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Subject, Consumer or Citizen?

By Sara Venn


Incredible Edible has always been a grass roots movement. When Incredible Edible Todmorden first began there was no huge funding bid, or agreements with local authorities, but there was a will for change by real, committed citizens of a town who were engaged enough to create connections that lead to real, and lasting change.

In Pam Warhurst’s now famed Ted Talk she says no permission was requested and often we hear Incredible Edible groups suggesting it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Incredible Edible Todmorden proved and continues to prove that a connected and committed engaged community can change their environment and sustain that change.

This is a key part of the Incredible Edible message. People getting together to make change is a powerful and empowering moment and one that can often give people the strength to find and use their voice. But one of the things we hear from groups from time to time is that they struggle to engage their community and this leads to issues around sustaining projects within groups.

We recently attended an event with the Food Ethics Council and they spoke about the difference between being a subject, a consumer and a citizen. At first it might appear that there is little difference but in fact the way we engage with the world is really telling through the way we engage within our communities and is often the reason people may be nervous or seem disinterested in getting involved with anything that looks like people, or citizen led change.

To understand this further we need to break down the difference between subject, consumer and citizen. A subject is passive. A subject will obey and may appear to be happy to be dependent and be pleased to obey commands. A consumer whilst more independent will demand things and want to be served by whoever they deem to be in control in a situation. A citizen, however, is interdependent, creative and a facilitator, unafraid to use their voice but aware of the power of connection. Whereas we often assume we are all citizens in reality many are consumers and this affects the way they engage with projects and change. Whilst a citizen will support the facilitation of change in a truly grassroots way, consumers might prefer the role of volunteer, looking to take part rather than be a part of something. This subtle difference can be really challenging for groups looking to bring together their community and can lead to confusion, and expectation that there will be someone in charge to tell people what to do, rather than everyone’s voice being equal. Grass roots, cooperative change needs citizens to support consumers to step into the citizen role, a difficult task but one that fully empowers communities as well as individuals.

This is where there can be confusion in folk looking to create Incredible Edible groups in their areas. As citizens, connecting people and supporting change across communities seems the simplest way forwards to create change. However, if consumers join and get involved how do we facilitate them to be more than what we might see as a traditional volunteer, turning up and being given jobs to do, rather than turning up and saying what job they will do. A subtle difference but one that makes a real difference to a group dynamic. How do we support consumers to find and use their voices for change and to share their message, rather than accepting a message heard from elsewhere, risking that message being diluted and incorrectly shared?

We are not going to pretend we have the answers to these questions. For certain learning from non hierarchical systems of citizenship might help us to break down the need for leadership and work on how that might change the way we organise our groups. And it’s important that we understand that whilst we are ensuring every voice counts, we are not advocating anarchy but more a space where everyone’s voice and skills are championed and shared within the project.  Where everyone is valued and no one feels they are unable to speak their truth. Where rather than seeing people in a finance orientated hierarchy, we celebrate people for their skills and abilities. After all in a world where we are advocating change surely who has more bedrooms and bathrooms is of little importance by comparison to someone who has the skills of growing food, or producing products that we know are needed in a community who’s economic strength is the variety of skills they have within them.

Incredible Edible groups support change through connecting with everyone, acknowledging their skills and realising that with skills communities can make real change without the need to spend a lifetime writing funding bids. For this we need to find leadership models for an alternative and citizen led movement, which we will focus on in another piece. If we use skills as currency and share our wealth as we connect with more and more people, that traditional model of leader and volunteers dissolves and the group becomes self governing, strong and truly self sustaining. A world where we are all equal and there is far more that connects us than divides.