Helen Manchester: Update September 2020

Portrait of Helen Manchester: a smiling lady in her 40's with short grey hair. She wears a black raincoat and is in front of a landscape..City Decision Making

My focus and interest in the fellowship is particularly around the methods, practices and approaches we might adopt in order to enable communities at the margins to contribute to city decision making. I see my role as working alongside the City Office and the other fellows to embed new methods, practices and approaches into their ongoing collaborative governance work in the city. I am particularly interested in bringing creative methods and approaches to this process, and would welcome working alongside partners in the cultural sector to achieve this. I am interested in thinking about how we might all draw on the knowledge and the expertise of communities at the margins to understand better how we might build a more inclusive, sustainable city. For instance, in talking with Natasha Broad (add link to her 2 pager) we have looked at how the LGBTQ+ community have lived through the AIDS/HIV pandemic and will therefore have important experiences and understandings for the current COVID situation. Or in talking with Lucie Martin-Jones (add link) have realized how much we can learn from disabled people about staying strong and sane whilst living isolated lives.

Our work with the City Office was delayed as they were pulled into the Council’s response to the COVID pandemic however we have now established a way of working alongside the City Boards to support them to engage with communities at the margins as they work to refresh the City Plan.

The Civic University

The City Fellows programme is also a chance to think differently about how the University of Bristol can work with the city. We are therefore working closely with university colleagues who are working on newly emerging agendas concerning what the university is for – particularly in relation to the idea of ‘the civic university’. This has involved attending board meetings of the city engagement board to feed in learnings from the city fellows work with the City Office. We have also worked with colleagues in Research Enterprise and Development to design and run a piece of research around our partnerships in the city (Learning from our Partners) to explore  how the University of Bristol might respond to, or collaborate with our partners, around some of their key concerns. This is now becoming a bigger piece around what being a civic university means in Bristol and how this might work in the current resource limited environment. We are going to be analysing this data and then running an event with these partners to work on specific actions that we might be able to take over the next 12 months in order to test out some of our ideas.

City Futures: building a city of care

I am interested in how the City Fellows programme can support the city to reconsider it’s future and see the pandemic as an opportunity for this. Mayor Rees and others have also been working on this agenda, named the ‘Rebuilding Bristol’ initiative #buildbackbetter. Through the City Office we all got invitations to the ‘Rebuilding the City’ seminar and I was invited to speak at that. The provocation for that seminar was this:

‘Bristol, along with cities all over the globe, is facing an unprecedented health, economic and social crisis. This brings both a challenge and an opportunity to rebuild our city. If we do it well, Bristol will be more inclusive, more sustainable and more resilient in the face of future shocks. If we do it without thinking, falling into old assumptions (ie. badly), the opposite is true. How should we rebuild our city?’

As a result of that I posted a blog post entitled ‘Rebuilding Bristol as a city of care’– the main thrust of the blogpost being around how the pandemic has  helped to make visible, to more people, where people and communities are falling through the cracks in our cities and illustrated more widely that a return to business as usual is not an attractive option for those of us interested in social, economic and environmental justice. I believe that if we want to tackle issues of social, economic and environmental justice we need to focus on the role of care in the city. I draw on the feminist scholar Jean Tronto’s definition of care as ‘everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair ‘our’ world so that we can live in it as well as possible.’ (Tronto, 1993, p.103) Feminist approaches to care foreground our interdependencies, and encourage us to take notice of peoples’ lived experiences, their existing knowledges and expertise and the stories they tell about them.

As inequalities and the cracks in our city have become ever more visible to more people we should see this as an opportunity to open up discussion about how we can work as a city to tackle these enduring inequalities, alongside communities themselves. I think we have seen that there is a lot of existing excellent work in the city, organisations that are battling and working on these concerns with little resource and we need to re-value what’s important.

This brings me back to my own interests in the methods and approaches, and principles and values we might adopt in ensuring that Rebuilding Bristol is a collaboration that might not always involve consensus – that it is likely that we will all disagree about what is important and what isn’t but that doing ‘consultations’ in the usual way is not going to be the best way forwards.

Next steps

I will be working with the fellows to understand their methodological approaches and to work with them to develop and trial different methods and approaches to the inclusion of the communities they work with in city decision making processes. This will be achieved through continuing to work with the City Office and the City Boards in order to convene conversations across difference and methods of participation that might disrupt current practices of consultation in the city. This might involve working out ways of making visible stories of inequalities, and to surface ‘matters of concern’ in order to collaboratively work out how we can challenge them.

Working to rebuild a city of care could revolve around place based community approaches, for instance exploring how informal infrastructures of care that have emerged during the pandemic might survive. Questions here arise around how we might collaboratively build infrastructures of care and community resilience in hyper local, place based communities. However, recognition that this would also require support for the community and voluntary sector and systemic change is also vital.

I will also continue to work with colleagues across the University of Bristol on our role as a civic university.