Making change happen: Bristol’s challenge

Profile-Pic-254x300‘A tale of two cities’ – Helen Holland, Leader of the Labour Group, Bristol City Council

Bristol is presented to the world as a city at the cutting edge – as European Green Capital 2015, as a City of Sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers, as ‘the best place to live in Britain’. The city has a strong history of rebellion and activism with a tradition of doing things differently. It is home of some of the large sustainability NGOs as well as innovative, alternative, pre-figurative initiatives like the Bristol Pound (a local currency) and the Bristol Cable (a cooperative newspaper). There is ‘something about Bristol – a creativity, a willingness to experiment, a desire to be different’ (Chris Sunderland, Real Economy Cooperative) that drives change.

But there are ‘big differences across different areas of the city – not everyone is experiencing [these] benefits’ (Tamsin Evans, United Communities Housing Association).

Whilst Bristol is the third wealthiest city in the country, there are pockets of high deprivation. It is a ‘divided city’ (Paul Hassan, VOSCUR) in terms of poverty and opportunity, with wide inequalities along class, race and geographical lines. In parts of the city, where traditional industries have collapsed, unemployment and worklessness high, and the incidence of hate crime higher than average the ‘story of Bristol doesn’t ring true’ (Helen Holland, Leader of the Labour Group, Bristol City Council).

The rhetoric doesn’t match the lived reality for many in the city – whilst as a city awards may be won, titles may be given and stories may be told, there is a lived experience of another city, which seems in many ways like a world away from this ‘Green Capital’ which has made headlines across the globe.

‘The rhetoric doesn’t match the lived reality for many in the city’

The background inequalities in the city, the capture by the centre of the narrative of Bristol, the priorities of elites within the city and within its social movements all play into our understanding of what change is taking place, what change is possible, and what ‘socially constructed silences’ are at work (George Monbiot). Whilst there are many exciting change initiatives taking place in the city working for social justice and sustainability, which have the potential to unlock the local economy and release innovation these inequalities in power, influence, and resources deeply affect who has access to shape the future of Bristol.

Back in January I started mapping campaigns and projects that are questioning the current system, subverting it in some way, pioneering new projects that, if nurtured, could be the groundwork of a new economy, a new system. We spoke to 21 change-makers from across the city, surveyed over 100 more, and found out some of the common factors that enable change in the city and some of the barriers. The findings are outlined in this report, published today by New Start.

Three overriding common factors enable these change initiatives to succeed across all these areas:

  • the people who dedicate their time and skills to these activities,
  • prefigurative action demonstrating alternatives in practice;
  • the endorsement of those with power and resources in support of these activities.

On the other hand, three overriding common factors challenging the success of these initiatives:

  • a lack of resources (both time and money);
  • the nature, culture and process of organising for change;
  • the barriers posed by those with power and the systems that support them.

There was a strong shared sense across those interviewed about what might move things forward, what might make change happen here in Bristol.

  • Devolution: use this political and economic opportunity to reshape the debate, the allocation or resources and the decision making power that governs our lives;
  • Create better collaborative structures that break us out of our siloes and encourage us to build and strengthen change-projects with those who share common cause;
  • Break socially constructed silences about divisions in the city and their causes to radically alter the scope and nature of change here in Bristol.

As one person said we need to get smarter – how do we exercise our power? There are loads of us’. And another We need to work collectively across issues – everyone is becoming insular because of the lack of funding and insecurity… we need to move beyond this.


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