On peace-building and the power of words

PHOTO Credit: Guardian Newspaper

What connection might there be between efforts to resolve community tensions around ‘un-authorised’ Gypsy camps here in the UK and efforts to build a peace deal in Colombia? Helen Jones, CEO of Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange, says that words have the power to create change, but we must use them wisely.

I was recently invited to attend a summer school in Bogota, Colombia, entitled ‘Social Innovation in Divided Communities’. The event was timed as a showcase in anticipation of endorsement, via national referendum, of a peace deal between the FARC guerrilla group and the Government after war lasting half a century. Unfortunately, as with other referenda, it didn’t go according to plan. What was clear within the country, however, is that the desire for change, a future without war, remains un-diminished. Can fancy phrases like ‘Social Innovation’ help people striving for peace? Before attending I asked my colleague (who can’t read) what she thought it was about. She said “Well, that sounds like different people getting together to do new things”.

The technical term for what we might call a ‘buzzword’, whose usefulness has expired is to say that the word has become an empty signifier. Its original meaning has been scooped out by overuse, or misuse, and it becomes a degraded brand even though the original concept or principle that the word describes might remain as important as ever. People are potentially steered away from the principle because the describing word or phrase has become devalued. Sometimes the word actually does somehow capture more currency than the idea behind it deserves, or is simply a catchy re-naming of a tired method. It may also be that phrases which capture a very important principle can be quite deliberately subverted so that its power is diminished (think Careless Society becomes Big Society).

At Leeds GATE we recognise the power of words. Our current Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) and Co-production project has given us an opportunity to focus and reflect on the dilemma of adopting, or indeed inventing, new ‘buzz’ words or phrases to describe something you are doing, or a concept you identify, but accepting the risk that the concept will be undermined if the ‘buzz’ becomes an empty signifier.

In 2010 Leeds GATE actually invented a signifier of our own. We proposed to Leeds City Council that they should pilot a new approach to unauthorised encampment which we called ‘Negotiated Stopping’. Simply it meant that instead of taking a blanket ‘evict as fast as possible’ approach to camps, the authority and camp residents should engage in dialogue, make reasonable agreements and that the authority would then allow camps to ‘stop’ for longer periods of time and provide sensible waste disposal services. Since that time, and spurred on by the success of Leeds’s approach, Negotiated Stopping is happily evident in the national debate about encampment, several Local Authorities have used the catchphrase to adopt a change of approach and Travelling families are beginning to ask for ‘negotiation’ with local authorities. The term has been used on official documents and discussed in Parliament.

Progress towards widespread adoption of this approach is slow, and even maintaining the approach in areas where it has been applied is challenging. This does have to be seen however in the context of an ongoing ‘running sore’ issue in UK society for many decades, if not centuries. The words we have created have opened up a genuine opportunity for change. The time, when many local authorities simply do not have the funds to keep chasing Gypsies around, is perhaps as ripe for change as it has ever been. Our ‘change-making’ work has been recognised in national awards and by many commentators who chose to use our little common sense phrase. Wonderful! The power of words whose time is ripe.

But every fruit has its season. How do we recognise the dangers of buzzwords becoming empty signifiers? How do we avoid the words becoming tired and effectively degrading the power of the good idea? How can we stop the words being misused by local authorities wanting a cheap sticking plaster and without the vision of a proper long term, just, solution? Powerful vested interests, particularly politicians, whatever they may say, are addicted to the status quo. The image of the local politician ‘battling’ on behalf of their electorate requires a mythical demon and Gypsy people have long been a convenient cypher. Might justice for Gypsy Travellers, especially when on the roadside, set a precedent for many of us who don’t quite fit into a so-called majority? There is good reason for power to disempower ideas like Negotiated Stopping. (Careless Society vs Big Society again).

Whether Negotiated Stopping will have the same ‘legs’ as other buzzwords remains to be seen. Our challenge is to ensure that the phrase is applied so that its meaning remains secure and consistent, and, importantly, is universally understood to have benefit to all (ie settled people as well as camp residents). Having attended the Six Social Innovation in Divided Communities event, I think my colleagues’ explanation of what it was about was correct. Social Innovation might be a powerful concept for helping people to come together for good purpose. I realise that what we do at Leeds GATE, in working to build peace and dialogue between Travelling and Settled communities in the UK, is inherently Social Innovation and I fully intend to use the term to aid others to understand that our work is as ‘mainstream’ as any other Social Innovation. In the context of Colombia trying to end fifty years of civil war, our work might seem small fry, but I think that the link between peace building activities large and small, international and hyper-local is important. If we can resolve the running sore between Travelling and Settled people in the UK, we will have shown that simple words do have the power to make peace, and that is really exciting!