communicating from the edge
So I'm at the doctor's surgery waiting room and in walks Reza, one of the mums from school. I wouldn't yet describe her as a friend - I just say hello to her every day. We chat and I find out she's from Ethiopia, that she's going to the local college to improve her English and that she wants to become a classroom assistant.
Then we tell each other how much we like our school and why we're at the doctors. It doesn't occur to me to talk to her about transition. The vocabulary for a basic conversation is enough of a challenge right now. If I were publicising an upcoming event then I might have mentioned that I'm part of a community group called Transition Finsbury Park and that we're trying to make our area better, but it's a rare conversation that leads (without awkwardness or blank looks of incomprehension) to me bringing up peak oil, climate change and economic instability.
This is N4. We spill across three of London's most deprived boroughs: Hackney, Haringey and Islington, all 46,000 of us. We are from at least 16 different ethnic groups and roughly half of us would say we're not white British. Top minority languages are Turkish, Somali, Twi (spoken in Ghana), Bengali, Yiddish, French, Gujarati, Punjabi and Tigrigna (spoken in Eritrea). But this information is from the 2001 census and I would guess there's more of a shift towards Polish, Kurdish, Arabic and Chinese. Some of us are poor. We have some really high ranking super output areas for deprivation (if you're into that statistical stuff). But it's a great area with a vibrant feel to it. I love the chaos, the mish mash of it all. It's a place full of edges and potential.
You should be getting the sense that there aren't so many traditional environmentalisty types in our neck of the woods. I wonder if that fact coupled with the high level of population mobility has made it extra hard for us to get the support from enough committed, energetic, available and knowledgeable people to have a massive impact on the area. Though I can tell you, we've tried. So what's been our strategy?
This is a picture of the sign at our first, and littlest, gardening project – we planted a mulberry tree and resilient herbs in a neglected raised bed and fixed the bench next to it. 'Fixed' is an understatement. Our starting point was two concrete posts with the holes where the wood had once been. Now we have a flourishing mulberry tree and well-used bench to enjoy.
We've tended towards the physical manifestations of transition because they instantly communicate what we're about. They are tomorrow's world, right now. They embody our transition values of equality, locality and abundance. There's a sense of just getting on with it rather than having lots of meetings – though there is a monthly core group meeting. We're proud of our regular knitting, food foraging, singing, meditation and gardening sessions. Of course it would also be great if people would have meetings and projects about local energy, the local economy, or liaising with our three local authorities, but that just hasn't happened yet.
Food growing has been the easiest area for us to develop. The usefulness of growing local food is widely appreciated, from the local elderly population who did it during the war, through students who think it's pretty cool to grow your own, right across to first generation immigrants from rural settings. We decided to go for food growing in public places and we have eight growing sites, including the plant nursery mentioned here.
Although we've never particularly tried to get people into the plant nursery, we've always had a decent number of people turning up. Some of them are parents from the school (actually, one of our regulars is the lollipop lady), some wander in from the park and others have tracked us down because they're interested in our unconventional gardening approach. Could it be our shared lunches, which are beyond compare? I don't know. But I feel it's the kind of project that will develop healthily.
Although we have a communications team who works hard at writing press releases, the newsletter (that gets emailed to around 700 people), posting things on Project Dirt etc. attendance at our events can be poor. It makes me wonder if using email is worth the effort. The people who do come to our events are usually there through some kind of personal contact or friendship. In other words, it's mostly word of mouth. However, when we went all out to publicise our annual Well Oiled festival using email, Facebook, Twitter, specific interest email lists, flyering at the tube stations, putting up banners in the park, and inviting lots of local groups (who would have then told their members) it definitely paid off. In general, we like to organise fewer, bigger events.
But somehow I am missing the point here and we're running out of time. I wanted to talk about community building. I wanted to say that communication, meaningful communication that is, is something to do with getting to know people, having good quality conversations. It takes a long time to get there. We're no good at converting or convincing people into believing they “need” us. I think it's our job to try and create comfortable social spaces so that as more shit trickles through the fan we have some chance of building the society we want. These can be physical social spaces such as community hubs like the school or plant nursery, or it can be more abstract, such as the sense that people know each other.
And now we're back at the local school, the next day. I'm just getting ready for gardening club, the afterschool club I run. Reza turns up with her daughter and baby – she's never been before. Along with the others, they get excited by the digging of holes, recoil at the worms from the compost heap and feel a sense of satisfaction at watering in the edible perennial plants we've planted. The future is uncertain. Who knows what problems we will face, Reza, the good people of Finsbury Park and I? I hope we're connected enough to face them effectively, with courage, kindness and unity.