‘Community Led’ – Moving beyond victims and heroes

If you walk where you’ve always walked you might think what you’ve always thought. So today I’ve been walking along streets where I don’t often go. And not to take photographs of them like I usually do on here, but because I needed to think. Because we all need time to go off and think sometimes and because I seem to do my best thinking by walking around. Then, after a while of  this walking, to sit down with a pen and a notebook and see what’s turned up. Here goes then.

Thoughts from a park bench.
Thoughts from a park bench.


A Sunday morning conversation

Already this morning there’s been a very rich conversation on Twitter. It starts with people, and thank you all, reflecting on our good fortune in Granby this week. Some wishing they could ‘have’ whatever it is we might have. Our architects, our supporters, even named members of our community! This gradually moves into a Leeds, Liverpool, Hull, Manchester and architects and mostly northern and Homebaked and Welsh Streets and Four Streets conversation about ‘community led’ and the stories that get told. Eventually and mostly circling around these two ‘big’ questions on this particular Sunday morning:

  • How does ‘community led’ change actually happen?
  • And how can we move our stories of place and change on from old archetypes about victims and heroes?

Which is what I ended up thinking about as I walked round Liverpool this afternoon.

‘Community led’ – what’s that all about?

Well I’ve written about this on here before, from days in which I can now see I was only beginning a learning that may yet take me all of my life. But a clue to what it’s all about is in the phrase itself, ‘community led.’ I can’t do it, architects can’t do it, ‘change agents’ can’t do it, even ’empowerers’ (whatever they are?) can’t do it. At best and if you’re lucky you might get invited in to something, somewhere, that already exists or is just getting going. As artists and architecture collective Assemble were at Granby 4 Streets, me too. I’ve been around there longer than Assemble, but we were both invited in by the people of the place. Invited to join in with them because they thought we might have things to contribute to what they were trying to achieve in their place.

Once invited in, should it happen to you, your principal job is to calm down, supress your natural instinct to be standing at the front of every room (yes that’s me) and then listen and learn more carefully than you might have ever listened and learned in your life. It’s literally ‘not your place’ to start brandishing ‘templates’ for how ‘this kind of thing’ is done. Sure, you’ve no doubt been invited for your technical skills and perhaps because the people of another place have recommended you. But you’re not an expert on this place, you’re there to learn from the experts and, over time, contribute your own thoughts and suggestions on what they might like to consider.

Then given this time and with much patience and listening and growing mutual trust, and over much more time and with a good deal of hard work and set backs and recovery and some outright luck, you might find yourself a valued and valuable part of something that just might be described as ‘community led.’ Though, of course, if you’re leading it all by this time – from the Chair, on the form, standing up, at the front, it made sense, they asked me – then you’ve all failed completely.

And this ‘Victims and Heroes.’ Explain?

So you all set off on this ‘community led’ thing that on some days feels like an adventure and on many more a struggle. There will be tears. Tears of rage, tears of frustration and, yes thank you, tears and arms around each other days of joy. As you all argue, plan and make some kind of progress, or not, to where on the whole you all think you need to get to next. Then once in a very blue moon something unexpectedly good might happen that none of you planned or expected or applied for. You might get judged to be ‘the best’ of something, or one of you might get singled out in some way – or you might be part of something that gets nominated for the Turner Prize, let’s just say.

And at these kind of times you might find yourselves being written about like some sort of folk story. You know the one.

“Determined residents of tinned up urban hell led into a new land flowing with milk, honey and media coverage by (insert heroic name here).”

It’s a familiar narrative, easy for people to ‘get.’ And yet even as you settle back to read it or watch it or listen to it, you will know perfectly well that most of the story isn’t true. That there is no individual hero and that if you’re getting anywhere then it’s probably because (like in Granby) you’ve got a lot of friends by now and oh, like I said in 140 characters in that Twitter conversation this morning:

“Press struggling to get beyond a victims and heroes storyline. We are both and neither. Real and complicated!”

It’s complicated!

In every place the people who are in it and all of your differing views of your situation will mean that nothing can be replicated simply or easily from what might be working somewhere else. Not even what I’m writing here will mean you can go waving this into your place in the morning and ‘do a Granby.’ Not even in Granby. It’s only me out of all of us writing this after all, and it’s complicated.

There is no one method. And even when you all make one up and decide what you want to do and how you want to do it to get to where most of you want to go in your place, it will change by the day depending on how you are all feeling:

  • Some days those of you who are ‘good at the detail’ won’t be able to be bothered with ‘all that crap’
  • And those of you who are ‘always able to see the best in everyone’ will sometimes think just the opposite of that and will find you’ve just let everyone know in no uncertain terms.
  • Other days life will happen and the thing you’ve planned, dreamed of and applied for competently and confidently will be knocked back for no good reason you’re going to be able to see that day.
  • Or more than a few of us will have forgotten to put on our superhero suits on the same day and so stand revealed as the fragile, maybe tired and sometimes even lonely human beings we in fact are.

Because that’s all we are and that’s what we are and that’s the whole of what we are. And what’s wrong with that? It’s complicated and we are all of us only learning. But now and then and gradually over time, and all of us together in all of this, we might get somewhere. We might see some improvement.

Which brings me to my gnomic ending, for now. Not an overall conclusion, more of a note in music from another learner.

Apparently, at the age of 90 Pablo Casals is asked why he is still having cello lessons?

“Because I am seeing some improvement.”

Thank you all for the conversation this morning and long may it continue, we have so much to learn from each other and from our lives and places. In the morning who knows what will happen? But for now and in Granby this past week has been so great. We are seeing some improvement.

Told you I wasn't going to distract you with photographs.
Told you I wasn’t going to distract you with photographs.


Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place: http://asenseofplace.com.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thought provoking article this Ronnie. The best you have ever written in my humble opinion.
    Having reflected a bit two things stand out for me….
    1, The old saying “Life is about the journey and not the destination.”
    2, The journey is much richer when people travel together, sharing and growing through the experience.

  2. Oddly enough I’m just reading James Atlee’s ‘Isolarion’ where – in part – he talks about his involvement with plans to revamp East Oxford’s Cowley Road.
    Bears out all that you say…

  3. Well done to everyone. A very interesting situation with the Turner Prize. Look forward to seeing it all unfold.
    From a personal point of view, a very big thank you for these timely thoughts. They ring true with a very loud clang as I ponder my own journey – not seeing much improvement at the moment but perhaps I’m too impatient!

  4. For me Ronnie…you walk slightly above the path you walk…your sense of the need to be happy has always struck me as special and the way to be. You are someone I am so pleased played a role in my life…short but significant!

    1. Thank you Val. I get your sentiment and yes, happiness is it. Enjoying the passage of time with the people you love and in the places you love is all I, for one, need.

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