The Five Wise Women of Wigan

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At this time of year it’s a tradition in the culture that I was reared within to hear the story of the three wise men who arrived bearing gifts.  As a child, and girl, it was the hardest gig to land a role in at my school. Mary or the donkey seemed to be the options open to girls.

So it brings great pleasure to cast women as the protagonists of this hyper local story. A story of mutuality, reciprocity, joy and pain. (cue Maze featuring Frankie Beverley) 

Many mutual aids around the country are beginning to fade or to take on service functions – being invited in to the way institutions do things – taking on the language and the behaviours, becoming professional.  

Here in Wigan West, as it’s named on the map, or Springfield, Beech Hill and Gidlow as we know it locally, we are seeing continued growth and flourishing of citizen led action.  That in itself is a worthy story.

We are not alone either, we are hearing through friends and via the recent formation of the Movement for Neighbourhood Democracy of shoots, and beds all over the UK and beyond. 

There isn’t much coverage of these lesser known stories. That in itself is interesting. 

The Five Wise Women of Wigan is the first of a three part story. 

 Let them Eat (Lemon Drizzle ) Cake which will explore community health and wealth building; and,

Crying in the Cauliflower which will explore place based commissioning.

This story tells the tale of five women who got to know each other whilst hosting a citizen led response to the pandemic. During this hosting they saw the possibility to create and be part of a self managed and self governed neighbourhood.  

The commitment to stick around was made at the Five Wise Womens Zoom Christmas party.  A party to reflect on and celebrate a remarkable year of connection and friendship.  The women invited their seasonal friends too – gin, wine and lucozade, who seemed to enjoy themselves tremendously, although lucozade was a little quiet.  

Over the last ten months the five women have hosted community space and connected the rise of naturally occurring neighbourliness street by street and across the neighbourhood.  They’ve held the space as a circle, inviting others in and making room, always ready to set another place at the table.   The intentional connecting has witnessed the growth of an online group of 1000;  community treasure mapping; street conversations at bumping spots and a whole range of zoom connecting activity for those who have the privilege to join.  It’s led to the reinvigoration of a community garden; the growth of a food pantry; a local no strings neighbour fund; and an explosion of giving, sharing, exchanging and selling with and to each other.  So the local Council Area Manager tells us we also had very low referrals from our neighbourhood to the Council emergency support line.

And guess what, the five women are not exhausted.  They are not burned out, and you wont find them walking around the streets wearing capes.  Perhaps it’s because the five women were really wise.  They knew between them they had gifts to offer.  When they met online at the beginning of the pandemic, they started by looking at what they had between them, and discovered a trove of treasure.  Imagine they asked, what we might discover, if we asked our neighbours what we have asked of ourselves. Perhaps that will cultivate a community of giving, sharing and exchanging, perhaps everyone will be able to contribute.  They realised that this was going to be a long ball game. They talked about passions, interests and skills. The kind of neighbourhood they wanted to be active citizens of. They felt that the principles of the Camerados and the methodology of ABCD fitted with their vision of a preferred future and decided to act in this way to see what might happen – would people join in?  And they did.  They wanted too to demonstrate a style of community leadership that they hoped to see grow, one that invites people in; hosting and connecting, rekindling democracy and restoring community functions. 

They managed to find an oasis of calm within the initial panic so they could be thoughtful about the way in which they invited people in. They knew all about the drama triangle, being rescuers in recovery themselves. They found it difficult to hold the space at first in their neighbourhood and wanted the local crisis response to just take its foot off the peddle for a moment, and leave a bit more space for neighbours.   They’ve written elsewhere about what that felt like from a mutual aid and neighbour perspective within the first few weeks of the pandemic, like being stuck in a game of Hungry Hippos.  

They decided that they would not use the ‘v’ word to describe  neighbours.  

They connected streets by personal invitation.  Let’s all get involved, creating a sense of belonging. Saying no is fine too.

They invited streets to look after each other and seek support from others if needed.  

They created a connectors whatsapp to help across the neighbourhood if neighbours were stuck.

They asked the Council to help out in situations that might need more than neighbourliness.

They used their hour a day exercise time around the neighbourhood.  Saying hello, building relationships and keeping their eyes open.

They shopped for those who needed help, collected prescriptions for those who needed them, agreeing methods at a street and neighbour to neighbour level.

They made sure that they invited people who received help to share their gifts and help others in return.

They created online coffee mornings, street chats and walking together whilst apart pairs or groups, depending upon restrictions.

They treasure mapped discovering the assets of people and place.

They discovered what people were passionate about, what they had skills in and what they would be prepared to act on together and then connected people up.

They sat outside of post offices and other bumping places getting to know people.

You might be wondering about the area.  Much has been said or assumed about the areas in which mutual aid grew.  Little has been said about the absence of mutuality within much of the aid we describe as mutual.  There’s room for both we hear, of course that’s true.  It’s a bit like calling a carrot an orange because they are the same colour.

Wigan West is the name of the ward.  A name that makes little sense to the people who live here.  It’s home to around 9500 people. At the moment we call ourselves Springfield, Beech Hill and Gidlow CommUnity.  At one end of the area we have lots of terraced houses, some owner owned, many private rented.  We’ve had a massive boom in the conversion of small terraced homes to HMO’s so that private landlords can make as much money as possible. We were shocked to see communal home spaces that looked like a waiting space to see a dentist.  At least someone is doing well out of our needs.   We have accommodation here too, for people who may be suffering with addiction, along with a hostel.  The providers probably aren’t providing the level of support that they offered in their winning tender.  This can make neighbours feel insecure and unsafe, especially when there’s a rise in burglary, car crime and drug use in the park.  Here, a pub, the Famous Pagefield, a historic local building, has been sold to private developers for housing.  The planning conditions required that funding should be made available to the community to make up for our loss of a bowling green.  Our elected members who sit on the planning committee, allowed the said monies to be invested in another area of our town, about an hours walk away for our local bowlers. The pub’s been empty for a good while now and has become a place where drug deals and use take place.  In spite of the way actions or non actions by others are impacting on this part of our community there is a colourful vibrancy to be seen. People tell stories of coming together and helping each other during and before the pandemic.  We opened the pantry in this part of the neighbourhood in partnership with the scouts and discovered a local community connector, Frank, who has been inviting people in.  It’s been open for three weeks and we can already feel how special this place is going to be.  We’d be surprised if this doesn’t morph into a shop and a place to chat with a Camerado public living room.  The wise women who connected people who were interested in both food poverty and food waste to get this off the ground are, at the speed of trust, stepping back as more neighbours step forward to join in. 

The middle of our neighbourhood was built around springs, that were gradually replaced by tarmac. It’s mainly owner occupied with a good mix of private rented.  This was the space that responded more quickly to the initial invitation to connect.  There are a lot of people who have lived here since the houses were built.  The invitation to connect was offered at street level and by neighbours who lived on the street.  112 streets formed whatsapp groups, some more active than others.  We have a street connector whatsapp group too.  Some have lasted, some have faded.  It’s during the development of these that we saw the real possibility of self managed neighbourhoods.  At street level we explored what we had, and before long we noticed that we had almost everything we needed within a street or two of each other, from nurses, social workers, musicians, artists, bakers, hairdressers and carers.  In fact we were so plentiful that we had enough to reach the corners of the whole area.  Why were carers coming in to care for our elders we wondered?  Isn’t that something we could do ourselves, wrapped in love, co-operatively and reinvesting in our neighbourhood.  My next door neighbour who receives a service thinks so.  You could see the possibility, almost touch it.  That seeing has become part of our vision. 

Not only could we see what we had, we began working together in ways we hadn’t imagined before.  Safeguarding older neighbours, making sure that everyone had an opportunity to contribute.  Once we knew what we had in our streets, we could also explore how connected we were to our neighbours and discover who might be most at risk to the virus and its impact – isolation. Informally matching people up as buddies.  In one street, a 5 year old girl buddied with an older man as they were already good friends.   We talked with the Council about helping us out with anything that may require more than neighbourliness, wrapping some services around us that could be on tap.  It felt like they couldn’t quite manage it.  There was definitely a desire, but they had a bigger picture planned at a more wider scale than hyper local and didn’t quite know how to respond to us. We asked for all postcode referrals to come our way so we could invite people in.  They didn’t manage to do this.  As we remembered and began to take up the functions of community, we felt a sense of institutional mistrust around.  We couldn’t be trusted with money, we couldn’t be trusted to safeguard.  It shone a light on a risk averse system that starts with what could go wrong.  No one thought to ask us about our skills, knowledge or experience.  There’s this kind of underlying assumption that when you act in citizen space you leave your professional skills behind. 

The other end of the neighbourhood is a large local authority housing estate.  An area that is defined in terms of needs and labelled as difficult to get into.  And we’d agreed with that.  The estate boundaries were guarded by a local elected member, who was also chair of the tenants and residents.  She has given her life of service to the estate and is highly valued and respected. Every year she provides Christmas parties for her older friends and pantomimes for children and families.  We were treated with suspicion when we came together, and asked to keep our boundaries away from the estate.  When we stepped into the community garden and asked for some help from our local elected members, to bring it back to life so that we could eat lemon drizzle cake there together, we were told that someone was already in charge of the garden.  We were asked to keep out of the garden as it had been dedicated to the memory of a local Councillor by institutions using money donated from proceedings from crime by another institution, the police.  Supported by the Church, who owned the land, we continued to invite people in to get involved in clearing the garden.  It’s important that all who have been involved in the garden space and active in the community over the years are honoured, including barefooted Rev Roger who initially created the garden as a sanctuary for people who were seeking asylum in our town.  Despite the invitation to go home, we decided to keep going as it was bringing people together safely and we were craving connection.   Luckily for us one of our wise women lives on the estate and given that we plan to stick around for a while we are able to travel at the speed of trust.  

There’s often storms in the water when power shifts and then there’s a settling.  In November it was heart warming to see the community coming together in the garden (in a socially distanced way ) planting over 200 bulbs of remembrance and hope for Spring;  to see community members knitting decorations for the trees, a lovely analogy.  Sometimes we need to drop a stitch or two to get the pattern balanced. Sometimes we’re not brave enough to sail in the storms.

So they say, our neighbourhood has the highest referrals to link workers for isolation.  We’d like to change that through friendship and connection rather than social prescription. The statistics tell us we have a lot of ‘troubled families’ too and in children’s services we have re-referral rates to our local authority currently standing at 24% along with a real worry about the sufficiency and quality of homes for teenage children who are removed from their homes and communities.  Domestic abuse has been a real problem in our town for as long as we can remember. The system is broken.  

We’ve been following the lead of institutions and experts and nothing has changed.  Perhaps now it’s time to follow the lead of citizens, with institutions in support.  That might free up time for institutions to fight the real problems that need fixing, which certainly isn’t us.

The Five Wise Women have made a commitment.  A 10 year commitment to our place. Our next step is to widen the space and we’ll embark on a deep listening dialogue in the New Year.

We hope to remember and reclaim our identity of place; explore the seven functions of community together; discover what we are in favour of and what we want to do together.  This will lead us, we believe, towards a neighbourhood plan and closer to our vision of becoming a self managed and self governed neighbourhood.  You can be sure that our plan will focus on what we have, shine a light on our abundance. It will be clear on what’s important to us and what we are prepared to act on together. When we know what we have, we’ll know what help we’ll need and what we want others to do with us and on our behalf.

This isn’t Big Society or ABCD disguised as cuts. We have our eyes wide open and our vocal chords well oiled. We are reclaiming a resourced neighbourhood democracy. We mean business. We plan to reclaim the citizen space.

Yours in Joy and Pain

See you for a slice of lemon drizzle (other cakes are available) 

The Wise Women of Wigan 

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