Towards Hydro-citizenship? Speaking with Trevor Roberts

I spent the best part of two days at the beginning of this month at a Hydrocitizenship research project full team meeting held at the Windmill Hill City Farm in south Bristol. Some of that time I spent talking with ex-policeman and Canal Connections Director Trevor Roberts. Trevor and I first met properly at an earlier National Team meeting in Shipley in February 2015. (See earlier posts Troubling ‘epistemological/methodological’ waters? Parts 1 & 2) and I have come to value and enjoy his company.

Canal Connections is a social enterprise that explores opportunities for social regeneration. It does this through the medium of “waterways and their environs by the innovative engagement of individuals, families, communities and organisations (corporate, statutory and voluntary) whilst enhancing the built and natural heritage of that environment”.  This approach is based on the belief that “the canal environment provides a unique learning environment, particularly for those who benefit through a practical and vocational experience”. They see the canal environment as an under-utilized asset “for both individuals and agencies … seeking an alternative to traditional methods of engagement and empowerment”. As an enterprise Canal Connections embraces the potential of the canals for connecting with people on a variety of levels and they aim to use that environment as a stimulus to support those who want to develop new found skills and experiences and to encourage them to embrace opportunities. In particular those that will enable them to promote themselves and the area through the delivery of services or development of products for widespread community benefit. But there is also a strong desire to encourage individuals to learn more and, in the process, become ambassadors within and for their own communities.

I particularly enjoy talking with Trevor because he is an intensely practical and pragmatic man and, being neither artist nor academic, is less caught up in the tensions between conceptual projections and personal ambitions and anxieties that tend to complicate participation in any big research project of this kind. That’s not to say there aren’t things he’d like to get out of the project on a personal level, since he is obviously keen to build on what he’s learning, but only that he’s more open and straightforward about how his personal and collective concerns are related. Anyway, I enjoy talking with him both for the pleasure of it and because doing so helps me understand more clearly the internal dynamics of the research project as a whole.

Trevor is clearly a pragmatic manager who tries to do whatever is required of him to get things done. The emphasis in his work on giving others practical and vocational experience clearly reflects his own values and experience and there is no a trace of the ‘high altitude’ assumptions that are second nature to so many academics or artists (who, ironically, are often the first to criticise this tendency in academics).

I’m currently very interested in Gemma Corradi Fiumara’s work on listening as an attempt to recover: “the neglected and perhaps deeper roots of what we call thinking”. (See her The Other Side Of Language: A philosophy of listening Routledge 1990). Necessary work because the academic and cultural worlds in particular have internalised a mentality that: ‘knows how to speak but not to listen’; and that, in turn, feeds the culture of ‘competing monologues’ on which possessive individualism is predicated. Much of what Trevor and I discussed relates, albeit indirectly, to the business of face-to-face listening as a way of validating practical experience.

I’ll summarise this in my own terms, rather than those of the conversations themselves, but very much with Trevor’s approach in mind. We spoke about the value of managing creative tensions – of listening in the spaces between polarised positions so as to shift attitudes, and of the necessity of linking listening to those normally not heard to practical, transformative, action. We spoke about the need to enable communities of place and interest that have little or no voice with regard to the authorities who determine significant aspects of their lives – something I see as replicated in the sphere of academic management. We spoke about the way in which specialist academic and cultural language and practical ambitions need very careful mediation if they are to become something of value to communities.  We spoke about the importance of enacting terms like  ‘listening’, ‘validating’, ‘learning’, ‘translation’, acknowledging multiple ‘voices’, etc. so as to encourage people to change the way in which they relate to each other, and we spoke about the time necessary to developing transformative conversations.