How to unlock community power by strengthening working-class identities

September 16, 2021  

New Local Network and Events Officer Stephanie Riches explains how the pandemic has changed how she views her own identity and illustrated the importance of taking pride in your area – wherever you are from.  

Before the pandemic hit, I was (and still am) an extremely proud Northerner and Mancunian, having lived and worked in Manchester most of my adult life. 

On paper I was the biggest advocate for Northern life. I was front of the crowd at the Stone Roses reunion gig, I own a Martin Parr photography book, I have seen Tony Walsh live.

If anyone asked where I lived, I would reply ‘Manchester’. I would tell anyone and everyone that it was just simply the best place to live and work in the whole country.

The only problem with all of this, was it wasn’t really the whole truth. The place that I actually live and mostly grew up, is called Tameside, and more specifically a town called Dukinfield.

It’s a place where growing up you would be constantly reminded that your home wasn’t something to be proud of; even within Greater Manchester circles there were assumptions made about you and the borough.

It wasn’t until the pandemic hit and I was spending more time at home, that I realised I had lost my local identity – or probably more accurately purposefully misplaced it.

I had turned myself into a palatable working-class person, from a city everyone had heard of. A person with all the cool, edgy bits but none of the poverty and inequality that made other people a bit uncomfortable.

We live in a society where working-class people are often being told that the place that they live, the jobs that they do and the lives that they lead are not worthy of being proud of. And if you have no pride in where you’re from – why would you be invested in changing it?

If we are serious about motivating people into social action and unlocking community power, we must embrace a working-class identity that’s genuinely rooted in place – however tiny and unknown that place might be.

Here are some ideas how:

1. Allow people to be proud of their place

We must start to create an antidote to the narrative that lots of people hear about themselves and the places that they live.

Councils can achieve this by creating shared narratives with their communities; one that people can identify with, are proud of and feels real to them and their circumstances.

We can see that there is a growing appetite and understanding of why this is important. Recently Middlesbrough’s Chief Executive Tony Parkinson talked about the importance of changing people’s perspective of the town. “I could tell LGC 1000 things about the place that “make it great”,” he said. “But unfortunately, we tend to be known for the things that don’t.”

When we talk about ambitions and hopes for localities this should be done without talking about the current deficits of a place and instead finding good news stories to build on.

Just before the pandemic hit, I spent four weekends in Redcar and Cleveland talking to people about what matters to them the most in their community and what made them feel proud of their area.

Overwhelmingly ‘the sense of community’ was top of the list: everyone looked out for each other and this really mattered to them. This is something which should be celebrated and built on locally to help to build those positive stories and sense of pride.

2. Don’t see social action as a route to becoming less working class

We need to be able to separate the issues of inequality with the issues of identity.

Social action shouldn’t be used as a means to change a person but instead change the circumstances they find themselves in.

People should be able to improve their life outcomes, participate in local action and become more socially mobile whilst remaining working class.

3. Stop making assumptions about what people’s needs are

Making decisions – even minimal ones – at the start of a project with communities, allows assumptions to creep in.

For example, we often assume that the social action people want to get involved in is the thing that is going to solve their biggest need. This might not be the case at all! They might want to get involved in something that makes them feel happy and connected, which also has huge benefits.

For example, South Leeds is in the bottom 20% most deprived areas in the country with some areas in the bottom 1%. Based on those statistics, huge assumptions could be made about what these local people want.

Leeds Citizens, an organisation that helps communities to mobilise around issues that matter most to them, currently have a campaign called South Bank for South Leeds which brilliantly challenges some of those assumptions.

It gives a platform to local people who are inspired by the regeneration of their area, but want it to benefit and reflect their identity. Using song and poetry they are telling their stories and have challenged local leaders to meet their expectations.

We must allow them to bring their ideas and identity to the table during these conversations. We must take the time to listen and understand what they want – and therefore need.

4. Build on informal, everyday community power happening in working-class communities

There is a school of thought that working class people are underrepresented in community power activities. But in my own local community, I see community power in action every single day.

There is an informal bike sharing and swap scheme between families that can’t afford new bikes for their children, wrap-around childcare initiatives for working families who help each other out with childcare around each other’s shifts, mental health support as they know they can knock on their neighbours’ doors any time of the day or night for a chat.

Many working-class communities like mine are well connected and informed, they care and know each other and are the perfect places to grow community power. Councils should tap into this, build on it and help support communities do more of what they are often already doing.

The last 18 months has really opened my eyes to the community action happening right on my doorstep.

Manchester is a pretty great place to be, but so is Tameside. So, if you ask me now ‘Where do you live?’ I would proudly answer: ‘Dukinfield’.

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