Season’s greetings from The Social Issue – to mark the jollities, here’s a snapshot of some of the upbeat posts and pictures about people, projects and places featured over the last 12 months. This festive pick is by no means the best of the bunch – the inspiring stories below are included as they’re accompanied by some interestin and images and almost fit with a festive carol, if you allow for a little the poetic and numerical licence…
Very huge thanks to the Social Issue’s small band of regular and guest bloggers, all contributors, supporters, readers and everyone who’s got in touch with story ideas and feedback. See you in January.
On the first day of Christmas, the blogosphere brought to me:
It is a simple act that speaks volumes about the barriers that have been broken; a young Roma boy hands a flower to the play worker he had been so challenging towards just two weeks ago.
The scene took place in August at a groundbreaking playscheme run by social enterprise the Big Life group which encouraged Roma children aged 7-11 to mix with their local Manchester counterparts.
As Europe’s largest ethnic minority, the 12m-strong Roma population might be dispersed across the EU, but it is unified in the discrimination routinely faced by its people. From being moved on from traveller sites to outright repatriation, Roma families live in poverty and are reluctant to contact statuary services fear being moved on or suffer harassment.
Negative perceptions of the Roma community in Manchester along with an increase in the number of Roma people wanting to sell The Big Issue in the North led to the launch of the Big Life group summer play scheme (Big Life owns the Big Issue in the North). Open to all children living in the Longsight area of Manchester, it aimed to break down barriers between the communities and reduce the perceived or actual nuisance behaviour over the summer.
The scheme was publicised through leaflets given out during the social enterprise’s family support sessions and through local children’s centres. Word of mouth also encouraged Roma children to access the project.
The scheme, jointly funded by Manchester city council and The Big Issue in the North Trust, did not charge participants and 60 children registered across the month-long scheme with a total of 30 per session. Take up was even; 52 % Roma registrations and 48% from other communities.
Project leader Daniel Achim recalls that the scheme got off to a shaky start: “At the beginning all children seemed to be rather slow to action the requests of the play workers. The children were testing the boundaries and the workers had to repeat the same information over and over again in order to get a result.”
Yet, as Achim says, by the end of the playscheme there was a major transformation in the behaviour of the children in terms of respect and politeness to staff. “In a safe and welcoming environment where they were not discriminated against children learned to relax around each other, they learned to share play equipment, they learned to wait their turn.”
While entrenched attitudes towards those who are different can be hard to shatter, the Big Life playscheme shows how to break down barriers through play. Any mutual suspicion was soon overcome. Encouraging integration through play and from an early age is starting to reap rewards.
As Achim says, often the tensions tended to be between children from the same backgrounds: “Sometimes it is easy to see differences between communities – when really it is just kids being kids.”
Gravesend doesn’t have too many claims to fame, aside perhaps from being the place where Pocohontas is buried and the former home of Bond girl Gemma Arterton. It never makes the national headlines – unless it’s for recording record high temperatures in a heatwave. And before any Gravesendians out there start to protest, I think I’m allowed to say that as I was brought up in the town.
So imagine my delight when I saw my old home had scored a UK first by launching an application to report anti-social behaviour on a smartphone. The local authority, Gravesham borough council, announced it was joining New York, Boston, LA and San Francisco in making the ‘City Sourced’ application available to residents.
The app, the council said, would allow townspeople to send in instant reports of graffiti, flytipping or housing repairs, and would allow the authority to streamline its response. Its American supporters are even more effusive: the app, they say, represents the future for residents interacting with government. ‘It’s like having a city official in your pocket,’ said one satisfied LA resident.
Gravesham is the first in the country to use City Sourced but it’s not the only UK authority to engage with new technology in this sort of way. Brighton led the way last year with an app showing local bus times, followed by another one which lists council services and local entertainment. Trafford has an app which allows residents to find their nearest library or leisure centre, or to see what’s on at the weekend as well as to report litter or a missed bin collection. Preston even has one offering residents – and visitors – a ‘blue plaque’ trail of notable local sights.
These initiatives are not always popular in these tough economic times. Critics have accused authorities of wasting money developing applications for perhaps a few hundred iPhone or Blackberry users in their patch. I think the critics are missing the point.
Visiting Gravesend to see my mother on the day after Gravesham’s “Download Day”, I couldn’t resist having a go. I’d already downloaded the Gravesham 24 app and it didn’t take too long for me to find some graffiti that could do with being cleaned up. One quick snap on the camera phone, choose your anti-social behaviour category and press send. The GPS on your iPhone or Blackberry automatically shows the location of the problem and your report whizzes through to a terminal at the council offices to be prioritised and dealt with. You can also use the app to check how action on your complaint is progressing. Filing my report felt strangely satisfying. I might not have have had a council official in my pocket, but I could see why Gravesham had called the app empowering.
We hear a lot about how to promote real engagement between citizens and government. We’re going to hear a lot more about it as the coalition attempts to roll out its big society ambitions. But if the big society is to be about more than just getting volunteers to provide services on the cheap, then it has to have real, effective community engagement at its core.
Too often people feel that there is nothing they can do about the problems in their community. Offering them the chance to interact with government, in however small a way, has to be a good thing. There’s little point asking citizens to do more for you, if you don’t in turn give them fresh routes to get you to do your bit.