As I See It: Catherine Drea’s fortnightly column for the Waterford News & Star
MY head is bursting with the voices of big P Politicians on the radio this morning. Words merge into each other, blah blah blah. Who will cut through the noise, who will reach out to me across the airwaves? In the end, who will I believe?
Because politics with a small p is where my heart has always been. It’s what volunteers and local communities do. It’s what I find myself listening for; just one voice I can feel connected to. Any voice with heart, care, thoughtfulness, selflessness.
For many years I had the privilege of initiating community projects in towns and villages all over Ireland. I once met a woman in Tipperary who never forgot that I had identified her community as “disadvantaged” from the first large study done by Trutz Haase in the 1990’s. Being “disadvantaged” then meant that you were in line for a grant to help your community address their own needs.
We still have a laugh about that one word she was missing to help her to fund her work. For ever more she would use the word “disadvantaged” to develop an incredible local centre, with a creche, cafe and workshop. That’s how the jargon and the system excludes people.
She had set up a parents group, mainly for the mothers of children with special needs. She had provided tea and a warm place to come to. It was a support group before she had even known the term. But it was down to her setting it up in the first place that identified her as a leader. Politics but with a small p.
She didn’t assume that she knew it all herself. She didn’t make decisions on what she thought would be “good for them,” she just listened and the work and the community grew around her. People trusted her and knew she was trying to serve their needs. It all led to one of the country’s most lauded childcare facilities. Where the state had failed, she and her network succeeded. To this day, their work is still amongst the most skilled but the lowest paid in the land.
Sometimes, across the country, when seeking out women like her, I would first have to wade through “the usual suspects”. These were aspiring or elected politicians, hungry for grants they would later point to as “all their own work”. Sometimes they would try to hijack projects.
Thankfully the government departments funding the work, insisted on non-political committees and ultimately independent non-political company directors.
Just beneath the political layer, would usually be another group of respected locals who dominated the community through religion, sport and education. Often they had accessed grants in the past and spent them on extensions and playing fields. Sometimes their ego driven projects would become empty white elephants, abandoned through a lack of inclusion. A blot on the landscape.
Yes of course, there were gems amongst those individuals and politicians. People who could use their privilege to open doors for others. But the priority then, was to target people who had no representation, no money to donate to political causes and no power. People who had left school early, who were unemployed, who had faced issues of poverty or disability. People on the margins who knew the hard issues from their own experience, not from listening to Joe Duffy.
For the last 30 years the empowerment of communities has changed Ireland. This quiet revolution began in kitchens and meeting rooms, when groups of people who had never been asked their opinions before, were brought together to form community organisations and take back ownership of their home place.
Often these groups were led by women. Women, who had been excluded from every other social or community structure – except from making tea and sandwiches of course. They went on to build enterprises, create opportunities, campaign for change and improve the quality of life for families.
But the sad thing is that most of them never wanted to go into mainstream politics. Well you could understand why! In those early days there was no childcare, no culture of support for women in the political parties, no encouragement. Even now, there are barriers. Women who understand the issues from their own lives and experience, find it very hard to stomach Politics with the capital P.
I salute those individuals who put themselves forward for us to vote for or not. It takes courage. But my heart will always be listening for authenticity, connection and community. The quiet revolutionary that I am, I want to be inspired by how we can work together to fix things, how politicians can bring us with them. How together we can build on the politics of the grassroots.
I’m listening very hard, but I’m still not sure which of the politicians I can trust to deliver. Time will tell.