By David Allan – Deputy Director, Scottish Community Development Centre & Community Health Exchange
Our visit to Krakow as part of the SUI programme provided an opportunity to become reacquainted with familiar faces (great to see you again Ewa and the BIS folk (Foundation Bureau of Social Initiative, Biuro Inicjatyw Społecznych – BIS)), meet new folk (the Nowa Huta activists), learn some new stuff, compare this with old stuff, but most importantly reflect and learn from our collective experiences with colleagues from England, Netherlands, Denmark and Poland.
For me this collective reflection and learning is the key element of Smart Urban Intermediaries. Take a bunch of community workers (or SUIs or whatever we’re calling them today 😉) and drop them into any situation or place and they will (almost) automatically begin to develop shared thinking about common issues, learning and actions. Add in to the mix the very skilled facilitation of the project team and you generate a rich mixture of stories, narrative, and analysis which hopefully can be turned into key learning and policy messages – no mean challenge for the project team!
Personal highlights for me from Krakow included the open-air session outside the cultural centre in Nowa Huta when I realised we were talking about community action planning (something very close to my heart at the moment) and what the similarities and some key differences are between the situation in Krakow and what we’re experiencing in Scotland.
The whole experience of Nowa Huta was interesting – an area that had been constructed for one specific purpose (to house the families of steelworkers) along very brutalist Soviet-style lines – but you sense a real sense of close community, similar to what you experience in the old coal, iron, steel communities in Central Scotland. The passion of the activists is also very apparent, a real sense of place, and how that shapes the people who have grown up there. This interaction between people and place is another recurring theme in my work and in the work of many others that are active in Scotland at the current time.
So, what have I learned, and how has the SUI project facilitated this?
I think I’ve learned that Polish people are (nearly) as good at complaining as Scottish people! It’s clear that even in an asset-based world the driver for change is nearly always common cause or shared concerns. How you work on these identified needs – by using and growing local assets and by tackling the infrastructure, systems and policies – continues to be the key challenge that faces those people who work in and with communities.
It was reassuring that the BIS project and the local activists in Nowa Huta clearly saw the connection between local action and wider political and structural change, something which I feel we’ve lost to a certain extent in Scotland. The reasons for this are complex but for me it does come down to the common cause and struggle faced by the countries of Eastern Europe while the countries of Western Europe haven’t had to fight to the same extent (recently!) to assert their basic human rights. This is not to say that fundamental societal issues still exist, but they tend to be more hidden and are more subject to denial in the right-wing press and neo-liberal establishment.
There were similar views expressed by our English, Danish and Dutch colleagues and similar questions about how best to tackle this situation. There are varying models and approaches and sometimes these can get in the way of each other – but a truly collaborative approach which helps people to reflect on the key issues and work in a mutually supportive fashion was identified as being a major priority by the project participants.
More opportunities for networking and for policy influence will always help and I’m looking forward to the policy briefings at the end of the SUI project – it gives it a real sense of purpose rather than just being a dry academic exercise.