The Common Place, Leeds

The Common Place –social centre, idea, and chaotic, ever changing grassroots, political project – recently celebrated its third anniversary. For at least a year before it opened a dozen or so people sat around in a nearby church café every Thursday evening in a group called Leeds Action for Radical Change to analyse, organise and take action against what we saw as the ills of our world – capitalism, money, shit jobs, ecological destruction, the plight of asylum seekers and poverty in our city – you name it. We also talked a lot about the need to have our own space – as a base for political organising and grassroots politics. In those early days we wanted somewhere with an affordable café, meeting and gig space, art space, a garden, bar, open access computers, a radical library and bookshop, a free shop, oh yes and a swimming pool. It was in these conversations, amongst the tea urns, church pews, stained glass windows and wipe clean tables of the Holy Trinity Church café, that the idea of the Common Place was born.

Leeds Flier

We were lucky enough to get a large grant from a wealthy wing of the UK direct action movement in the run up to the 2005 meeting of the G8 in Scotland, and so we got busy scouring the city looking for a home for the project. The answer came by looking through a letter box of a rambling old woollen mill in the heart of Leeds’ rapidly gentrified and yuppified docklands. It hadn’t been used for years and the owners, failed textile magnates, were keen to extract some extra cash in the twilight years of this early Victorian dark satanic mill. Sitting around in ‘Wharf Chambers’ the first night, impersonating the ‘Kids from Fame’ with what was left of the 80s knitwear, the name of our new baby came easily. ‘It’s a common place isn’t it?’ said one person. ‘It’s a place for everyone, where we can all meet whatever our backgrounds and build a new world together.’ We smiled, we liked it. The project was named.

Three years on is a good time to reflect. This piece of writing prompted several conversations about what the hell we are trying to do, and what this place is for.

So what happens at the Common Place?

Looking back over the last three years, what strikes us is that the Common Place has become a very durable convergence point.– we are still here and continually evolving and questioning ourselves. We are now on at least our third generation of committed volunteers and members, and there has been an impressive handover between different groups that have come in and out of the space. The fact that people still come down suggests that we are doing something right. One of the great things about the space which people comment on is that it’s a great place to meet people, hang out and attend cheap (but good quality!) entertainment and events.

Leeds has become a bit of a corporate hell hole (obsessed with Harvey Nichols, big brand boozers and boutique shopping for the nouveaux riche), and so we really fill a gap in Leeds’ grassroots scene in the city centre. It’s difficult to define what we are and what we offer. We are a bit of an intentional hybrid that is constantly evolving in an organic way. What the Centre offers has changed a lot – over the three years so far it has included: meetings (endless meetings), our weekly (now bi monthly) organising meetings, gigs, cinema, workshops, language classes, open access computers, talks, film and zine making festivals, free schools and a free shop, an action planning event called ‘Action Central’, national gatherings, cooking courses, skill shares, self defence classes, exhibitions, and the growth of a beautiful garden space and BBQs. The swimming pool was never built!

Common Conversation

Common Conversation takes place at the Common Place every Saturday and offers free conversational English lessons for asylum seekers and refugees, followed by a shared meal. It has been running since April 2006 and currently about 45 students attend each week as well as 10 to 15 volunteers. Everyone who comes really values it as a social space where they can meet and make friends and also help out with teaching, cooking and helping to organise socials and trips. It’s really great that the students like to get involved in the project as well as coming to the lessons. It happens across two rooms, with one room for beginners lessons, people cooking and eating and kids playing, and the other packed with people in the intermediate class. Everyone makes good use of the computers too. It would probably be really difficult to find anywhere else as central as the Common Place to hold this, not to mention having to pay venue hire, and it’s a great, informal space where everyone can feel comfortable and happy amongst lots of other friendly people.

Some quotes from the students really sum it up for us:

“It is a social and friendly place. I can meet and talk with my friends – local people and other refugees and asylum seekers. Common Conversation is like my second family and Common Place is like my second home.”

“When we are together we forget that we are asylum seekers with a number. We feel like human beings again and we feel like we are alive. You can’t forget that happiness. When we are here sitting and learning we forget where we are from and we are all united. We help each other, we make friends with each other and we are the Common Conversation group.”

Our values

So what are our values? One night, a student from the local art college put a tape recorder under our noses and asked ‘what are the five main values that are most important to this place? We all looked at each other and shifted uncomfortably in our seats. After a minute, we had a go at an answer.

‘Autonomy’ came the first offer.
‘Self-management’, said another.
‘Treating people with consideration,’ came another, ‘and not for profit’.
‘Creativity and using consensus’, followed.
‘Anti-capitalist, that’s an interesting one. That might be a difficult one,’ was the final one as we all laughed nervously.
‘I think it’s strongly anti-capitalist just by creating a space that is outside the rules of capital. Certainly dirty enough to be anti-capitalist!’, came the rebuff’

The values of the place continue to be pretty much implicit rather than explicit. They are always changing according to what happens, and we are always keen to have more conversations about our changing values. The reluctance, however, stems from the fact that it is difficult for the Common Place to have one particular set of aspirations or values – its too diffuse and used by too many different groups to say we subscribe to this ‘ism’ or that theory. In this way it’s more like a resource centre that lots of different groups access. It has less of a common identity although initially it had more of a common aim in that many of us got together with the idea of going to the G8 in Scotland in 2005 and getting involved in anti-capitalist organising. We literally took the whole centre (its sinks, cinema, chairs and books) up to Scotland to a squatted field cum temporary autonomous village called the Hori-zone from where we made our night-time incursions against this unelected club of global elites. Many of us cut our political teeth there and developed a strong desire for horizontal political organising. That focus has now shifted and dispersed, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing that we don’t have that common focus anymore. It’s great that there is lots of diversity and the feeling now is that it is more a place that people use rather than it being a space for a particular group and its ideas.

Since late 2007 there has been a working group at the Common Place called ‘Open Up!’ and we’ve been looking at inclusivity. As part of this we wanted to get people’s thoughts on how effectively various values that are important to the Common Place are actually upheld. We wanted to try and do this in a pictorial way, to try and encourage more creative thinking around the topic. We also wanted to have something visual we can display on the wall rather than just words. At a meeting we asked everyone to shout out different ‘values’ and wrote these up on a board. Everyone then split into smaller groups and each were given some coloured crayons and a sheet of paper with the diagram on (see the picture below). First they had to choose 8 values from the board, and each spoke represented one of these. Each person then had to put a mark on each spoke according to how effectively they thought the Common Place fulfilled that value. The closer to the middle the more effective. We then had a discussion about the results and we’ll hopefully be able to use it as a way of getting people thinking about what works well in the Common Place, what works less well, and what we can do about it.

Organising the Common Place way…

Down the Common Place, we live by contradictions, strung up between the pragmatic and the ideological. At the end of the month we have to pay the rent, but at the same time we are trying to build another world. But one of the strengths of this place is that we are good at being pragmatic about our politics. We try and live by our principles, but we are happy to reconsider them when they don’t work and we make compromises when we have to. Renting this building for example is one compromise we were happy to make to get a social centre and a semi-permanent base for political activity in Leeds.

So we are comfortable with trial and error and if something doesn’t work we move on. Trial and error is a useful principle and in general we’re not fixed in dogmatic ways of doing stuff. We are always open to learning new ways of doing things. We also feel we are quite good at figuring out stuff through crisis, so when things go wrong it gives us an opportunity to fix them.

We often say that our politics are pre-figurative, as Ghandi said, ‘be the change you want to see’. We don’t have all the answers or a blueprint but that’s one of our strengths. We’re both experimental and creative and we are good at creating rules and recreating them when they don’t work. At the end of the day we hope that the Common Place provides a critical example of how we can do things differently in our society.

A hub for action

The Common Place works as a hub and focal point for action. There’s a lot of crossover between the different groups involved. People come here and meet for a particular reason then go off in different directions. They meet other groups and get something new out of that, and new things happen out of that. There’s an amazing range of cross-pollination of actions and ideas. It works well in spite of the disconnectedness of all the different bits that make up the centre.

Although it is like a hub, there is often a lack of a feeling of a hang out space like a café or a pub, where a lot more conversation about who we are would happen. Very often we are here busily doing things, talking about the projects and events we are doing, but not talking about what this place is. It is a good platform, a base for non-hierarchical politics, but there is still a lack of mixing of different people that use the building and knowing what each other is doing.

One big organisational issue for us is the feel of the building. Sure it’s not a good ‘hanging out space’ and this is because of the coldness of the building – both literally and often emotionally/socially. This often leads us to talking lots about the physical layout of the space rather than politics. And one of the really interesting questions is: what kind of space and layout maximises that hanging out?

Strategies and successes

So how can we gauge the success of this place? We use this place to find ways out of the parts of the world that we don’t like. We certainly talk about some of the problems we face with capitalism and work – and this is one of the few places we can do that in our lives. But we have to acknowledge that we are not necessarily in open conflict with the system, If we were we’d probably be more ghettoised. But we chose to develop something more accessible and inclusive which would both bring people together but also act as a resource for existing activist groups. The point for us is that we don’t feel we have lost just because capitalism still exists. We need to set ourselves smaller aims or at least see the change happening in different ways than ‘bringing the system down tomorrow’.

Another big question is whether this place is a means to an end or an end in itself? Is it just a means of achieving the world we want to see or something worthwhile in itself? Of course we would like more control over the building, and not be at the mercy of a landlord. But even by renting, the Common Place gives us glimpses of the world we want to see. But is this enough? Are glimpses enough when we passionately want a different future to begin – to break out of some of the shit that seems to hold us fixed forever. We do get glimpses of the world we dream about – where we can manage our cities, based upon need, joy and freedom and not profit. So this journey is probably as useful as any end point.

We sometimes wonder if we have become too distracted running this place to take on ‘capitalism’ head on – whatever that means. But maybe we are choosing our battles more carefully – ones that are worthwhile (like supporting asylum seekers, grassroots music, political education, skill sharing, learning consensus, self management) and can teach us lessons. So we need to see what we actually have achieved. We make the future we want seem more attainable by simply having this building. It opens up increasing possibilities for people to organise themselves. It does have a wider impact, as one member said:

I mean the thing I like about it is people know it and identify it as an alternative – like complete strangers. I went to a festival once and a complete stranger said on the microphone: ‘Get down to The Common Place, support you local social centre. It’s a great place.’ It’s putting it out there that there is this alternative. So, it’s become this thing that people speak about and refer to, to give you a sense of hope, which is brilliant.

We continue to ask ourselves ‘what is the best way to get the world we want?’ Maybe the best route to radical social change might be to close the Common Place and do something completely different. If the Common Place is a means to an end and it stops being something that promotes radical transformation and instead inhibits it and becomes institutionalised then let’s lock the doors and throw away the key. For this reason, it is always crucial to review what we do, and all the things that happen in the building, how it’s run and how that advances the ideas we want to advance.

And of course the problems…

Yes we aren’t perfect. Problems range from the perpetual mess to big political bust ups. Both are equally difficult to resolve. We have tried the ‘Ministry of Filth’ for the former, and a fairly robust consensus meeting for the latter. Recently, we had a fall out over whether to allow the place to host some visiting Cuban speakers. In the end, a couple of members used their block to stop this event suggesting this event breeched our anti-authoritarian stance. From such tensions come solutions – we are setting up a mediation group to look at such conflicts and are revisiting our bookings policy and the very difficult issue of who we include and exclude from the building. Where do we draw a line around who is in and out of our political world? What is an event consistent with our politics and what isn’t? This is a really tough question and one that can’t be ignored.

Inclusivity is constantly brought up as an issue (and we are addressing this through an inclusivity group). In terms of volunteers, it is still quite hard to get involved. Wandering in off the street for the first time you are confronted by a large room, people stood around, on computers, maybe cooking. There isn’t anything, or anyone, that immediately welcomes you, allows you to hide, or integrate slowly. You are thrown in at the deep end, as everyone turns around and says ‘yes?’ So we need to work on that. We need better structures, times and tasks to get people involved. The bigger problem is that there isn’t really enough of us that have the time and will to run a social centre for more hours, especially through the day. Many of us have thought that it would be really good if it was open all the time, even if that involved a paid worker or a running the café as a workers co-op.

There is also a crucial issue of on going gender imbalances. How many men cook and wash up! Who always talks the most at meetings! Some of us are aware that there are women who don’t come, especially to meetings, for a specific reason and it is essential to do something about that. But we hope we are open and flexible enough to tackle these problems as they come up and find ways – to turn problems into potential solutions and keep developing the Common Place political project.

This article was compiled from interviews, extracts and contributions from several members of the Common Place Social Centre. The Common Place is at 23-25 Wharf St, Leeds, LS2 7EQ.

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