Sustaining social Centres in the long term

Max Gastone

Over the last few years there has been a growth in the number of social centres being established by activists’ communities along the lines of mutual aid. This is a positive step forwards, but it needs to be accepted that they are also having an impact on activism as a whole. While they have helped boost activism by bringing much needed focal points and links with the local community, they are also responsible for the burn out of activists and of sucking up a lot of energy. In the initial period of setting up, it is an exciting time and volunteers are plenty. The long term problems get swept under the carpet and this is leading to problems in social centres once they are established.

The main problem is that, despite all the good intentions and hopes, the day to day running of social centres inevitably falls on the shoulders of a few. They are expected to see though the dull and boring back-of-house stuff such as bringing in the beer, doing all the phonecalls to chivy volunteers into signing up, sort out the finances, and so on. And when there are not enough volunteers, the burden of responsibility falls on them so they feel obliged to do extra work to maintain the project. They are so busy holding things together that they never get a chance to relax and enjoy the space. In the end these people eventually burn out and walk away, from both the social centre and activism in general. A social centre which is burning people out is not functioning on the lines of mutual aid. Resorting to regular call-outs and appeals is simply tackling the symptoms and not managing the root of the problem. The result remains the same, with out the energy of key people, any project such as this heads into terminal decline.

In effect, activists are becoming managers of social centres (though naturally we don’t have them because we don’t believe in that sort of language…) without the back up and support they need. What breaks people in this position is the constant pressure to ensure that things are actually being sorted, having to deal with other people lunching them out and so on. The pleasure of being involved in a social centre soon wears off when you are carrying that sort of responsibility.

So where is the heart of the problem – well, it is founded on the basic assumption that people have time and energy to sustain such a space. Social centres are set up with the best of intentions, an oasis of mutual aid and support in a desert of capitalism, but whether we like it or not, they are far from utopian. There are the pressures on activists to have jobs, and on the social centre to pay the bills. This causes rot around the edges and if we have not proofed the heart of the project then the rot takes its toll as volunteering inevitably drops off. If a couple or even one person is holding the fort, then what actually is being expected of them is to hold down a second job for free! The politically correct answer is to say that everyone should be sharing the burden so no-one ends up with all the boring managerial jobs, and in an ideal anarchist world that is what would be happening. It is blatantly not happening in reality because the world we live in is not geared to supporting it, and no amount of preaching is going to change that. The model for the most part is failing.

The question remains though, how do we maintain the long term sustainability of social centres? The answer to this is to challenge a second assumption of the movement – that everything should be done for free. Why? The proposal is that social centres should be employing people to do the necessary day-to-day work as there are significant advantages to be gained.

Firstly, it helps stop burn out by giving an activist a paid job to do the boring stuff that has to be done. If they need to work, then why not in a job that is doing helping create social change? This in turn will ease pressure on volunteers who on the whole hate doing the managerial back-room stuff, and retains them longer. It is far easier to find people who want to do the occasional bar shift than find people prepared to manage an event for the entire night. It means that necessary jobs do not get lunched out, thus avoiding soul-destroying meetings which attempt to resolve the perennial crises that social centres often drift into as a result.

A second advantage is that of continuity and promotion. A person who is looking after a centre and providing a central point of contact will actually encourage people to use the place; it is likely to become a self-sustaining position financially as there is in place a solid basis for growth.

This is about having realistic expectations of what volunteers will contribute in the long term. Avoiding the energy destroying stuff means those involved can focus on why they got involved in the project in the first place, the front-of-house stuff and help it develop further. Too often social centres do not have time to sort this out as they are too busy dealing with the behind the scenes management, and the project becomes static and fails to fullfil its potential. If this state is not checked, then you are in a slow decline as problems invariably mount up elsewhere (degrading building/decoration, increased mess and disempowerment which all leads to a declining volunteer base as the vicious circle begins).

Often the response at this point is that employing someone is “selling out” our anarchist principles. I disagree strongly. Social centres are projects with one foot in the capitalist world and the incredible pressures in running a professional centre needs to be recognised. They are a useful stepping stone on the way to achieving the society that we desire, but still a long way from it so it is wrong to develop their business models on a world we don’t live in yet.

What actually matters is the long term survival of social centres, and just as importantly the people helping to run them, so that they remain bases for promoting social change. And it is hard to create social change in a space that is burning people out, or unable to sustain itself. If a social centre has people acting as de facto managers and that is not explicitly recognised, then again this a failure of principle. Anarchism does not reject people acting in a managerial role where they are responsible to the collective as a whole through an agreed system. However, an ad hoc development of that system has no accountability and thus ceases to be about mutual aid. The employee is a manager only in the limited sense that they over see the day to day running, the maintenance, doing the dray, etc., not that they manage the entire project. It is an important distinction to be recognised in this debate, though depending on the project other job descriptions might be more appropriate which do not carry the same baggage.

A key point to remember is that employing someone is not an absolving of responsibility by the remaining volunteers or an abdication of power into that person’s hands. The accepted model is that the volunteer committee runs the project and the employee is answerable to them. This happens in cooperatives such as Radical Routes where there is a paid finance worker to ensure that difficult job is done properly, but the control remains firmly in the hands of the cooperative as a whole.

The model can be adjusted so that collectives take on the job contract guaranteeing to perform the jobs in return for the ‘wages’. In one case in a community centre, one of the user groups paid for their rent on their action centre by looking after the social club bar located in the same building. Thus the job was actually collectivised and gave the collective an incentive to look after a community based project. The problem with this type of approach is that it depends on the collective remaining cohesive and there being enough collectives actually interested in doing it.

One final point on this, if you are considering employing someone, a useful lesson learned is that letting your mates do it because they are your mates is liable to backfire. For it to work, the criteria has to be someone who cares about the project, is capable of doing the boring stuff and reliable. Without all three you will become unstuck, but never be afraid to fire someone. What matters, as ever, is that it does not become another footnote in a history full of footnotes on nice ideas that did not quite make it.

The author has a number of years experience in helping to run social centres and squat based projects including OARC in Oxford. He has burnt out badly as a result. A number of discussions with others involved in social centres have helped develop some of these ideas.

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