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Hope through the ‘hellstorm’: stories from #Locality17

The 2017 Locality convention in Manchester provided opportunities to look back over the rich history of community action across the UK and the US, and, in the absence of politicians – who were ‘not allowed’ to leave London in case they are needed to vote – gave extra space to present day activists at the frontline of communities dealing with the impact of cruel and dangerous policies.

Melissa Aase, executive director of University Settlement in New York City, the second settlement house in the world, spoke eloquently about helping her community deal with the ‘Donald disaster’. Through its 131-year history, University Settlement has helped ‘build communities from within’, and ‘remake the structural architecture of inequity’.

The problems her community faces today may be different to those of the past but many of the solutions are the same; building social ties, community organising and civic engagement are at the heart of her work.

The impacts of climate change tested her organisation during Hurricane Sandy, and, despite being unprepared for the disaster, it soon built a strong coalition of partners and is taking steps to ensure it is ready next time.

Disasters, Aase said, are opportunities for organisations to adapt, create new alliances and build human bonds, describing today as an ‘incredible moment to bring communities together in direct opposition to the Donald disaster’.

Unlike other disasters, however, where people ‘know that they’ve been through it’, today’s problems need a different response. Citizens need to question local officials in a more powerful way, ‘dismantle their own internal and cultural practices of white supremacy’, and take proactive steps to bounce back.

The history of her organisation has shown the path forward, through resilience and resistance.

‘Despite the hellstorm raining down I have hope. We are building it every day.’

And the Locality Convention was filled with UK examples of communities also building hope and resilience and creating new paths forward.

The UK’s history of community action was celebrated through the launch of a new book charting the history of community business, from feudal times to the present day. Throughout history people have been harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit to solve the problems in their communities, said author and former chief executive of Locality, Steve Wyler.

His book launch took the audience on a tour through the community businesses of the past, from guilds and friendly societies to social enterprises and development trusts.

Over the two-day convention we heard the many stories of the present, of people and organisations standing on the shoulders of giants, learning from those that went before them and finding new ways to solve today’s deep-seated social problems.

Stretford Public Hall, transferred to the local community and transformed into a civic hub through the energy of two friends. The Rotunda in Liverpool, helping people ‘to be the best versions of themselves’. Hebden Bridge Town Hall, one of the early examples of asset transfer, which has created a 21st century town hall for its community. Salford Lads’ Club, whose deep and enduring social history is on display in its ‘wall of names’, a record of all 22,500 young people that have been members of the club since 1903. The Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust, taking on ownership of land and buildings in order to preserve and re-build local economies.

Each of these organisations is part of the history of social action in the UK, protecting the fabric of communities as they endure repeated stress.

As climate change, austerity and the impact of Brexit test the resilience of places in the coming years, these deep-rooted organisations will be there, on the frontline, adapting, collaborating, protecting and empowering. As Steve Wyler said: ‘We are the generation who are carrying the torch today.’

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