The future of Civil Society

The future of Civil Society


Last night (6th December 2017) Bec and Joe from Social Vision attended York CVS’s AGM and heard a brilliant talk by Julia Unwin, former CEO of Joseph Rowntree Foundation here in York, and current Chair of the independent inquiry into the future of Civil Society.

Her talk really resonated with us, as Social Vision will focus much of 2018 on creating a more socially-conscious City of York – bringing together people already doing amazing things, identifying gaps,  offering solutions, and supporting people with new ideas to do new things. Underpinning all of this is the desire to make our City the perfect place to live; regardless of your circumstances.

What follows are a few things Julia said that really caught Joe’s attention, and some examples of how this relates to York. I apologise in advance for any misquotes – I was scribbling furiously!

Social action is in the very bones of York

During 2017 Social Vision has had the pleasure of meeting some incredible and inspirational individuals. Teams of volunteers running support groups, business people wanting to give something back to the communities that sustain them, young people with drive and ambition and a renewed sense of belonging in the City, and people facing a daily fight against adversity and prejudice.

Social action and civic pride is truly all around us in York. Even when people don’t realise it by that name.

However, a recent Press report showed that right now there are 64 children currently homeless in York – more than in Leeds or Sheffield! More than 25,000 people over the age of 65 live alone in the City. And in some areas, poverty is at an astonishing level. For me, it’s important it’s not just the ‘haves’ supporting the ‘have a little less’. We need to make sure this social action reaches further – to the people who need it most.

Leadership is being dispersed, democracy is changing, previously unheard voices now have influence

As part of the Spark:York team and a supporter of projects such as The Arts Barge, Social Vision feels right at the heart of this movement. Everywhere we go, people are feeling more empowered at a local level.

Projects like Spark and Arts Barge show that the status quo is changing, and we have opportunities to shape the City we want to see in the future – sometimes quite radically. The excellent work of the MyCastleGateway team are showing the local authority how consultation can be done differently and to great effect.

Local areas like Bishopthorpe Road and Micklegate are showing how local social action and collaboration can create a sense of belonging and loyalty, which in turn drives up the local economy and opportunities for young people in those areas.

But still, I find myself asking: how do we facilitate this for people who have very little to start with? What does a sustainable community amenity look like in a less affluent area? How and where do these residents mobilise to create that united voice and give their children opportunity?

Julia said in her speech that social action is formed from grief, anger and the need for change. How can those on the margins feel empowered to start that action, rather than feel hopeless and detached?

Physical locations matter

This is such a pertinent point. As community centres (typically financed by a local authority) reduce in numbers, churches become less visited, pubs attract different audiences, and only three youth clubs (including the excellent Door 84) exist in a City of 200,000 – physical space for diverse communities to meet, share, innovate and learn has almost disappeared in York.

Social Vision has been working on solving this problem, through fighting to save community amenities like the Carlton Tavern, to creating brand new community centres (*teaser alert – more on that in 2018!).

I also loved what Julia said about physical spaces being places where you are challenged by different views and experiences. We surround ourselves by like-minded individuals – it makes us comfortable and safe. However, in 2017 I’ve met a lot of people, from different backgrounds who don’t agree with my viewpoint. “We need houses, just build on the greenbelt”, “Charities are entitled to state funding”, “Contracting is the way forward for the sector, small organisations just won’t survive”, “Living Wage is a load of rubbish – get an education and you’ll get a well-paid job”. Though I rarely agree, I find this refreshing and offering an alternate perspective on life in York.

For each of these arguments I believe there’s a strong counter-argument. But unless aired and challenged, these opinions can and will influence the future of the City. So I agree, space is important. And that space has to create an environment that connects across demographics and opinions.

The future is through networks, not organisations

An interesting statement that I can imagine results in horrified gasps across some parts of the voluntary sector. Nationally, we see huge movements like Momentum and Black Lives Matter that have influential powers of mobilisation (and income generation) led by the next generation. Julia said young people she’s spoken to don’t recognise the term ‘civil society’. But in their very actions, they all understand the principles. I see this myself as a parent, and having colleagues from a different generation to me. Whether it’s caring for an elderly relative, fighting homophobia, or taking part in the latest charitable trends on social media; young people are inherently engaged with the voluntary sector. But they do so via virtual networks and action, rather than through formal volunteering or organisational movements.

Julia likened this change to the relationship between Uber and Black Cabs. Times are changing, and we must evolve with them to ensure our beneficiaries, and future beneficiaries, get the services, support and opportunities they deserve as fellow York residents.


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