Community is one of those quicksilver words. It can mask toxic class inequalities that create so much social damage and havoc. Yet, the language of community also enables a way to develop connection, alignment and association. Does it gloss divisions of wealth and poverty, hatred and resentment or galvanize people to struggle against them? This is one of the central question in Shaw and Mayo’s wonderful new collection Class, Inequality and Community Development. It is a book that really helped me to reflect on what community work has been but also it made me think of the challenges ahead. It took me back to the 1980s when I worked as a youth worker in a community development project in Lewisham, often being derided by local people as a member of the ‘red spectacles and wooly hat brigade’. How do people working in the community avoid working on them? These are the struggles from South Africa to India to London that I think are at the heart of this book. What are the personal costs for those people interpolated by the idea of community but also what cost for the community workers? I want to make some points about what I think is so valuable in this collection and then I want to raise a few points for discussion that I think emerge from it. First, the applause. The account of social class in this book benefits from a truly worldly understanding and international critical imagination. Class analysis in the UK particularly suffers from a terrible parochialism of thought. The understanding of class experience is limited by the straightjacket of whiteness. George Orwell once said British society was like a family with the wrong relatives in charge. I think the whole idea of society as a family is a limited metaphor for social life because it so easily plays into the connection between soil and blood. The poor whites are the weak, hard-done-by relatives that we feel sorry for, and give special attention like an ailing ward. In the post-Brexit environment of political right-wing populism this has become particularly acute and problematic. The internationalist perspective offered in this book is particularly valuable as it is attentive to the different dimensions of social division, gender, race ethnicity, etc. Its chapters bring the experience of workers in mines in Bolivia into the same conceptual frame as the rubbish pickers in India and E15 mothers in London. Shaw and Mayo offer a much needed de-provincialized understanding of class and community development. The chapters in this collection also develop a renewed emphasis on political action, whether it is community unionism or youth work. Here there is a careful evaluation of the strengths and pitfalls of the old masculinist styles of the community charismatic leader in the mould of the defiant, determined and bloody-minded activist. This is set alongside emerging modes of community leadership led by female heads of households; this all seems incredibly timely and important. Second, I want to just briefly raise three areas within the book for critical discussion. The collection has a strong emphasis on the intersectionality between different lines of division in addition to class, but sometimes this becomes something of a formula gender, race and class. I wondered what are the exact interrelationships between these forms of division, and whether they are analytically commensurable with each other or are they mutually implicated in the way Stuart Hall once suggested? While the aim to broaden the analytical focus seems absolutely right I was not sure how this operates at the level of social levers, containers and dividers. How do forms of alliance-building operating around shared elements brought together under the banner of community combine with social differences along lines of class, gender and race? One of the things I yearned for within the collection was more of a sense of the voices and the portraits of the people being engaged with in the book. We do not meet them or hear the resident’s voice and I wondered about this. Where are the people in the account I felt myself asking? Equally, what happens when members of the community claim privileged access to community resources like housing or space at the expense of others? This becomes a key problem in a time when the politics of hate and resentment has been re-animated by white populist movements who claim to be the rightful heirs of society’s resources. What challenges do Brexit and the Trump presidency in the US pose for the quicksilver politics of class and community? It seems there is an urgent need for community development workers not simply to concede to populist claims but open up a critical space within communities affected by economic decline for what C Wright Mills called a politics of truth. Finally, the book does not really focus on the importance of places for community development. It seems that particularly in the United Kingdom that public places to do this kind of work – from the community centre to the youth club – are disappearing. Is it that these places of face-to-face encounter are no longer important? How is this being affected by the lives we lead online and the digitized nature of our social networks? These are all open questions but the book’s great achievement is that it pushes us as readers to pose them and think harder. Class, Inequality and Community Development is quite simply a wonderful book about the challenge of rethinking what community development can become in the twenty-first Century. Written in an accessible and lively way it offers a space for critical ideas to meet the challenges faced by practitioners. It deserves to be read widely because it helps us to think differently about the key political challenge of our time. © Oxford University Press and Community Development Journal. 2017 All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: email@example.com
Community Development Journal – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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