Danielle Cohen, Transition Town Stoke Newington
One evening in November 2009 a Transition Town Stoke Newington social was in full swing. Meanwhile, just streets away, a young man was murdered. The tragedy reminded me once again that we were struggling to broaden Transition’s relevance and appeal. TTSN’s relationship with the community and my position within that became an urgent inquiry for me.
Like many inner-city neighbourhoods, Stoke Newington experiences continued waves of migration and gentrification. It is in Hackney, one of the most diverse – and economically deprived – boroughs in London. In the seven years I’ve lived here I’ve often suspected that although it is becoming gentrified (partly, no doubt, by incomers like myself), it remains divided. Expensive clothes shops and organic cafes are juxtaposed with Turkish and Kurdish social clubs and ‘pound shops’. I wanted to explore how Transition, with its emphasis on building community, might tackle this reality.
As my inquiry unfolded through interviews with Transitioners, workshops at the Transition conference and a collaborative research group within TTSN, I became increasingly uncomfortable that for many of us inclusion was about ‘what we [as Transition] want from people, or us trying to co-opt them into our thing’. I was hearing little about how to achieve genuine two-way engagement. There was scant acknowledgement that hierarchical power dynamics might exist between relatively well-educated, mainly white and middle-class Transitioners and the people they were talking about including. Inclusion meant ensuring Transition Initiatives were open, accessible, attractive and welcoming to newcomers and proactively identifying and targeting particular ‘communities’. While all these things are no doubt crucial to inclusion, the implicit aim was to achieve a diversity of people in the movement, often implying converting or assimilating an ‘other’ people or community to ‘our’ Transition way: morally or intellectually superior to ‘theirs’.
Social inequality, and the power dynamics that result from it, can only be tackled if they are first acknowledged. That is why I believe it is vital that as Transitioners we remain open to questioning whether the inclusive Transition we envisage is the right one to pursue. I would argue that some visions of inclusion risk implying and perpetuating hierarchical power relationships, as they can be unwittingly underpinned by assumptions of assimilation and integration. As one of my co-inquirers in the TTSN inclusion group put it, Transition should perhaps not be seeking to include others but should be seeking to be included by them. The challenge, then, for individuals, for TIs and for the movement is to find a way of being open and encouraging diversity without defining the people we seek to include as ‘others’, perpetuating social stratification, denying inequality or claiming superiority.
This article is based on an MSc thesis, ‘Reaching out for resilience’, which can be found at www.inclusivetransition.wordpress.com