Owen Jones of HOPE not hate, a group which campaigns against right-wing extremism, explains why keeping community spaces clean can build resistance against extremist messages
The Wren’s Nest is not a name that conjures up a positive image for most people living in the Black Country. Synonymous with a once notorious area of North Dudley, which many still would try and avoid. However, for over a year now, HOPE not hate have been working in both the Wren’s Nest and Priory estates to try and change the perceptions of the area from the outdated negative image and towards something of which residents can feel proud.
In 2011 HOPE not hate produced the Fear & Hope report, which among other findings, discovered that those who are most vulnerable to the messages of extremist organisations tend to have a very pessimistic outlook on life and their area, and believe that their future is in the hands of others. Consequently, HOPE not hate have been working hard in the Wren’s Nest and Priory to encourage local residents to view their community from a different perspective; to hopefully get them to see the positives of their area and celebrate everything that is good about their community – rather than turning to a hard estate image as a way to find their identity.
Our work does not just stop there. We also aim to help empower local residents to take action in the locality and create positive change, and hopefully give them the knowledge and skills to do this. Thankfully, both of these estates have one of the counties best community resources right on their doorstep – the Wren’s Nest Nature Reserve.
The Nature Reserve is one of the most important geological sites in the United Kingdom, and is highly regarded amongst geologists the world over. Fossils date back to an ancient tropical seabed alongside well-preserved evidence of the glacier which cut through Dudley during the Ice Age. As if this was not enough, lime mines dating back to the 17th Century dominate the area and give a constant reminder of the role this region, and the locals’ ancestors, played in the Industrial Revolution. Most communities would be singing about this from their rooftops, unfortunately however, a small minority ruin it for others by leaving their beer cans, and other less savoury items, lying around. So when a group from IHG (InterContinental Hotels Group) in Brierley Hill offered their time to get involved with some community work, HOPE not hate got in contact with them to help clean up the reserve.
The motivation behind the clean-up day was to provide a cleaner and more pleasant environment for families and children who wish to use the nature reserve during the school summer holidays. On the day around 22 volunteers gave up their time to help clear, very literally, a truck load of rubbish from the reserve.
Despite it raining all day the local volunteers remained high-spirited, and the most encouraging aspect from the HOPE not hate perspective was hearing how the volunteers changed their perception of the area quite quickly during the day.
As we started quite a few were certainly aware of the reputation of the area and were, understandably, inquisitive about its realities. For the majority, this was a part of their town to which they would never consider coming. Both the Wren’s Nest and Priory offered nothing positive to the town – it was just an area that one would whizz past on the Birmingham New Road. As we walked around, they learnt about the history of the area and were given a quick lesson in how to spot fossils of the tropical plants that would have once covered the area.
Before long the volunteers were actively, and passionately, discussing amongst one another how their thoughts on the area had been transformed and would certainly be encouraging others to check out the Wren’s Nest as an interesting place to visit. Cleaning up all that rubbish and ensuring that young children passing through the reserve do not have to see the evidence of someone’s Friday night litter on the paths and bushes was of course invaluable and will help encourage more and more residents of Wren’s Nest and Priory make better use of the resource. However, what was most important was that other locals, albeit only a small group to start with, have completely changed their attitude towards the estates, opening them up to visitors, with the ultimate aim of the estates finally lifting that sense of isolation, which has had such a damaging effect on the morale of those living there.
Owen Jones is the West Midlands Community Organiser for HOPE not hate