The Genie is out of the Lamp
Shaun started this blog series by challenging the ‘no-ball games’ sign, and what a way to get the ball rolling. As we know games aren’t as enjoyable on your own, so we have co-written this blog exploring ways in which residents have grown and nurtured a more profound sense of ownership in their neighbourhood during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first blog in the series explored the visible and invisible signs that displace local assets outside of local control and imply the need to gain permission – but do those signs really matter if no one is watching? During the start of the pandemic, all eyes were off the community. You could say that the genie was out of the lamp. Genies, or jinn, come from a long line of mythological creatures. So, the story goes they formed their own societies, found their own religions, and wrote their own laws. Intelligent, free-willed creatures living close to nature and endowed with magical powers.
And just like a genie who may have been cramped in a lamp for 10,000 years, some neighbourhoods burst out and straight into action whilst others hesitated slightly wondering if permission was required. Perhaps a little anxious too about saying hello to each other. In the end, though, all neighbourhoods just got on with it. They had to. Services had disappeared, leaving a vacuum.
Forced to stay home, neighbours began to see what had previously been unnoticed. Joy and pain in equal measures. The mist lifted. The Himalayas could be seen from parts of India for the first time in 30 years, and the animals came out to play, wandering back into territory in search of food and freedom. Neighbours mobilised. Whilst institutions were working out their crisis plans; neighbours were making it work. In streets everywhere, citizens began to socialise and organise. They were getting to know each other and working out ways to stay socially connected whilst physically apart.
We collected prescriptions, put posters in windows, took down fences, supported neighbours at the end of their lives, played bingo, drank tea, sang, exercised, danced and cried together.
We got to know our neighbours’ names; we looked after neighbours without family; we took on the role of services that couldn’t reach our older community members.
We planted, we grew, we cooked for each other; we shopped for each other, we exchanged, we swapped, we shared. We developed food distribution systems – using lifts in flats to swap with our neighbours. We set up food pantries and community gardens.
We supported and promoted local businesses, we grew more, we created solidarity funds, and we hatched ideas for community businesses – we could take over the pub or create a local supermarket. We took ownership of local spaces and took over local buildings.
We taught our children ourselves, and we helped each other out – printing resources, sharing skills, sharing ideas, making space for play, creating activity packs and helping each other get access to equipment to get online.
And in the taking up of these functions, neighbours began to remember what being a neighbour and living in a community was all about. And began to want more.
“We really enjoyed the freedom of just being able to get on with it. Taking back our streets. Not having to ask to put a poster on a lamp post or if we can use a field. We are a community again.”
Neighbours have been able to roam freely, making friends and playing together. And in that playing, we have seen the deepening of friendships, the renewal of associational life; the hatching of ideas and the taking up of functions. In areas where genies haven’t been captured by the lamp owner, they have been making their own rules and rekindling the functions of flourishing communities.
As institutions return, if they look closely, they will see that the territory has changed.
Those who do look will notice neighbourhoods waiting to talk about what might happen if we keep nurturing and growing the functions of community life? They will hear community members in neighbourhoods say things like, ‘We want to …..’
And they might ask themselves: How can institutions lead by stepping back, taking care not to displace the functions of community?
Those who don’t look and listen closely, on their return to citizen space, may see genies as troublesome and set about trying to force them back into lamps. They can be heard saying things like.
“We turned a blind eye to what was happening in the streets. We were meeting about it though, regionally. We were extremely worried about the risk it posed.”
“We just let you off with the street exercise because of the pandemic. We should have charged you. There’s a license and then a charge per street. We want to see all the relevant documentation too.”
“You are not allowed to put your own posters up on lampposts. We have a team who will come and remove them if you do. And you’ll be fined.”
“Whilst we can see that you and your neighbours think it’s a good idea, it’s not allowed within the tenancy agreement.”
“We notice that you have been collecting money, do you have a licence for this?”
A sure way to do harm to the functions of a community.
All is not lost. There is hope and energy. With deepened relationships power is growing from the inside out. Neighbours are getting on with it. Remembering that we don’t need permission to exercise our functions. (More on this, in the final blog in the series)
It is not always the case that citizen-led action happens in complete isolation from the helping professionals; many useful outsiders are cheering on communities. Useful outsiders work in the gap between their institutions and the neighbourhoods they serve. They understand the language and culture of each world and are very realistic about the limits. They accept the limits of their profession and see treasure in community alternatives beyond and outside their institutions. Thankfully there are a good number of useful outsiders polishing lamps and shining a light on the abundance in community.
The last year has taught us that citizens, with enough space, will connect together to create flourishing communities.
The genie is well and truly out of the lamp.
Other images courtesy of the Netherton community