Community Social Action Can Build A Great Movement For The Better

Community Social Action Can Build A Great Movement For The Better

Last week, I completed six years as a trustee and board member of navca - the National Association for Voluntary Community Action.

During this time I have had the privilege to meet some fantastic people, and to see and learn about some incredible examples of social action. I have come to understand the power of a movement for social change that is the English community and voluntary sector. Across history much social change (and much economic change) has been achieved as a result of social action.

At its best, the energy, innovation, resilience and determination of this movement is unmatchable. It is in fact quite awesome and humbling!

Of course, it is not always at its best, and parts of it will have their better periods as well as their less impressive ones. This is because social movement is about people - 'people acting for and on behalf of other people'. And it is a movement that is subject to significant external influences, some of which are outside of its control.

I have come to understand that this is a fluid movement; one that must continuously evolve and reshape itself, whilst holding true to its values, principles and mission.

Likewise if the movement and players within it seek to put institutions and/or personal egos before mission, it will fail its beneficiaries.

Navca, its members and their members are not alone in the shared pursuit of progressive goals. There has to be greater collaboration with sister organisation. Networks for social change and progress have to be nurtured.

Social action can be a force for progress, for social justice and fairness, for equality and for strong democratic communities. And today, a strong movement of social action is needed more than ever as austerity, Brexit and neo-liberalism take an even more harsh control of public policy, the shaping of social and economic outcomes and influencing of social behaviour.

As the role of the state is both challenged and being eroded, and when business should be looking to be more socially responsible, the role of the movement has never been more significant.

This role is not just about mitigating the impact of unwelcome policies and unacceptable behaviours, but to campaign for systematic change. Inevitably then, this has to be a movement of agitation, advocacy, campaigning, practical interventions and service delivery. It has to offer voice and facilitate communities to express their own voices and enable them to take control.

So, this is about being pro-active as well as re-active, and acting at the neighbourhood sub-regional, national and even global levels. And it must and should enthuse optimism, even in this period of bleakness and unfairness.

Above all the movement has to practice what its values at all times and be focused on outcomes that enhance well-being and rights.

I heard this loud and clearly from delegates at the navca annual conference, which was held in Birmingham last Thursday. The event was hosted by Birmingham Voluntary Service Council (BVCS), which itself exemplifies the importance of an effective local infrastructure body to facilitate social action across a city or any other place.

Delegates argued that the movement should argue, campaign and organise for a new social, political and economic settlement for the twenty first century; one that is based on fairness, equality, empowerment and social justice; one that is underpinned by a strong state prepared to redistribute, regulate and fund public services; one that promotes and encourages responsible businesses, effective social, voluntary and community networks and active citizens; and drives collaboration between all of these.

It would have been too easy for delegates at the navca conference to have been pre-occupied with their undoubted financial and other challenges. Encouragingly, they weren't!

The conference was principally attended by leaders of local voluntary and community sector infrastructure organisations from across the country. Their organisations sit amidst a network of hundreds of thousands of community groups and other organisations - the fullness of the movement demonstrating an incredible national mass and reach.

These local infrastructure bodies add value by supporting local VCS groups and organisations, offering them a voice and access to local government and other public and business sector bodies. They are of their members and accountable to them. They are independent, and prepared to act as necessary and speak out with an unfettered voice. This is their innate strength.

In turn local infrastructure benefits from national infrastructure bodies offering advice, curating and analysing intelligence, sharing ideas and practice, and influencing government and other national bodies. This is the role that navca has fulfilled for many years and plans to continue to do so for many more - but in a very different way than before.

Like its local counterparts, navca has to change or it will cease to relevant. This has been recognised by the Board, senior staff and its members as articulated at the conference. They also rightly recognise that the movement is more than any organisation or individual.

Of course, whatever changes are introduced, no single organisation can or should do everything itself - and navca, for example, simply does not have the resources (especially finance), capacity, skills or expertise to solve all of the contemporary challenges or undertake every required action. Collaboration and mutualism will have to be at the heart of the movement, with peer advice, support and solidarity increasingly critical to success - in other words, a true movement based on solidarity, with members galvanised to act together. This is how navca and the movement are evolving.

And at times, this may feel and need to be more revolutionary than evolutionary because fast and significant change is necessary!

Some change has been implemented but much remains to be done if the ambition and mission of the movement is to be realised; and indeed if the movement is to survive and flourish.

Therefore, as my term of office ends, I am delighted that the navca board has asked me to continue to work with navca in an honorary advisory role. I do not plan to step aside from navca nor the movement.

Before You Go