Vin Murtagh from grassroots community action group Together for Colwyn Bay talks about campaigning from the ground up with communities to make good things happen.
The challenge and the excitement of our asset-based approach to community development in Colwyn Bay is in nurturing the energies, skills and passions of local people and in facilitating networks and connections to enable good things to happen. Our challenge is to be part of that process, of empowerment, of helping to build projects, solutions and initiatives from the ground up, on the community’s own terms and using the gifts and talents that they have all around them.
In a way this is the very opposite of the traditional model of campaigning which is generally based on identifying a need, a deficit or a problem within an area and seeking to influence those with power and authority to find a solution and ‘make it better’. This model of political representation is almost by definition remote and disempowering and it is no wonder it has little appeal for many people.
So what does campaigning mean for Together for Colwyn Bay (T4CB)?
Over the last year or so, it’s been about seeking out opportunities to listen to the concerns, hopes, ideas and aspirations of local people about their town and their community and to give shape and direction to those thoughts; whether it’s nurturing and celebrating green spaces, promoting the arts or supporting projects that promote our collective well-being.
Obviously the covid pandemic and physical distancing restrictions have been challenging so we’ve employed a variety of non-traditional means to encourage a dialogue, from coffee mornings via zoom to on-line interviews and discussion forums.
I’m going to outline two examples we’ve used as a means of connecting with and encouraging community voices.
Firstly, in recent months we’ve quite literally set out our stall at the Colwyn Bay Artisans’ Market. This has given a visibility and a great opportunity for face-to-face engagement that has been difficult to achieve in lockdown. At each session we have a theme and an A frame board with the legend...“let’s talk about…..’’ and a subject heading like ‘the environment’ or ‘the library’. It’s a cue for people to wander up to the stall, perhaps pick up a freebie (some wildflower seeds or a well-being activity book) and to talk about all manner of community related issues.
We’re gaining some traction through our presence at the market and with pictures and comments shared on social media we’re at the centre of local dialogue about community issues. It’s still early days but I can see Together for Colwyn Bay forging an invaluable role as a networker and community connector and serving as a valuable conduit between the community and locally elected politicians (town and county councillors) who at heart are community activists too.
Secondly, we recently hosted a Senedd election hustings via zoom. The starting point was the Build Communities Trust manifesto for Strong Welsh Communities but we adapted the format to fit our local picture, and the concerns and priorities that have been presented to us. Hopefully we were able to facilitate some lively debate above the usual hubbub of rhetoric and platitudes. This was a first for us, an opportunity for local people to directly question constituency candidates for the Senedd elections and to gain their views and insights into local issues. Questions ranged from the regeneration of town centres and the problem of empty buildings and absentee landlords, to the proposal to relocate Colwyn Bay library. Six of the eight candidates attended, 29 people were on the call and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
It was a modest and small-scale exercise, but valuable nonetheless. The challenge is to build upon this experience. The hustings gave T4CB a profile with local political activists and a couple of the candidates have asked to be more linked in with community activities. We’re hopeful that the successful candidate will know of us and will actively support community development issues, although again, its early days.
So there it is, our foray into campaigning but with the twist that we want to promote self-help and mutual support in our community, to be energising, inclusive and asset driven rather than being over-reliant on the traditional model of representation.
Campaigning as a form of active communication can at its best be a force for collaboration, inventiveness and celebration of our town and its citizens. Therein lies the challenge.