Power Up Bristol! Talkin' Power, Perception & Professionalism

Guest blogger Brendan Tate Wistreich from Coexist talks about the first in a series of Power to Change grantee events for community businesses, called Power Up in Bristol. He explains the challenges the sector faces and the varied and creative ways these organisations are looking to change the way we do business, so that places and people benefit.

On the 23rd of July, community business leaders came together at the Power to Change grantee networking event ‘Power Up’, organised by Onion Collective and hosted at Coexist’s Hamilton House, to discuss power, perception and professionalism within community businesses.

The story of Hamilton House as community space was the perfect backdrop to this discussion and a reflection of the dichotomy this sector faces. Coexist, a thriving community business, now pushed to the brink by the forces of free market capitalism. But how can community businesses endure in this struggle? On the one hand they exist to address the inequalities created through neoliberal agendas, whilst also having to accept the need to navigate the market economy to integrate their services within the public and private sectors.

Here’s a little taster of what was discussed and what you can expect from a future event:

New tools for measuring success are necessary…

Following a zingy turmeric shot and introduction from the Power to Change team that set the agenda, we got straight down to business, asking the big questions. The greatest failure of capitalism, it was stated, is its indifference to inequality, and the environmental devastation created by its irreverent and heedless resource use.

How can community business therefore be different? During a ‘speed action learning’ session at tables of practitioners, I heard the challenges of sourcing affordable, organic food for a local cafe; a development trust wishing to allocate housing based on diversity, not just highest priority; and a community venue needing to maximise income whilst sticking to its ethos and social agenda. The paradoxes are rife; however, practitioners don’t give up innovating to bridge these divides.

Community businesses are changing the status quo, and most importantly are set up to achieve social and environmental benefit. For this reason, success must be measured on social, ecological and economic value. Methods of doing this effectively are varied yet inconclusive. However, one tool showcased at the event expected to make a big impact is the Twine Tool. See also OC's blog on social impact.

If we want to be perceived differently, we must first change the way we perceive ourselves…

Whilst organisations take diverse approaches to measuring success internally, there’s a burning desire within these organisations to realise their power externally in the system. For some, this is about achieving scale. For others, it’s a question of being valued for the range of social, cultural and economic capital they create. Comments during the event reflected the worn-out relationship with the state as a result of too many pushbacks and too many cutbacks. Trust towards the profit driven private sector also chimed at an all-time low.

The rules which govern the system were described by guest speaker Chris Chalkley, from the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft, a spider web for some and chains for the rest. ‘Are we the only ones who care?’ I imagined in a giant thought cloud above the room. This is an issue of self-perception it’s argued in a fishbowl conversation, a method of facilitation that involves deep listening and active participation. The culture of employees operating at the threads of capacity and prone to burnout is unsustainable. The passionate individuals who drive these organisations may not solve the world’s problems in a day, but can it be enough? It is clear that a new notion of productivity is needed. One that deviates from the hyper-masculinised world of business. This starts with the validation of the work that people are doing and a fair assessment of what’s realistic.

Shared ownership is the future…

Solutions to these varied societal challenges require new structures that importantly create shared ownership of local assets. Legal vehicles for achieving these aims present at the event included development trusts, cooperatives, community share issues and land trusts. At Power Up I met passionate individuals pioneering alternatives at a time when the world desperately needs them. It wasn’t just the sumptuous array of food prepared by Coexist Community Kitchen; warming up with song and movement; revolutionary tales of direct action; critical discussions; or storytelling through group discussion and film-making that left me feeling invigorated. Events such as this remind us of the need to reimagine this world and the role of community work within it.

Power to Change grantees are not naive of the difficulty of this task, but they are full of determination, and together form a potent force for change. One that assimilates community and business as one and the same.

Brendan Tate Wistreich is Chair of Coexist CIC & Manager of The Network Bristol



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