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Place, democracy and the role of objects

The conversation about funding ‘place’ continues unabated. Both directly within the foundation community and through parallel initiatives such as The Civil Society Strategy and The Civil Society Futures enquiry.

It’s a conversation with a number of functions. On the one hand, it allows funders to explore some of the many practical challenges involved, while on the other, it provides a lens through which to examine some of the most fundamental issues facing any organisation concerned with social change.

It is also a conversation that sits within a broader public and cultural discourse about the role of community, the devolution agenda and the ways in which geographies and local economies can help to carve or heal societal wounds.

And with recent studies showing that most people live less than twenty miles from where they were born, and levels of internal migration sitting at multi-decade lows, some long-standing questions have taken on a more urgent quality. Those questions include, but are in no way limited to:

 

How do places shape people, and how do people shape places in return?

In what ways are identities formed and mobilised within a community context?

How do we change our politics from being something that is narrow and procedural to something that is deep and participatory?

How do we identify community need while recognising community assets?

How can we work alongside movements, networks and other forms of horizontalism without inadvertently blunting or distorting outcomes?

How do we capture information that is sharable, aggregated and codified, but which also leaves room for the affective, the felt, the lived and the textural?

 

They are all big questions, with no easy answers. But they do have something in common. At root, they are all concerned with democracy, conceived in its broadest sense - as the desire, means and systems by which someone can influence the conditions of their own existence. Beyond this they are also concerned with how democracy in this agentive sense can best be restored, maintained and helped to flourish.

Funders are, of course, grappling deeply with this issue from a number of perspectives. However, one piece of the puzzle that is potentially under-explored is the profound role that can be played by those willing to fund concrete, tangible objects.

There are many funders who see the value in capital funding and supporting physical infrastructure within a community, but it arguably remains the case that this aspect of foundation activity is underweighted in the discussion of how best to ameliorate civic, agentive and democratic deficits.

Too often, we discuss the type of funding that supports voice and agency and the type of funding that supports bricks and mortar as if they are discrete contributions that a foundation might make to civil society. In reality, the two approaches are deeply codependent. To have a healthy democracy we also need a healthy respect for democratic objects.

Because while we might describe the ‘places’ in which we work as being left behind, or ignored, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. How is it reasonable to describe a community as ignored when they have spent decades being singled out and demonised and when they have policies enacted upon them that have tangible and immediate impacts on a material, psychic and bodily level? To be ignored in such a context is something that many might reasonably regard as a privilege – orthodoxies first get settled in proximity to power and then they get imposed.

Historically, communities, or civil society more broadly, have been places where this process of imposition can be disrupted or challenged. But sadly, that model increasingly lacks explanatory power.

At the same time that these dynamics have been impacting communities, the physical sites where their implications might have been debated, metabolised, refused or transformed have been slipping away.

This matters because while we know that identities are formed relationally and discursively, we also know that they are formed around shared objects, shared ownership and shared spaces. Community centers, pubs, sports fields, playgrounds, churches; these places of voluntary association are where deep, boundary-crossing engagement can happen and where a sense of collective purpose and shared responsibility can begin to emerge.

So in helping to rebuild the democratic objects that have been systematically erased and eroded, funders are moving beyond the simply practical – they are also investing in something utterly necessary to resistance; places where damaging orthodoxies can be dismantled, interrogated and replaced -- with new and better narratives and, ultimately, perhaps with new and better futures.

To think about capital funding in this way gives it a particular valence. It recognizes the role that foundations can play in facilitating the objects around which people and ideas can constellate, and the vital importance of preserving, maintaining and catalysing them, especially during periods of political division and cultural contestation.

It begins to erode the distinction that some might make between those funders whose work takes a ‘nuts and bolts’ approach and those involved in the more abstract work around voice or community cohesion. Both types of funding activity can be concerned with democracy, because regardless of its other necessary conditions, democracy ultimately requires spaces, sites and objects in which to function and flourish.

Commonalities are harder to find without a commons. Foundations have an essential role in revivifying both. To do so requires thought, but it also requires things…

 

Keiran Goddard, Director of External Affairs, ACF

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