Making a difference: a new approach to political engagement
Philip Austin and Clare Frackelton from Bolton Quakers share how their meeting is taking a new approach to support each other's witness in the world.
For those who haven't been here before, a short introduction. Bolton is a large former mill-town, in Greater Manchester, with three MPs. It's not had an easy time economically in recent years, and there is a big range in demographics and income levels, with significant areas of poverty and also wealth. Our Meeting in Bolton tends to have around 30 people at meeting for worship most weeks (slightly fewer during the pandemic), with a mix of those who are relatively new to Quakers and more long-standing Friends.
After one of our Zoom meetings for worship in the summer of 2020, a Friend expressed frustration at the difficulty in getting anywhere when writing to their MP. Unusually for Bolton, we currently have two Conservative MPs and one Labour MP, and a Conservative-led local authority.
Our Friend's frustration clearly resonated and some of us decided to arrange another online conversation to explore this further. In the nick of time, we spotted that the 2020 Summer Series event looking at political engagement was shortly to happen; so a number of us participated and came away buzzing with ideas.
[Watch the 2021 Spring Session on political engagement.]
Engaging with decision-makers
The group that met – and subsequently named itself the 'Making a Difference' group – initially mapped out our areas of concern, passion and frustration. Drawing on the session, we began to dig into the process of engaging with decision-makers and -shapers at local and national level. We considered what we could bring to this as Quakers. How could we connect and open up space for understanding rather than simply falling into the pattern of exchanging incompatible views?
The group has met most months in the period since. Friends come with different areas of concern – from arms trade (we have a local missile manufacturer) to meals on wheels provision, to the climate emergency. Throughout, we have been very aware of the impact of the pandemic on our community – particularly the most vulnerable.
The group meetings are opportunities for sharing our experience of taking action to make a difference, and for working collaboratively, sharing information and looking at how we can approach the task. We don't all seek to work on the same issues, but support one another in following the different leadings within the group's membership.
Addressing local issues
Some of us had not previously focussed on local political engagement to any significant degree. We have found that this is an area where we can play a useful role in making connections with particular councillors who are trying to address difficult local issues.
They in turn have found it useful to share information and to have input from individual members of our group. And of course the process of building relationships – a significant component of what might be described as a distinctive Quaker approach – is much easier at the level of local democracy.
Enriching the life of the meeting
The fact that this group is rooted in a local meeting is worth reflecting on. It is a group of Friends who already meet regularly, sharing in the joys and sorrows of one another's lives.
In our meeting we also have a lively weekly discussion group that covers a wide spectrum of topics and has, during the pandemic, welcomed participants from different parts of the local community, from different regions of the country and even different parts of the world. This enriches the life of the meeting as a whole, and there has been a useful overlap and joint exploration of issues with our Making a Difference group.
Growing in our witness
For some Friends, they have felt rather unsupported over the years in taking action on their specific concern but not managing to get others to take action with them. They have said that our group has helped them experience in a more explicit way how Friends in the meeting can and do support and uphold one another, whilst that support would have previously been more implicit.
For other Friends, our group's meetings have been energising and inspiring. After a difficult first half of 2021, the group is very aware of the challenges ahead – not least the massive budget cuts that our council is planning to make. Our hope is that our little group will continue to nurture, support and help us to grow in our witness during the difficult months ahead.