This is the first of two posts by Peter Matthews who has been one of the key partners in the various social history/digital access initiatives that are currently being pioneered in Wester Hailes
As part of the activity around this blog an audio clip of Jean reminiscing about the community activism around Clovenstone Primary School was recently uploaded. This complements the activities done by the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland discussed here before. The sound clip came from me, Dr Peter Matthews, Heriot Watt University, as I am one of the partners in the project developing the “Off The Wall” QR codes and the digital totem pole.
My involvement in the project is in two areas. One of them is to evaluate and better understand all the stories being shared on this blog and on the Facebook page. I will talk about this in my next blog post. My other role is that I am fascinated by all of these stories of Wester Hailes and want to share some of them here.
I did the research for my PhD in Wester Hailes and Ferguslie Park, Paisley to better understand the big changes the neighbourhoods went through in the 1990s. In 2007-8 I sat in on most of the meetings of the old Rep Council and talked to many community activists past and present. For me as an academic, it was a fantastic experience and very interesting to hear what had happened. These stories I recorded helped us as academics better understand what it feels like to live through experiences where your neighbourhood is substantially rebuilt.
I want to focus on the stories in this blog. Many people, and academics are particularly bad at this, discount peoples’s stories because, well they’re just stories. People forget things, or embellish details or don’t tell the truth. They are seen as not objective. For me, this is exactly why stories are so interesting. We all tell stories and it is how we make sense of what we experience and tell other people what has happened.
To give you more of an idea of this I want to look at a story told by Sheila when I spoke to her in 2007:
“Each area used to have it’s own, like Clovenstone’s got a community centre there, each area used to have its own wee hub and what have you where the community run them and there was community involvement. There was plenty youth activities and stuff like that most of that has now dwindled well all the hubs have dwindled away. There’s no a lot for the young people left in Wester Hailes whereas there used to be loads. I was also involved in a youth project as well which I gave fifteen years. I brought it from inception right through to mainstream funding but through the mainstream funding the open access work has disappeared and it’s now like teacher involvement social worker involvement and it’s more intense and more clinical – that’s a good word for it. It’s orientated against kids that have stability problems rather than the everyday young person who was actually supposed to be there to be a peer to those young folk with problems. I’ve seen a lot of them grow up a lot of them have changed from being those youngsters that were nightmares to actually quite nice young men and young females I meet them on the street.”
This is a really nice story of community activity and one that was often repeated by the people who I spoke to in Wester Hailes and Ferguslie Park. It actually contains quite a few stories that are really important to understanding what has happened in the neighbourhood. Firstly there is a very positive story that starts about halfway through and ends with the last sentence – that Sheila helped get a youth group going and that the support that it provided meant that many of “these young folk with problems” are now “actually quite nice young men and young females”. Among all the bad headlines about Wester Hailes you don’t get to hear stories like this very often.
The second story is right there in the first sentence and quite depressed. “Each area used to have its own…community centre”. In both Wester Hailes and Ferguslie Park in the years after 1999 there was a massive reduction in the sort of funding that kept community centres running. The lack of facilities for affordable fun activities for the community is still felt today. The third story is more complex and it was actually one of the main findings of my research. I called it the “narrative of project rise and fall”. It was told to me over and over again when I was doing my research and Sheila’s example is typical. Community activists start up a project and it’s an amazing success. They need a bit of money to keep it going and bring in a worker to take over some of the day-to-day tasks. It’s often at this stage that projects end because funding ceases and the worker leaves and the project ends. In this case the other fate befell the project – it was taken over as a mainstream service by the Social Work department and changed from its original purpose. It now just helped the most vulnerable young people. Very good work, but not what the original community-based project aimed to do.
There is so much in this story that it is almost too difficult to unpack! As an academic who is interested in policies to support neighbourhoods like Wester Hailes I think a lot more money should be available for projects such as this and it should be a predictable amount every year that community groups can spend on what they want. In many ways as researchers involved in helping with this blog and the totem pole we’re also worried that this story will repeat itself again. We have all really enjoyed working in Wester Hailes and think it’s brilliant that we can use money from the Arts and Humanities Research Council Connected Communities programme [http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/Funding-Opportunities/Research-funding/Connected-Communities/Pages/Connected-Communities.aspx] to help. A big question though is: what next? I will cover this a bit more in my next post where I will talk more about the Facebook page.