On the 19th July this year the Steering Committee of The Cambridge Commons suspended its usual monthly agenda to conduct a critical self-assessment. It was three years almost to the day since a handful of us, disturbed by the substantial incidence of poverty in such a prosperous city, and partly inspired by The Spirit Level, founded the Commons as a local affiliate of The Equality Trust.
Since then, its range of activities – e.g., widely-disseminated research documents, public meetings (including general-election and mayoral hustings), alliances on specific issues with other campaign groups – and its impact (with well over 100 declared supporters and a lot of media coverage) have been considerable. There were exciting new ventures to discuss at the July meeting, but there was also readiness to talk about our shortcomings thus far: e.g., middle-class, educated (and mostly male and at least middle-aged) people broadcasting the ill-effects of inequality but largely failing to communicate with the disadvantaged sectors most adversely affected by that inequality; the narrowness of our volunteer base; slender financial resources; and a less-than-zippy command of digital communications.
Ten weeks later, the development of various new projects — above all, a highly ambitious programme of events with high-profile speakers, to be followed by a published compendium and a national convention to seek implementation of proposals — is turning some of those perceived weaknesses into strengths. Having secured generous sponsorship from the Hauser-Raspe Foundation among others, the programme’s organiser-in-chief, Alastair Breward, has recruited an impressive corps of mainly younger assistants for, e.g., multi-media publicity, stewarding of meetings, and audio-visual recording thereof.
Attending a final planning meeting in Al’s kitchen two weeks before the launch on 12th October, I found a happy mix of new and familiar faces, the latter including those of two of our original female stalwarts, Elena Moses and Claire Preston, brought back on board in key roles. Two more young supporters joined us through a phone link, Annika from Finland (!), Nathan Moriarty with a pre-event responsibility to set up groups on ‘ryver’ (hitherto unknown to old technophobes like me). And the effect of more sophisticated publicity? Bookings were buoyant, those for each of the first two events (Ann Pettifor on the 12th, Danny Dorling on 19th Oct) already in three figures. The rush next year for, among others, Faiza Shaheen and George Monbiot, might be even bigger.
Imagine 2027 might have monopolised the attention and energies of Commons members, but it hasn’t. Our Chair, George Weyman, has gained us a stall at a ‘Volunteer for Cambridge’ Fair on 21st October, another excellent opportunity to recruit supporters. Among the projects to be publicised then is a plan drafted by Janet Toye to hold one-to-one conversations with members of a family support group in one of the less affluent parts of Cambridge, to find out (and then report to influential political figures) what those people think is needed to make the city a fairer place.
Several other schemes have been initiated by our senior but most indefatigably dynamic campaigner, Stuart Weir. In association with another skilled journalist, Terry Macalister, recently Energy Editor at The Guardian, Stuart has developed our links with local groups committed to tackling climate change (undoubtedly an equality issue), and proposes that The Cambridge Commons become the hub for co-ordinating action on this front. Terry has drafted a campaign paper setting out a civic vision, in which, contrary to the corporate-led Greater Cambridge City Deal, the longer-term interests of ordinary residents and their environment would be paramount. These initiatives have been facilitated by another grant, secured from the Wainwright Trust, primarily to campaign for a carbon-neutral Cambridge. This campaign, too, will be initially publicised at the Volunteers’ Fair.
Are we trying to do too much? Some of us were thinking so a few months ago. But thanks to the recent significant boost to our human and financial resources (the latter proficiently managed by our Treasurer, Kimon Roussopoulos), and the remarkable commitment of those mentioned above and others who deserve to be, Imagination breeds Hope.
Secretary, The Cambridge Commons – in a guest post for The Equality Trust