44), it is clear that in order to stand for justice, you win ‘nothing alone’.

Despite the decline in institutional participation, there are still numerous institutions within cities like Leicester: schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, shops and other businesses. Just within our CofE parish there are four churches, two secondary schools and two primary schools, a vibrant pub and a number of other local businesses. Members of the local Methodist church, in partnership with others in the community, have established a befriending group a few months ago which attracts dozens every Tuesday and is already becoming a crucial place for people to meet and share life experiences.Social Club

Dan Tomlinson wrote insightfully a few weeks ago about the power of different people coming together for the common good; without institutions encouraging their members to get involved (and vice versa), this is unlikely to happen. Working with others in community organising does not mean that we pretend we and our institutions do not have differences – it means we establish what the common good is and work together in pursuit of these aims.

What is the take-away point of this blog? If you are a concerned citizen, explore what the local institutions are in your area. Can you encourage or get involved in any of them? If you are a Christian citizen (and especially for the sake of this blog, a Salvationist) explore how connected your church is with other local institutions. If it is not, it might be worth simply going into a few to introduce yourself and start to build relationships. If building public relationships was key to early Salvation Army justice seeking (Marching to Justice, p.6), then it should be the same today.

Sam Tomlin is a cadet (trainee officer) in the Salvation Army. He is married to Jenni and together they are coming to the end of their summer placement in Leicester and are about to start the second year of their training at the Salvation Army training college in London. Twitter: @samjtomlin

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7 thoughts on “Reflections from Leicester – institutions are key to strong communities”

  1. I love your analysis, Sam – but I wonder if there’s more to it than just a call to the return to some kind of status quo ante. However much we may decry the politics behind the fragmentation of community life, we are where we are – in a place where many have to work long hours to earn sufficient to exist; and where the previous ‘pillars of the community’ are now as worried about keeping their jobs as the people who report to them. And the ‘social glue’ of the past century – women who worked primarily in the home, grandparents in their 40s, not in their 60s, as well as the local institutions you cite – are simply not there (or they are doing other things). The key to engaging people cannot be to insist they participate: it has to find a compelling moral reason for them to do so. And part of the reason for the disengagement of people in general from public institutions like the Church is that they were so exclusionary, so narrow and so prescriptive – how can we persuade them that we have changed?

    1. Thanks for the comment Helen! I think it’s probably a both/and situation. I’m not suggesting a simple retreat back to mass union and working men’s club membership (especially with its gender specific connotations) – I am just interested in seeing how lack of participation is linked with greater community fragmentation. While I agree part of the answer is definitely making public institutions more appealing, I think we also need to be honest about the systemic factors which have contributed to this, and as Christians we need a voice in both the very local and national aspects. Women’s liberation is obviously a very good thing, but I’ve often thought the societal response should maybe have been to encourage both men & women to work part-time rather than pushing for both working long hours (interesting report suggesting we move to a 21 hour working week along these lines: http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/21-hours). Technology is similar: evidently a very good thing, and not something I’d advocate retreating on, but clearly has had a strong influence on how we spend our time, be it from the first time people started having TVs in their home to smart phones today. I’m just interested as to how much these trends contribute to what I see as a dangerous cult of individualism which detracts from community life.

  2. I love this piece! The community perspective and aspect should never be underestimated in our inter-relations. We are all part of community and where there is a strong social cohesion there is usually a strong sense of belonging and with it a common purpose. The church has always been a place of gathering beyond the actual church community, hatches, matches and despatches bring together believer and non- believer alike. The demise of traditional ‘church’ could well have to do with the demise of general social cohesion and lack of true community self worth. Many people seem to have disengaged from ‘doing’ community, have become very comfortable in their own individual settings and do not even know their next door neighbour any longer. The church institution at large is not exempt from this when it is part of such a lack of engaging. This has certainly cost the Salvation Army dearly in many places, including Leicester, where the church of the street has become the church of retreat and resultant irrelevance to the wider community. A good, positive example in Leicester though is The Bridge – from Homelessness to Hope charitable group using a SA building for the common good in pursuit of social justice regardless of volunteer and client status. Thus there is a truly multi faith and multi cultural volunteer group reflecting the local mosaic of nationalities and faith.

  3. Sam, great post, thanks. Some questions though, does your argument imply that if you aren’t someone tied into an institution then, sadly, community organising isn’t something you’re going to be able to meaningfully access? Do you think organisations like Citizens UK should be trying harder to reach individuals separate from institutions? Or do you think that doing so is probably a thankless task?

    Not asking because I have answers, just interested to hear what you think!

    1. Thanks Dan, that’s a great question – perhaps the topic of another blog at some stage. I must say I haven’t been involved in Citizens for long enough to provide a comprehensive answer. I would say, however, that it seems to be a fairly important aspects of the Citizens structure that institutions pay their fees and members participate through the institutions. I’d maybe suggest that you could participate easily enough in actions if not part of a member institution, but you’d find it more difficult to participate in more long term organising if you weren’t. Certainly speaking from my own experience, I have found it considerably easier during the last year as associated with a member institution (SA training college) compared to the year or two beforehand when I was in north London, trying to get involved but my church was not a paid-up member. Might be one that Naomi, John, Kerry or Nick had some more insights on..

      1. I think ACORN do organising with individuals. I remember reading a quote from either Alinsky or Ed Chambers or some legend about organising with institutions because they outlast people and personalities. It means you can build a longer term alliance for power rather than a flash-in-the-pan movement for a single issue.

  4. I’ve heard many people ask the question about individuals joining and I know in Germany, where institutions are not so strong, they do organise individuals. But I’m aware that does take a lot longer to build sufficient numbers for action. I would also suggest that there is less accountability for individuals to stay involved over a long time frame. When institutions join the group joins and it shouldn’t all be at the whim of one person.

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