DONCOPOLITANISM: Zen and the Art of Doing

market garden estate
Last week I spoke about how the Doncopolitan was driven by passion; how Rachel and I (with help from our many contributors, advertisers and supporters, of course) have built both a magazine and, we hope, a new-found faith in Doncaster with very little money, no time (with no money we have to work other jobs just to pay the bills, so the magazine is largely made at night, which also means…), no respite and in a seemingly constant battle against the naysayers.
Why would we tire ourselves to breaking point for an arts and culture magazine?
Well, despite the fact that Doncaster *really* did need an arts and culture magazine, the Doncopolitan has always been much more than that. From the first issue it has been a manifesto for change. One which argues that we, the people of one of the poorest regions in England, can and will make a brighter future for our town.
This idea was presented in the pages of the Doncopolitan right from the very first issue. The ‘fake it until you make it’ message suggested that if we act the way we want to be (if, as Gandhi suggested, we become the change we want to see in the world) then we will see our attitude manifest itself as real change; something which, certainly in terms of arts culture in our town, has already begun to happen. Issue one is hard to find in all its papery goodness, so if you haven’t already read it check out the online version:

We elaborated on this even further within the pages of issue 2 (in some ways our embarrassing ‘second album’ – we put the poster on the wrong page and for some reason the masthead has a skinny ‘D’). Republic of South Yorkshire 2.0 (RoSY2.0) presents a vision for a bottom-up, self-built, local economy which focuses on the essentials of life (food, shelter, energy, creativity, companionship and good times) to create jobs and revenue for our region. Despite giving a nod to the old Republic of South Yorkshire this isn’t a backward looking plea for a return to times past, as I said back then:

I’m not talking a ‘People’s Republic’ here, we don’t need any more ‘ideology’ (left or right), we just need a healthy boost of ‘I-do-ology’.

What we also need to do is to combat the widespread cynicism (the constant negativity of the ‘yes, but..’ and ‘It’ll never happen in Donny’ brigade) and cowardly paternalism (the dis-empowering idea that somebody else – be it the ‘experts’, the ‘council’, the ‘government’ or the ‘politicos’ – should do the work on our behalf). Don’t get me wrong, we totally understand people’s concerns. There have been many top-down grand schemes over the years, but despite having millions of pounds pumped into the region the situation on the average street hasn’t really changed much. How do we know? Because we come from – and still live in – those very streets. 

I am a largely self-educated, self-taught artist from North Doncaster who has lived (often swaying in and out of official breadline poverty) in towns like Askern, Scawthorpe and Bentley for the last 30 years. Rachel has a higher level of education (and arguably a higher level of talent!..) than I, but she is also a ‘strike baby’ who now lives in an area which, according to the HMGs Index of Multiple Deprivation, falls in the top ten percent most deprived wards in the country. In short, we know how hard it is to live in modern Doncaster, because we live in modern Doncaster.

But we also know constantly moaning doesn’t change a thing. It is only our deeds which make real change possible. In our personal lives we have both fought for change, and despite the set-backs I think it’s fair to say that we’ve managed to create something pretty unique. And so, given half a chance and a lot more confidence, could most of the people in Donny.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the grand designs – I love projects like The Hub and the new Civic & Cultural Quarter – but what is lacking, and what is so desperately needed, is a push from below which is capable of scooping up those of us who, for whatever reason, are currently disengaged from mainstream education and/or employment opportunities, and which can provide a way for everyday people to invent and build their own future. I outline some possible grassroots projects in RoSY2.0 (page 8):

But, as things currently stand, those of us who are pushing for change are constantly held back by the age-old shackles of time and money. We have often lamented the fact that there is a whole world of talent currently sitting on supermarket checkouts or picking orders in a giant warehouse; talent which has the potential to reshape Doncaster for the better if it were only given the chance.
We have also continuously warned of the haemorrhaging of talent from our area as the youth are forced to find employment away from Doncaster if they want to find work in the arts or creative industries sector.
As I’ve already mentioned, it is only the fact that Rachel and I are employed outside of the Doncopolitan which makes it possible for us to produce it in the first place. But this also means that we’re currently working to our full capacity just to provide a platform for our ideas; working seven days a week we have run out of time to put these ideas into action… and you should see the splendour of our dreams!
We need to construct new ways to support Doncaster’s doers and dreamers.
Our area is poor, but it is not completely without means. We need to encourage donations from businesses, to crowdfund, to fund-raise, to borrow, beg and steal (OK, stealing might be a little extreme, but you get my point… mind you, I kinda get the point of Robin Hood too 😉 ) to provide the bursaries, low/no-interest loans, grants and seed-funding needed to free up time for the creative, the productive and the passionate to do their thing free (for a start-up period at least) from the chains of a hand-to-mouth existence.
Finding money just to pay for people’s time might not sound like a far-reaching, forward-thinking plan. But if this money were to go to the people with the vision, drive and skills to build new enterprises in Doncaster then it would not be dead money. It would be used to create jobs and generate further revenue for the local economy; which, in turn, generates the possibility for further seed-funding for the next batch of ‘Dontrepreneurs’.
Notice I’m not talking about social enterprise here. Social enterprise, as I will discuss shortly, has an important role to play in the do-conomy, but what most enterprising people need is freedom from the ties imposed by traditional funding streams. And with the future of such funding being so uncertain it might be wise to save them for those who provide more direct support for the most vulnerable in society.
It may sound like a risk to offer people money with less restrictions on spending, but ultimately what can they do but spend. Which is in itself a bonus for the local economy. Existing businesses should really consider supporting a do-conomy fund for exactly this reason!
But that’s enough talk of money (although, if there are any wealthy benefactors out there looking for a new home for their money, I would like to say that Rachel and I are very cheap to keep!), back to the business (quite literally) of doing.
When I talk of a do-conomy I mean exactly that, a local economy based on people doing productive things. When we are actively making, growing, creating, designing, building, etc., we are engaged with work. And when we do that work to a high enough degree we create work for others. This is enterprise. I’m not offering any groundbreaking theories here, I’m just emphasising the fact that if we are serious about creating jobs we should be talking to the people who are serious about creating work. The doers.
Yes, a giant warehouse might provide a good many low-paid, menial jobs, but a job which provides even a low degree of creative skill is better at seeding the kind of employment which will create a much more diverse local economy. And diversity, as any ecologist, economist or evolutionary biologist will tell you, is the key to long-term resilience, adaptability and sustainability.
Thankfully Doncaster is far from impoverished when it comes to people capable of creating this kind of work. As our latest issue (and most of the issues before it) shows, we are definitely a town of doers:

But for every Jade Clark, Naomi Horan or Mandy Keating (to name but a few) there are a dozen dreamers who currently lack the space or (as previously mentioned) the funds to freely do.
We have already discussed money, but space is something which is much easier to solve. We would encourage artists and designers to check out our friends at the Queen’s Road Design Centre, The Loft and Artfuel, but we would also like to point out that, in Doncaster, there is most definitely no shortage of space. From the many empty top-floors in Doncaster town centre to the abandoned buildings and lots in our satellite towns, every neglected eyesore is in fact a potential incubator for change.
We know how powerful the right space can be. Since creating our studio on Copley Road we have met many amazing people and helped to seed a diverse range of projects and ideas. Sometimes we get frustrated because our work is regularly interrupted, but then we remind ourselves how hard it was before we had such a space.
Every opportunity should be taken to marry potential spaces to would-be enterprises.
Even if people don’t have the money for rent the fact that a building is inhabited can save a landlord a fortune (empty properties devalue and also devalue the surrounding area) and the fact that people can see it being used can even help to sell it for the landlord.
There are also many local authority buildings currently mothballed due to a lack of funding. Selling these does nothing for the long-term future of our town (once they’re gone they are unlikely to be replaced), but as DMBC rent agreements are currently written they are not usually allowed to be used for private business.
But what if they could be used by social enterprises? What if the rent agreement were ‘no private profit’ rather than no business activity at all. If social enterprises could use these buildings to boost the local do-conomy then they really would deserve to be known as ‘assets’.
The most important space of all at this moment in time would be a ‘Do-conomy Hub’ in or near Doncaster town centre dedicated to designing, promoting and facilitating in the creation of further grassroots enterprises.
What is true of buildings and other commercial spaces is also true of resources. As a self-taught photographer and graphic designer I know all too well how frustrating it can be not to have access to the ‘right’ tools for the job.
For years the only option I had was to use second hand, often ‘end-of-use’, equipment and Free Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) applications running on the GNU/Linux Operating System. This was great in terms of my personal education and environmental impact (I always encourage upcycling wherever possible), but with regard to career it can be very limiting not to have access to higher-spec equipment and industry standard software. The software and equipment itself is not always better, but when something is used so widely across an industry it isn’t long before you find yourself at a disadvantage.
As with buildings, there isn’t a lack of essential resources in Doncaster, there is simply, as things currently stand, a lack of access. Doncaster’s businesses, schools and institutions have an incredible array of resources which could be used to help kick-start the do-conomy.
We need to work together to find ways in which we can grant access to such resources when they’re not being used by their owners. The aforementioned Do-conomy Hub would also be the perfect place to site a Common Treasury of essential equipment, materials and skills.
All of this is possible, right here, right now.
Rachel and I are constantly meeting people who have the ideas, the skills and the drive which, if unleashed, could change the face of Doncaster as we know it. They just need some very basic resources to turn their dreams and desires into solid enterprises.
If you are an individual, a business, an institution or a local authority who happens to have some spare capital, land, buildings or resources of any description (or if you have links to any who can help) then you could help create an exciting new grassroots regeneration scheme for our region.
Spread the word. Spread the love. Spread the means. And lets turn Doncaster into the world’s first Do-conomy.


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