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An open letter to our Utopian Fair Letter Writers

My Future York

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Dear Utopia Letter Writer,

Thank you so much for writing to us at the Somerset House, Utopia Fair in June. We have written back to you personally and have also written this letter to everyone who wrote to us.

Who are the Utopian Council?

As we said on the stall:

We are the Utopian Council. We are a collaboration of minds and hands. Together we are the ears to your queries, dreams and fears and a catalyst for your actions.

The idea of this ‘council’ derives from an ancient concept left behind from earlier days, where cities, towns and constituencies were ruled by tiered management structures and elected members. However the Utopian Council is open to your interpretation. There are no limits to our duties as a council, or yours as ‘the people’, we are here for you as you are for us.

As well as being your Utopian Council we are also the My Future York research team who are exploring how histories of the city can be used to open up alternative futures and different political visions for the city. Reading and responding to your letters helped us think a lot about how we might conceptualize differently the relationship between local council and the people that live in localities.

‘Manifestations of feelings from all people will be encouraged at all times’

To read your letters and organize our responses, we met in the City of York Council chamber in the Guildhall. Our stall in London was inspired by inverting a sign which hangs in the chamber, directed at the public gallery. The sign reads:

‘No manifestation of feeling from the public will be allowed during the council meetings.’

Our Utopian Council sign that hung above our stall at Somerset House instead stated that, ‘Manifestations of feelings from all people will be encourage at all times’. It was in this spirit we read and replied to your letters.

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How we read and responded to your letters (or bureaucratic democracy!)

Of course it is very common to criticize governments for being bureaucratic but as we started our task we realized there was a lot of paper to manage! The number of letters we received called on us to have to order our work in some way. We also wanted to make sure we were being fair to each letter.

We began by testing the categories by which our current council works – did they work for your utopian imaginings and hope? The current City of York Council is structured into six big departments as follows:

• Structure of Office of the Chief Executive (CEX)
• Structure of Children’s Services, Education and Skills (CSES)
• Structure of Adult Social Services (AS)
• Structure of City and Environmental Services (CES)
• Structure of Communities and Neighbourhood Services (CANS)
• Structure of Customer and Business Support Services (CBSS)

We first tried to sort the letters into the into 2016 structure for the council. The first very obvious thing was that the pile under ‘Communities and Neighbourhood Services’ was by far the biggest. There was also a very big pile that was ‘Communities and Neighbourhood Services’ and ‘City and Environment Services’, indicating that in your letters many of you linked people and place. The size of these piles was also an effect of ‘children’ or ‘adult social care’ not quite being adequate to the social worlds imagined in your letters. You were imagining more holistic and intergenerational activities and interventions.

Noticing these categorization problems drew attention to the kind of people and kinds of relationships imagined by the City of York Council in 2016. The current structures imagine you in specific ways. You might be an adult receiving care. Or you might be a customer, implying some form of financial translation. Or you might be a child. Or you might be the community. But these are odd and overlapping categories. Do these different social identities add up to a whole city? But for you – our letter writers – ‘community’ dominated. Perhaps this is not entirely surprising at a Utopian Fair based on a research programme called ‘Connected Communities’, however the very things you linked required us to bust out of the 2016 categories into something else.

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We started to read in more detail the large batch of fifteen letters which we had filed in two places, both ‘Communities and Neighborhoods’ and ‘City and Environment’. We noticed and colour-coded the positive and negative words. We analyzed the key ideas and used the interpretive writing approach associated with Margareta Ekarv to concentrate meaning to, as she puts it, ‘an almost poetic level’.

We hear you.
We see you.
You are making your homes.
You are doing it yourself.
You are sharing.
You are together.
You are building community spaces.
We will pass on stories and share your ideas.
We will be part, with you, of a spiders web of co-operative housing.

A second large pile of nine letters seemed to relate broadly to governance and decision-making. In this pile there were more negative words: Lies, self and corporate interest, demagogy, money. As well as many alternative positive imagining: love, care, collective, collaboration, democratic, empathy, equal, fair, citizen.

We hear your calls for honest.
We hear that with power has rarely come with respect.
Instead we offer our dreams to meet yours.
You will teach consensus-decision making in schools, in workplaces and in our council.
We will work not on your behalf but ‘hand in hand’.
We will think of people beyond our shores.
We will ‘make a difference without creating differences’.

There was a strong emphasis in another grouping of seven letters on reimagining work. Key words used in these letters were: exchange, swap skills, need collective work, support, free, fun and welcoming.

Land reform.
You are coming together.
You are swapping your skills, your knowledge, your ideas.
We can help you make the spaces.
You will make them welcoming.
You will make them friendly.
You will make them safe.
You will meet people different from you.
‘You are sharing in nature’s commonwealth more equally.’

Another batch of seven letters took energy as a focus. Key words were local energy, clean, renewable, wind, solar and family:

Power to every family.
Where solar and wind meet local consensus decision making.
We share our environment.
Recycling: nothing ever goes only transforms.
We will sustain it and it sustains us.

Six letters focused on better transport and key words and phrases used were: sunlight and air, beautiful buildings complements, enrich society, community, artists, involved.

‘Days of play’.
‘Gathering’.
‘Signing beautiful songs’.
Being adult is being creative.
The path to happiness is
‘Truly looking at each other’
not GDP.

Finally, there was a pile of six letters interested in learning. Notable vocabulary included: diverse, positive, resourced, mutual benefit, contact, share produce and contribute,

Learning together.
Mutual benefit.
Sharing the produce.
New curriculum, philosophy and play.

Perhaps the most crucial thing was that we carefully noticed exactly what you were asking of us as the Utopian Council. The things you imagined the Council doing were notably not in the tradition of representational democracy. This made us wonder for our work in York today how we might mix differently representational, direct and what you might call facilitative forms of democracy in York.

You were not asking for us to take actions on your behalf.
You wanted to work with us to create conditions.
To make spaces where things can happen.
To connect up.
To collectivize infrastructure (waste; electricity).
To spread good ideas.
To reflect back and recognize your successes.
And to be something more multiple than a ‘you’ and an ‘us’.

Yours in Utopia,

Helen, Lianne, Richard and Victoria with Reet So

More information on My Future York can be found on their Website  and Twitter