Show us the way to more Camerados?

Cormac: Maff, I believe you’re about to start a really exciting tour of the UK, where you’ll be visiting community-led grassroots initiatives. Can you tell us where this fantastic idea and great civic impulse comes from within you?

Maff: Thanks Cormac, I think the best way to explain the allure of this project is to describe where I found myself yesterday. I turned the corner in a housing estate in Wolverhampton and discovered a magical garden of wonder hiding behind the houses. Initially obscured from view by cars and buildings rose high poplar trees and big bushy hedgerows and winding through them were miles of bunting and coloured light bulbs, twisting around children’s play equipment, wooden slides and swings, a little circus tent, a treehouse and, best of all, a campfire with people circled around it chatting and laughing. I felt like Rupert the Bear and his chums were going to pop out at any moment, it was like something from the annuals of my childhood. Gatis community space was salvaged from council ownership into community hands by locals Maria and Bill and a host of other folk in the neighbourhood who wanted somewhere for their kids to play. I was visiting as part of the “Make:Shift festival of ideas” at the invitation of local activists “Wolverhampton for Everyone”. We sat in this magical oasis with local folk and plotted grassroots action together.

This is what you find when you leave Zoom behind and hit the road. And that’s why I’m doing this for the foreseeable future, embarking on a tour, talking to anyone who will sit down with me to hear about our work, trade ideas and share some stories. Our belief is that these are the people who can bring to life what we in the Camerados movement feel we are going to need now more than ever as we plough through very tough times: a particular and much more human approach than the system will ever muster. These are the people who, as well as just being Camerados in their daily life, could also create physical places in neighbourhoods where you can go on tough days, where nobody is going to get up in your face and you can get a bit of company and a chat without an outcome. We call them public living rooms.

Cormac: You say you’re “leaving Zoom behind” but surely we’ve all learned about the power of digital technology to connect people from far and wide because we all relied on it so heavily during the pandemic? (mind, this question is a bit tongue in cheek)


Maff: Nothing wrong with Zoom, in fact, the revolution of communication that occurred during the pandemic certainly brought new people into our m

ovement with faces zooming in from places as far-flung as New Zealand and Hawaii. We created an online Camerados space with our usual principles of no fixing, no outcomes, no agenda and everyone had to bring a spoon (don’t ask, to be silly is to be human).

But most video calls aren’t like that. They have a very defined purpose, an allotted time, a specific agenda and not much cutlery, spoons or otherwise (!). By contrast face-to-face conversation meanders like those multi-coloured festoons through the trees of the Gatis space illuminating dark places, passing surprising twigs of delight and digging deep into knotty hedgerows of disagreement and contention – that’s a real, proper conversation, an uncertain expedition of ideas. I hope you can tell I’m trying my best to keep up with your fantastically quotable metaphors and fabulous axioms Cormac!

Cormac: You’re a natural, my friend! Something also tells me you’re impatient for action and see that real grassroots action can only come from face-to-face work on-land and not just online, is that right?

Maff: No I don’t think it’s the only way but surely it’s the most energising way, no? The act of travelling to meet people has been hugely motivating already. As you yourself said in your recent  book Rekindling Democracy:

 “A citizen is not someone crouched over kindling waiting for someone else to light the fire”

I’m not waiting for someone to send me a zoom link anymore. I’m going in search of conversation and connection on the open road and have no idea who might show up.  Your book calls it going “from boardroom tables back to kitchen tables…from screen time to street play”.

The name of our movement “Camerados” actually comes from an open road poem – Walt Whitman’s “Song for the Open Road” where the poet expresses his belief that on the journey of life we all need something more important than money or food, we need someone alongside us, he calls them a “Camerado”.

Cormac: And as you said before the road ahead is going to be mighty bumpy for some folks…

Maff: We’re all emerging from the biggest broadside humanity has had for generations and as we step outside all we are finding overhead are black clouds promising a perfect storm of rising costs and fewer resources, hardship and poverty, as well as mistrust and division. And when tough times hit we all think that hiding under the duvet is the answer. Sure it sounds like a good plan and it is, for maybe a day or two. But in the long term, it’s the very worst thing we can do. After 20+ years working with people at the epicentre of personal crises the only things I’ve seen that truly transforms our lives is when we have: friends and purpose. We get both in one hit when we have a community of people looking out for each other. Without this community of people, not judging you, not fixing you, just alongside you I believe many people are going to go over the edge in the coming years.

Cormac: So, like me, you worry that the state won’t properly acknowledge the role of community in getting us through these tough times and will frankly get in the way?

Maff: Oh I most certainly do. One thing that always comes hand in hand with tough times is a lot of “interventions”. A task force perhaps and a funding announcement from central government with some patriarchal cavalry on white charges coming to get in your face and sort you out. Are we surprised that many people reject this? We absolutely must create places that don’t do this otherwise so many people are going to go over the cliff. Our public living rooms are places that set out to achieve nothing and in the process we find the people in them end up achieving almost everything. So I hope people join in and help us build them. I don’t have a map for my open road or much of a plan beyond putting the word out and jumping on a train to meeting any gang of folk who want to do something in their neighbourhood. If that’s you get in touch, I’ll pay my own train fare and bring biscuits.

Cormac: Maff, you’re making my heart sing! You know, 30 years ago John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann set out on a similar odyssey. For four years, they travelled around 20 cities in North America and spent time at the feet of regular folks in hundreds of neighbourhoods. Their simple but recurring question was: “can you share  a story about a time you and neighbours joined together to make things better around here?” We’ve been asking that question ever since. By shining a light on those stories they made visible, valuable and vibrant what modern life often makes invisible, devalued and vacant.

To my mind, your tour offers the same possibilities. There is great power in the act of showing up in a place and humbly listening; resisting the impulses to fix, rescue or be helpful. I think you came into the world readymade for this tour because you are naturally curious and by your very nature every step you take will be a pilgrimage of a sort. Your great gift is that you deeply understand the power of friendship and neighbourliness. Now more than ever we need this, we need people like you in our communities to help us give each other a good listening to.

It is important to say of course, that in many places you visit people there will have already made their private living rooms into spaces of welcome, but what you are inviting is an extension of those shared spaces and a chance to celebrate all the natural and often modest ways people become Camerados in each other’s lives.

So, here’s the invitation: if you’d like Maff to visit you and your near neighbours, you can contact him at @MaffPotts on Twitter.

For me, Maff embodies asset-based community development in the very way he shows up in the world; I can’t think of a better way to shine a loving light on your community-driven efforts than to invite him to a circle of listening, mischief-making and hopeful banter. So what are you waiting for?

You can watch Maff’s announcement of his tour on Twitter here

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