Steve Wyler, former chief executive of Locality, reflects on the role history plays for community businesses today following the launch of his book In our Hands: a History of Community Business.
One Friday afternoon, about fifteen years ago, I had a visit from a Japanese professor. There was nothing particularly unusual about that. I was working for the Development Trusts Association, the forerunner of Locality, and we had frequent visits from Japanese academics, sometimes coach loads at a time. We used to tell them about our member organisations, community businesses across the country doing amazing things, and they would listen politely, thank us profusely, and we would never hear from them again.
On this occasion, I was more than a little impatient. It had been a long week and it was nearly six o’clock and I just wanted to go home. So I told this professor, whose name I learned was Yasuo Nishiyama, that I would be happy to talk to him but I would like to learn something from him as well. ‘You seem a little stressed,’ was his reply, ’allow me to give you a Japanese thumb massage. That should relax you’. It did. ‘Now,’ he went on, ‘find me the biggest piece of paper you have in your office, and a felt tip pen.’
Then he started to sketch out on a sheet on A3 paper a mind-map populated by development trusts and social enterprises and university settlements and housing association and garden cities and model villages and co-operatives, interspersed with names of people like Octavia Hill and Henry George and Ebenezer Howard and Robert Owen. Faster and faster he wrote, until the whole sheet of paper was covered, everything crazily connected with lines and arrows and intersecting circles. ‘There,’ he said and smiled at me, ‘My gift to you. Your history.’
A few days later, I was in a meeting with a group of people who were setting up the Social Enterprise Coalition, which is now Social Enterprise UK. The discussion turned to the term 'social enterprise’ and where it came from. ‘I think I was the first person to use the term,’ said someone, rather smugly, ‘back in 1992.’ ‘Actually, it must have been me,’ said another, ‘I came up with the words in 1987’. And so it went on, right round the table, everyone claiming to be the inventor of social enterprise. I wonder how far it really goes back, I thought, thinking about Yasuo Nishiyama’s mind map. Years later I discovered an article about leadership in social enterprises, which included the sentence: ‘should one wish to destroy a social enterprise, it could not be done more effectually than by aiding it in the appointment of a leader unfit for the office.’ How true, I thought. The article was published on March 15th 1877.
Importance of history
Does our history matter? Yes I think it does. The strength and endurance of the community business movement is not simply about breadth and scale in the here and now. We also have depth and scale in the past. With support from Power to Change, I have been able to explore the early origins of community business in the medieval guilds, in seventeenth century radicalism, in friendly societies and early co-operatives. I have seen how, generation after generation, people have turned to community business. Whether in response to the social evils of Victorian industrialisation, the poverty of the Great Depression, or the failures of modern capitalism and the welfare state. This, it seems to me, is a big story, but one which has been too often forgotten.
Or rather, it is a collection of many stories: Margaret Woodhouse and the Moravians in Pudsey in the 1760s; the Union Mill societies and the first community share issues in the 1790s; Josiah Warren and the first time bank in the 1820s; Robert Owen’s National Equitable Labour Exchange in the 1830s; Feargus O’Connor and the Chartists in the 1840s; the Brynmawr Experiment in the 1930s; John Pearce and the flowering of community business in Scotland in the 1980s; the first community pubs, also in the 1980s. And so on.
And what happens if we forget the stories of our past, the struggles and the hopes of those who have gone before us, the disappointments as well as the triumphs? Then, I believe, our capacity to learn and to inspire, to build our collective story and therefore to grow a movement, capable of inspiring social change, is inevitably diminished. And we allow other, less hopeful stories to dominate our minds. As Ben Okri said ‘A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or orientation... Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger.’
And that in the end is the gift of our history. It can make the heart larger, and in doing so, I believe it can give us the confidence to imagine and to act, and perhaps to shape a more hopeful future.
Steve Wyler is formerly chief executive of Locality, and co-founder of A Bertter Way. He is a panel member of the inquiry into the future of civil society. His new book 'In our hands: a history of community business' is available here.