Exonian indigeneity is a placekeeping issue because of “voice” and because of relationship to place. More than this, it is a socio-economic issue because the indigenous view of the City of Exeter is still largely unheard.
Let me explain. Exeter is a University city. It is the received wisdom and the social norm that we advise our own talented young people to go elsewhere for their University education, so we send them away and, because of house prices here and the salaries they can earn elsewhere, often they don’t return. According to the ONS, student numbers nationally have almost doubled since 1992 and are now at a level just short of 2 million – over 40% of 18-24 years go to Uni so we potentially send our own indigenous talent elsewhere in droves. (How many of these are truly from indigenous households is difficult to know).
In their stead we receive youngsters from other parts of the country, in increasing numbers. Exeter University’s student population between 2015-2019 increased by 21% from 20,945 to 25,263. More recent figures far exceed this. By some reports up to 40,000 students now reside in Exeter. If only a small proportion of those incoming students decide to stay we still have a large, educated population living in and around the City of Exeter. A population that shares a set of learned values. They tend to be liberally-minded and environmentally-sensitive. Most significantly though, they are educated. Their education has rehearsed them in public speaking and in clarifying their thoughts in a way that is recognisable and acceptable to like-minded, educated folk.
They take up positions in our local authorities, our hospitals, our schools, college and university and in the third sector. They have strong, clear voices that resonate with others who already hold positions of power and influence in City. So, like an algal mat, the community grows and attracts others of like mind, seeking to form networks and social cohesion with others who share their values.
But like an algal bloom, which is not malignant in itself, the very density of that growth and cohesion can block the light for others. What of those native Exonians who didn’t leave and haven’t received that skilled rehearsal in making their voice heard? And if you don’t believe it’s a problem then ask yourself this – how many native Exonians do you know that you would count as a friend or a colleague? How many of them are actually in service to you in some way – mend your car, fix your house or serve your food? If this is uncomfortable reading I ask you to sit with that discomfort for a little while before composing a reply.
What’s more, the algal bloom is an impenetrable barrier sitting between the big grant and decision-making bodies and the native population of the City. That’s a big, big problem when it comes to what many of the well-intentioned people call “engagement” or “outreach”. They’re deeply concerned with how to effectively communicate with those beyond the bloom. There are many initiatives to tackle “health inequality” or “social deprivation”. The bloom do care, so I believe they’d be surprised by the strength of the resentment and frustration that exists locally.
We haven’t seen this in Exeter or the UK to the same extent as we witnessed it in Trump’s USA but actually the phenomenon is the same. America’s working classes, starved of voice and recognition by an overly-voluble liberal bloom, were ripe to be stimulated by Trump’s visceral, emotive appeals. They finally felt seen and heard. As we saw, the effect was incredibly powerful and left the liberal, middle classes completely in shock. They had no idea they were blocking the light. We saw the same utter bewilderment in the wake of the Brexit vote. It is what is increasingly being referred to as the “culture wars”.
Don’t let that happen here in Exeter. Time to break up the bloom and let the light through. We never intentionally created it in the first place. We can do without. It is comfortable to be in the company of people who speak the same liberal language but when the impact is to reduce everyone else to the level of lowly “recipient” or “client” it is so, so wrong. We’ll never have true community animation that way. We need to be able to ask our indigenous Exonians how they truly feel about their place – and we need to be able to hear their reply – even if it sits outside of our own values.
I and Interwoven don’t have all the answers but we have some very strong views about what has to stop! …
If you want to know more about Interwoven’s Quiet Voice Methodology training and then get in touch - http://www.interwovenproductions.com/organisationsfunders.html
JoJo Spinks is a Westcountry writer in love with her landscape and her life. She is a founding member of Interwoven Productions CIC and the creator of the Squilometre tool for sustainable community animation. JoJo writes here on landscape, art, community and working in the gift,