Engaging the Future Changemakers

IMG_6095In April this year, I gave a talk about Talking Birds’ socially engaged mobile project space, The Cart, at the University of Warwick. The Cart is essentially a project about conversation, about making a temporary space for people to get together and have a conversation they would not otherwise have had. As a result of the talk I gave, I subsequently had quite a few conversations I would not otherwise have had! One of these was with Alastair Smith, who convenes the Local Sustainable Development module, which is part of the new B.A.Sc. degree in Global Sustainable Development course at the university and, to cut a long story short, we agreed that I would conduct a walking tour around Coventry for his students, to give them a flavour of the city’s rich social/economic and cultural history.

For me, the drive to do this comes from living on a street full of students and seeing how little they are equipped to engage with this city, because less of the things that make a particular place unique are obvious nowadays. I need to unpack this, as I know it’s a little woolly so here goes…

The way most of us live now is less locally focused and, while global connection brings many benefits, there are also significant downsides. I think one’s sense of place, and consequently of self, is developed by making meaningful connections. Physically, through connecting with the geography, nature and weather of a place, and socially, through connecting with different groups of people – neighbours, work/study fellows, people who partake of the same leisure pursuits as you (in other words, the various communities you are a part of, which are generally geographically or interest based – in my case the arts scene, the school gates etc).

When we can live and work literally anywhere: when the same chain stores, restaurants and takeaways are on every high street and we can get our shopping delivered to our door, maybe we lose the drive to develop a sense of place: insofar as we understand the world, everywhere is basically the same, give or take a few minor variations. In some ways perhaps this doesn’t matter, but I think that actually it does. It *really* does.

I know that I am someone who understands the place where I am by walking it, by looking, by finding out, by listening to its stories – and I’ve observed that, when others perform these actions, they also gain a deeper understanding of the place and of themselves in relation to it. And I think this understanding is a key influencer of behaviour and belonging. When we feel that we belong somewhere (geographically and/or socially), we feel an obligation to take a part in the things that go on there, and to make behavioural choices that support these: on a local level this may mean that we don’t want our street to look a mess and so we make sure we put our bins out on the correct day; or on a global level, we may want to minimise our personal contribution to climate change and cycle instead of using a car.

For students moving to a new city, all these relationships are to be negotiated – and often a particular relationship with the place (I mean the city here, rather than the institution) is not cultivated. I don’t think there is any one reason for this, but I suspect that a perfect storm of factors (social, geographic, economic, emotional) conspire and if there is no stand-out reason to understand the distinctive character of the place, the city, where you study – then the sense of place, the sense of belonging to somewhere wider than the institution, doesn’t develop and there is no real reason why you would want to make that (time, economic, emotional) investment and commit to that place, that city, after graduation. I know that Universities across the UK are waking up to this and examining the civic responsibility of the institution now, but what about the civic responsibility of the arts? And of artists? And of artists who are also residents? What part do we have to play in helping students to develop and understand their connection to the place and where they belong in the wider society?

As many have pointed out before, Coventry – arguably more than anywhere else – doesn’t offer itself up on a plate. You need a little persistence. You need to dig around a bit and find things out. And the city has a graduate retention problem. These two things are probably not unrelated.

It’s this line of thought that led me to offer the walking tour to the students, as something small, but potentially impactful that I could do. A way to impart some of my 25 years worth of interesting gobbets of information – the stuff that got me hooked on this city – to a cohort of young and enthusiastic people coming to study Global Sustainable Development at the University of Warwick. Give them a sense of place and get them hooked on Coventry. My reasoning is that, in choosing that course, they are surely people who want to make a difference, who see themselves as changemakers, who have an interest in social justice – and these are the people Coventry needs to impress and beguile. These are the people we want to remain in the city, to make their lives here.

I wanted to inspire these young people with the stories that inspire me – stories of Coventry’s proud tradition of social justice and innovation, its commitment to youth, its progressive attitude, its innovation, its creativity, its quiet and dogged pursuit of what’s right, its modesty, its possibility…

So I showed them the place the river peeks from beneath the concrete, and the backs of the medieval houses; I told them about the paths of bones across the marsh to support those making the city wall; I told them about Gibson and Tennant’s dash to Cumbria for Westmorland slate and about the phoenix sketched on the back of a envelope; I told them about the city model ultimatum to government; about the City Architects Department being the place all the bright young things wanted to be post-war; about how the ideas inspired by Europe and developed in Coventry spread across the country as people moved on; I told them about pedestrianisation in the city of the car; about a freed slave managing a theatre; about double-doored powder rooms in the ballroom proving handy for losing an unwanted date; about the democracy of classless restaurants in theatres and above swimming pools; about how bankruptcy and commercial pressures can devastate well-designed public spaces and about how important it is to understand why something is as it is before you change it; I told them about a city founded on the belief that everyone deserves beauty, modernity and cleanliness; about a daring and spectacular tightrope walk; about electronic music pioneers; about measures to tackle health and food injustices; about an edible campus, a Marmot city, vegan cafes, arts, culture, mental health, wellbeing; about an Olympic Pool with sunbathing decks and sand-filtered water so clean you can see from one end to the other; about a courtyard of experimental brickwork; a guildhall with a tapestry that inspired a certain Warwickshire playwright; about a tiled mural map with dinosaurs; about twin cities and gifts of timber; about the first civic post-war theatre, and about inventing a way for young people to ask philosophical questions and come to understand the world through acting it for themselves; about a mini stately home on the top of a newspaper building; about criminals buried vertically headfirst; about the hopes for a City of Culture; and I told them lots about the amazing energy and creativity of this city’s people – particularly its independent artists and producers who continually explore this city, and question it, challenging audiences to interrogate, understand and, ultimately perhaps, love it.

I know I opened some eyes and altered some opinions with this walking tour, but only time will tell whether it truly had its desired effect.

  • If you want to get a flavour of the sorts of places I was recommending, try this article.
  • There is also an engagement page for the Local Sustainable Development module, with a bibliography of sources about the city and student work will be posted there.

5 thoughts on “Engaging the Future Changemakers

  1. Thank you Janet for this beautiful piece! It guides one’s memory back to the streets of Coventry and all those little stories are now firmly associated to them. I definitely agree that it’s difficult to get ‘a feel’ of a place, and understand what truly makes it unique as a visitor without further digging so to speak. The streets are full of similar high street shops and one must know where the museums, art galleries and other independent cultural spaces are prior to entering the city as they are seldom well indicated. In fact I can’t remember seeing a Coventry city map in the centre at all that would be able to point out visitors (such as students) explorers to those places?

    Having lived in Coventry for 6 years, it’s interesting that I can see my own sense of self is more deeply connected to the University of Warwick than the city that I live in. As you say, it’s probably to do with the fact I feel I belong more strongly to the student community here as we all share similar interest and space, day by day, whilst I don’t interact much in comparison with fellow Coventry residents.

    I have participated in the ‘Great Get Together’ several months back, the event inspired by Jo Cox and that was the first time I invited my neighbours and got to know them. It’s a shame that we should rely on those explicit opportunities in order to connect with others, but it’s part of current English city culture. I think those initiatives are just as important to make people get a feeling of ‘place’ as they meet and build a feeling of belonging to a particular street or neighbourhood, than other kinds of cultural events that are going on.

    I used to be part of a ‘cultural community’ so to speak, the Coventry Youth Orchestra (which is over 50 years old) which has now merged with a Warwickshire Orchestra, and renamed itself the ‘Coventry and Warwickshire Youth Orchestra’. (I think the main reason this happened was the lack of players and financial support) and so suddenly ‘Cov kids’ were now playing alongside ‘Leam kids’ and we started to represented an even bigger ‘place’.

    I really like what you say about the relationship between feeling like we belong somewhere and the feeling of obligation to take an active part/role into where we belong. I guess we feel we are strongest agent of change in a community that we belong to and feel we can change? So this feeling of ‘belonging’ is definitely important to foster!

    Thanks again,

    1. Thanks for the comment Esther! I’m glad you enjoyed the walk and that it made you consider the city a little differently! Janet

  2. This piece was lovely to read and I feel I connect with many of the points you make when considering my ‘sense of place’. I particularly took some time to consider your point about not taking action in your local area unless you feel you connect with the place. Initially I disagreed with this point and started to try to think of times when I have felt I need to take some kind of action even though the problem was physically far away. However, I found that it didn’t feel the same sense of urgency and emotional connection to the problem if it wasn’t one from my home city. After reflecting on this it could be argued that knowing about the place in which you live and feeling like you hold connections with that place may help to increase community participation when some members of a community are in need.

    Thanks, Shannon.

  3. As a student of the Local Sustainable Development module, I can confidently say you hit the nail on the head, and much of what you have mentioned was what motivated me to take this module in the first place. For me, the idea of leaving the University of Warwick and Coventry, without knowing anything about where I had spent the last three years of my life scared me. Encouraging local engagement is fundamental to the harmony of an area, so often students who have no interest in, or have not been exposed to the history, values and peoples of their local area, are not invested in its success which is contrary to sustainable development and cohesive living. The problem of retention as you mention is significant and in fact, I am actually focusing my research and the relationship between students and the development of the city of Coventry due to my interest in this subject. The idea of a walking tour addresses the problem that students do not know enough about the local area and gives them information otherwise not readily or easily accessible to them. I believe, given the opportunity, more people would love to engage with their local community, we can already see elements of this through the volunteering programs already in place at the university and so we are definitely on the right path.
    This was excellently written and has reaffirmed my feelings about Coventry, the outreach is really appreciated.
    Thank-you on behalf of the GSD students !

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