John McDonnell MP
Text of Speech by Rosanna Thompson, from The Field, New Cross.
I am speaking today about a co-operative social centre which I’ve been running with other members for about 3 years. It’s called The Field, and it’s a small building and garden in New Cross, South East London.
But to introduce this I want to discuss where the idea came from, what informs the politics of the space. The origins of The Field are in an informal collective called The New Cross Commoners, which is based in the same area of South East London.
Before The Field existed we as the New Cross Commoners were experimenting with a different way of learning outside academia and from things already going on in the neighbourhood. Sometimes we would read texts together, from theorists who write about the commons, for example such as Peter Linbaugh who we are lucky enough to have with us
today, and sometimes we would visit common resources in the area, such as community gardens, housing co-ops and the local volunteer run library for example.
Before we found the field we as the New Cross Commoners read a text by Jo Fisher on the Ollas Comunes (Common Pots) in Chile. These were communal kitchens, where women would cook collectively as a way to survive under Pinochet’s dictatorship. By pooling what they had, they found that the food went further than when they stuck to their own kitchens. They also found that cooking together had a radical potential; in sharing their personal experiences they practiced a form of feminist consciousness raising, which gave them more confidence and agency in a political and social context that disenfranchised women.
So, inspired by this text we decided to start our own ‘People’s Kitchens’ in New Cross. Through them, we wanted to get to know the different community groups in the area, and any collectives we thought might be enacting the ‘commoning’ that had so enthralled us. Together, we went as a group to New Covent Garden market to skip vegetables, bought some staples from a food co-op and made an arrangement for the surplus bread from a bread factory in New Cross. We made many friends through these kitchen events and our collective grew.
Around that time, three members of The New Cross Commoners found an empty building in the neighbourhood, and thus The Field was born- we saw the opportunity to open up this ‘commoning’ process further in a fixed space.
The deal we have from the landlord is 5 years free rent, in exchange for us renovating the building. The building required a huge amount of work to be repaired and it still requires a lot of maintenance. Whilst at first we were a small collective of roughly ten people regularly working on it, the very visible re-construction of a derelict building drew more and more local people in: clearing its garden, patching the roof, raising and repairing the sunken floor, building a disabled accessible compost toilet, constructing a greenhouse, and so on and on.
Many local businesses donated materials, and we were awarded a grant from Lush (which seems to be funding the whole of the UKs radical left scene by the way!) We also crowdfunded almost ten thousand pounds for the cost of building the garden and the outbuildings using Spacehive.
In its initial months the process of renovating the building and clearing the garden solidified many friendships; many people came by to help and through this the social aspect of the field had already begun; sharing food and beer at the end of the day, sharing tools and learning skills. For once we were working not because we were under some obligation but because it was fun and more importantly, because everyone knew we were building something for ourselves, something which would be a shared resource for the neighbourhood.
From around 6-8 months into this process we started hosting many different events and projects at The Field. Some of these regular activities are or were, by way of example, a Dr Bike workshop, The Job De-centre, which is a support group for issues around work and how we can ‘de-centre’ it from our lives, a co-operative cafe, a film club showing films which focus on police brutality and the black experience of living in Britain, a Queer cafe, feminist self-defence classes, reading groups- for example one popular one we had was Federici’s Caliban and The Witch.
We also have activist groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts, who I’m sure many of you know of, and the Mental Health Resistance Network, who put on amazing music and poetry evenings and really create a social life out of their activism, which is I think what is really important in order for it to be sustainable. With The Field we didn’t want to make a traditional community centre, but equally we didn’t want it to be just an activist space; we wanted to make something more inclusive and more focussed on the neighbourhood.
An important issue for The running of the Field is the difficulty of having people see the Field simply as a venue that can be booked and used for free, no matter how we’ve tried to communicate the diy ethos in endless ‘aims and values’ documents, people still wander in and ask me to make them a cup of tea. The work of social reproduction is often ignored or taken for granted– this is what Silvia Federici and her friends claim since the 70s and this is what we still experience here, even if the context is different and has changed. People are so much accustomed to a culture of service. We have tried to change this in the last 8 months by restructuring our more informal CIC structure into a cooperative structure, with a
necessity for groups using the space to put forward a member to join the collective, who commits to a minimum of one hour per week in exchange for the free use of the space.
The Field is fleeting, in that we may only have the building for another three years. After that time the landlord may decide to knock the building down and sell the land to developers, whose flats will surely sell at a high price. If we’re lucky he may decide to let us keep it for another 5 years, but all is uncertain. Either way, it seems strange to some that we’d decide to pour so much sweat blood and tears into a building which we do not own and probably never will, and which we may get turfed out of relatively soon.
But we are talking about the radical social potential of co-ops and social centres, or in my case, a co-operative social centre. So what I’ll say is that what will survive, and is the bare bones of all events, projects and collectives which have used The Field, are the human connections forged and the inspiration that you can create something yourselves, you don’t have to wait for the state and you don’t have to have money to do it. The thing that for me symbolises both these things is our weekly pay-what-you-can dinner, which for me has always been at the centre of The Field. Every Wednesday a volunteer chef and helpers will feed 20 to 50 people. it was this continuity which cemented the relationships between people helping to create the field, and attracted new people. It quickly became the core of the Field’s social life.
Whilst cooking and eating together in this way has political significance, the Wednesday Kitchen is the point in the week that is not centered on attendees having similar politics or common goals. Well, goals beyond cooking, eating and talking.
It attracts Field regulars, people who use the field for their projects, neighbours, people who walk in from the street having seen the sign, and of course even people who may be opposed to some of the other activities at The Field, and also those who may not see themselves as especially ‘political’. This openness means we have attending the dinner a plethora of people and viewpoints; like the time I spent the evening chatting with Ben from Radical Assembly, a radical left group who use the Field to organise direct actions, as well
as my neighbour Trilogy, a Congolese jewellery maker who volunteers for Boris Johnson.
Through the Wednesday Kitchen, people attending or running different projects at the Field have been able to meet each other and cross-pollinate, and bring to life the Field as a cohesive project, rather than just as a venue. I mentioned that the dinner is not somewhere that people feel they have to have a specific politics, well once they’re in the building they can see the value of these kind of projects, they can see a practical living example of mutual aid and cooperative ownership. This I think could also be a model for things Labour could be doing at a local level right now. Simply opening up buildings for public use as cooperatives where people can meet and support one another. The Field is small but the way it draws together local groups and cooperatives is a model for what local parties could be doing to prepare for Labour in power (and a potential crisis of capitalism). Hopefully The Field can inspire other similar projects and therefore spread further these forms of organising and community building which counter the destructive hierarchies of capitalism.