New research on voluntary organisations in former mining communities
One of my main motivations in working on my PhD is that every step I take is aimed towards contributing something to my local community, the community that I have become a part of 1.5 years ago when my husband and I decided to build ourselves a future in the Barnsley area. At that time we knew very little about the area, and just took the plunge. The housing prices were low, the surrounding landscapes beautiful and it had great connections to the A1 and M1 to Leeds, Hull and later on Loughborough.
A look at Barnsley’s situation
However, there is of course a reason for the housing prices being so low. Not only does the house need some work, the area as a whole could use some too. Barnsley isn’t the wealthiest town on Earth, and its surrounding villages that are also part of the Metropolitan Borough of Barnsley aren’t much better, often even much worse.
The impact of coal mining
Barnsley, along with Rotherham and Doncaster, were coal field hubs. When in the early 1990s the coal fields were closed down, they lost their focus, purpose and even identity. With the National Coal Board making sure the pits were the main provider of jobs in the area to ensure a strong and ongoing workforce (Salt 1995), there was not much else to turn to, certainly not if you were or felt bound to your own locality which had up until then provided for everything: work, a home, a community, an identity.
A recent report by Sheffield Hallam for the Coalfields Regeneration Trust (2014) showed us the statistics behind the situation: for every 100 people in Yorkshire there are only 56 jobs available, and 42 per cent of all neighbourhoods in the coalfields fall into the most deprived 30 per cent in Britain. However, it is easy enough to look at statistics and judge or even discard an entire town or village because of them, but people are more than statistics. People are people, with individual pasts, stories and identities. So that is why it is now time for nuance, that’s why I believe it’s “story time”.
The downward spiral
This story paints a very depressing picture, one that leads to a lot of misunderstandings and harsh judgements that perhaps are at the core of a vicious circle or a downward spiral that affects peoples’ self-confidence, self-image, which then also directly affects their chances on the labour market, which gives their self-image yet another blow, also affecting next generations. In several interviews with those living in this area I was told that parents actively discourage their children to continue education or to pursue a job, because that’s a waste of time and energy, because nobody would want them anyway: being on benefits at least is stable… But where does this attitude come from, and is there a way to change this frame of mind?
I want to tell this story with the help from people who for one reason or another have come into contact with voluntary organisations and social enterprises operating in the area that are focusing on issues around (un)employment, self-confidence and self-image. Whether that is through volunteering themselves or being volunteered for, and whether they are 50 years old or 17 years old.
Voluntary action is key
The role of voluntary action is key in this. Policies such as the Big Society (Cameron 2009) promote volunteering as being at the core of a strong community. South Yorkshire needs strengthening, a way upwards away from social and economic deprivation and towards… well, towards what?
- What makes a community or an individual strong?
- Is being as economically active as possible the only road to personal fulfilment and confidence?
- And if not, what role can voluntary action play?
This leads to questions asking how you can reach out to people who have lost all hope, self-respect and self-confidence.
Most voluntary organisations portray volunteers as people who believe and choose to have a choice, they reach people who believe, one way or another, in themselves, to people actively looking for voluntary opportunities (Musick and Wilson 2008). To people who believe that they can either contribute to the world by offering their services, and/or they believe they can learn something themselves from engaging in certain voluntary activities. But what about the people who do not believe in themselves (anymore)? People who don’t feel like they’ve got anything to offer or that they are hopeless when it comes to developing (new) skills? How can voluntary action both reach them and affect their lives, as individuals, not necessarily as members of the workforce.
There are so many questions that need to be answered if we want to create and adjust policies to help specific localities. I hope that through this project I can answer at least a few.
Cameron, D. 2009. “‘The Big Society’, Hugo Young Lecture.” United Kingdom: Respublica. http://www.respublica.org.uk/item/ResPublica-mentioned-in-Camerons-speech-ggtc.
Musick, Marc A., and John Wilson. 2008. Volunteers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Salt, Hedley. 1995. “Regenerating the Dearne Valley in South Yorkshire.” In Regenerating the Coalfield Areas. Ango-German Perspectives., edited by Chas Critcher, Klaus Schubert, and David Waddington, 69–74. London: Pinter.
This Blog post was written by PhD student Gaby Wolferink, a member of the Centre for Professional Work and Society. You can follow Gaby’s project via Twitter @gabywolferink or have a look on her new website www.gabywolferink.com.