Highfields Centre, in the heart of one of the country’s most diverse communities in Leicester, played host to a passionate group of community business pioneers on 25th September, as we gathered to share insights and learning about the community business movement.
The main theme of the day – appropriate given our location – was social cohesion and how best to build it through community business. For me, an idea that came through most powerfully on this topic was communication and telling stories about our local areas. It was a theme that ran throughout the day and was picked up by many of the speakers and discussed in many of the sessions.
Priya Thamotheram – our host from Highfields Centre – explained the challenges the community centre had gone through to set up as a community business and explained how power had been devolved from local government to local people, which is central to the community business ethos.
Those ideas were echoed in our next talk from Dorothy Francis MBE from CASE – a co-operative and social enterprise delivering business development and support for likeminded, people-centred and accountable business. Her talk emphasised Leicester’s long non-conformist tradition and some fantastic examples of community businesses operating in and around Leicester, including the Ajani Centre, Shepshed Carers, Ibstock Community Enterprise Centre and Soft Touch Community Arts.
She championed the core values of community businesses as essential components for community cohesion. Communities that come together to find solutions for their own needs fights marginalisation and creates a strong sense of belonging to place. “Social capital grows when people work together to provide the things that are missing,” she said.
Later in a panel discussion, Dorothy spoke passionately about the importance of ‘Griots’ (an African name for story tellers) and sold their importance for the community business movement. These individuals are essential to help enthuse others to join the movement and help make change happen.
This idea of storytelling to affect change struck me as key. The ‘bigging up’ of the community business narrative and our local areas seems to be an essential ingredient of building social cohesion. Only when the community business story of communities using their own power to solve their problems themselves is taken up en masse will we unlock new forms of social relations and allegiances that put collaboration and mutual understanding front and centre. Dorothy described this as ‘intra-culturalism’ as opposed to ‘multiculturalism’ – an idea that suggests a confluence of different outlooks rather than siloed ones – which is a necessity for social cohesion.
So, what to take away from such an inspiring event? I’d say go out and big up your local areas! Go and convince people that they hold the power and have the potential to solve their own challenges. It’s communities, not government or corporates, who best understand the needs of a place. By coming together to set up businesses that build social and economic capital, great things can happen. And the more we can spread that message through telling inspiring stories, the more we will build pride in our communities and the more people – from all backgrounds – will come together under a new culture of cooperation and cohesion.