Means and ends

Moroccan mint tea being poured into a small glassAs some of you may know I’ve been throwing around an idea about opening a teashop for a while. To me, tea is the quintessentially social drink. Almost everywhere around the world has some sort of culture around tea. From builders tea to chai to attaya to moroccan mint tea or yerba mate. I think it crosses boundaries and lowers barriers, lubricating the social fabric.

But I want this tea shop to be more than just about tea, but to symbolise the essence of tea – what Okakura called ‘teaism’ in his seminal piece The Book of Tea. Bringing people together, celebrating simplicity and providing the environment for people to become the best they can – in practical terms, providing community space, creative space, training and mentoring for local people. Recently, I’ve begun to realise that this is what people are now calling a social enterprise.

So, I was delighted when I spotted London Creative Labs Social Startup Lab in my neighbourhood. It promised an exciting day where people from all walks of life could germinate their social enterprise ideas. I found it an intriguing experience and with a lot of tools and approaches that I am familiar with (Open Space, conversational learning). However, it felt strangely distanced from what I was hoping to learn and do.

The most insightful point of the day for me was tagging along with 3 lovely people I’d only just met, to go and get some lunch. We chatted about Brixton and the community and all the efforts that have been made over the past decades. We talked about Brixton Village and all the things it had brought – both good and bad. Despite their positivity and creativity, there was an underlying air of having seen all this good intent before and of communities being ‘involved’, but actually feeling drained; tapped of ideas from which they have not been able to benefit. I really enjoyed their company and wished we’d had more time.

One of the key challenges in my professional life as someone working in international development is the question “Who am I to ‘help’ these people?“, “What can I really bring?“. I often feel that I must be seen as patronising and naive when I rock up at some rural village in my ‘field shoes’, trying to be all local and participatory. Often I feel that life would be better for poor people if the well-meaning elites like me just got out of the way. What do I really know about their daily existence? And that’s exactly why I’m beginning to think more towards my own communities and my own neighbourhood – a people and culture that I hopefully know better.

Sitting in the The Brix today, with flipcharts and post-its everywhere, with eloquent, well-meaning facilitators – I still felt carried in a river that wasn’t of my choosing, and I realised that looking closer to home doesn’t make it any easier. That it’s so easy to try to do a good thing but in the process failing to acknowledge the boundaries that you need to cross – and not realise that you might be helping yourself more than nurturing others. I suddenly realised what all the communities we work with feel like. And how terribly disempowering it can be. Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of great things about today – not least the other people taking part, but I felt a sense of disconnect.

I’m really not sure what my point is here, but I’ve learnt a lot today about social enterprise and about community work. There’s still so much more for me to learn, but fortunately there’s a wealth of history and experience to draw on.