A conversation with Alisdair Cameron at ReCoCo (Recovery College Collective)
Hannah Marsden: When did ReCoCo start and why did it start?
Alisdair Cameron: We have been going for nearly five years in this form. Historically speaking, in the last 20 years or so, there have been quite a few mental health related charities and voluntary sector groups, who have had various degrees of collaboration and networking. Luckily we all got on with each other and had a similar outlook. So, when the Mental Health Trust asked to set up a recovery college, we assisted them and then pulled that element mostly out of the Trust and then that became ReCoCo.
ReCoCo started partly out of a desire for people who use mental health services or who experience mental distress to have more autonomy and more control over things. It’s also partly a response to national and local cuts, meaning that there is far less formal or statutory support for people. Part of the ‘neoliberal success’ has been to encourage people to think that if they have a problem there will automatically be a service to meet that problem. We don’t necessarily agree with that. We agree that there should be help but not necessarily in the form of a transactional service. The impact of deliberate austerity means that those services don’t exist so that’s where the need comes from. There is also something about trying to fight back against the loss of community-based resources of support, whether they have a mental health label or not. People are more isolated, there is more and more social atomisation and we recognise the many benefits of people having a greater social network and feeling more supported by people with whom they have the most contact.
Hannah: So, you started five years ago, and I imagine in the time since then there have been lots of ups and downs. What is it that keeps you going?
Alisdair: What keeps me going is seeing that when people come here, they do so because they are pleased to come here; they come because they want to, not because they are being told to. It’s not all that difficult, it’s about a basic human need: people want somewhere to go, something to do and some people to do it with. And if you start working in that way and helping to provide some of that then it’s very rewarding seeing people flourish as a consequence. So that is what keeps us going and also our bloody mindedness. The world might be going to shit but I’m not going to sit down and just let that happen without trying to do something to take the edges off. I guess there are times when the chips are down and we start thinking that this is a thankless task, but when you realise comparatively speaking, personally I’m in a much better situation than many people that come to us, and I’ve been in their shoes and I feel a sense of duty, as do my colleagues, to try and help people to get to where we’ve got to. So, there is that sense of duty. And yeah there is a cussedness. We’re mad as hell, we are not going to take it anymore.
Hannah: To me that is what solidarity is, uniting with others against an oppressive force and keeping on turning up because of a sense of responsibility towards each other. But in your words what does solidarity mean in your work with ReCoCo? How do you practice solidarity?
Alisdair: Nobody’s got enough of anything so we need to share and pool stuff. Look at where we’ve got to with the idea that competition and markets will deliver everything. They repeatedly fail and need bailing out to everyone else’s expense. You’ve got to take a very dim view of human nature to think that the only way that humans can progress is by being at each other’s throats as opposed to working together. It doesn’t mean that it is easy to collaborate with people. We go by the rationale that people are canny and we like to think that they are not just selfish bastards. What we’ve found in practice is that if you give stuff away, before long people start giving stuff back to you. To practice solidarity, you need to be a little bit of a rebel and you also need to be a bit of hippy. Solidarity is partly an exercise in trust and in letting go of control, and lots of people find that very challenging. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt as an individual is to be ok with other people doing things that I might not have envisaged. I just think, I wouldn’t have done it that way, but that’s OK, and I’m alright with that. People are conditioned to expect uniformity – that they will get the same product or service wherever they go. But if we are going down a solidarity route, with people having increasing autonomy, there are going to be inconsistencies. People will be trying and doing things in a different way, and so we are not going to get the same level of consistency than we would with a corporate approach. It’s about tolerating that difference.
Hannah: Hopefully when the map gets more populated, we will be able to see that difference and diversity of approaches across it. All the initiatives we have spoken to are working from where they are at, with the tools they have to hand. There is a great plurality of attempts to make a better economy or a better world.
Alisdair: Yes, there are many ways to skin a cat. Not that I’m into skinning cats.*
Hannah: What is specific about the solidarity economy in this region? What needs to happen here? What is the potential?
Alisdair: The North East is always getting the raw deal. We are always seen as peripheral because we are seen as on the margins and not worthy of investment. The one upside of that is that we tend to be seen as off the radar which could be seen as liberating, because if any of us in the Solidarity Economy were doing what we were doing in central London there would be a lot more scrutiny, and a lot more challenges. Because we are seen as irrelevant it does mean we can go off and try new things. We can use it to our advantage. Now I am not in any way shape or form saying that poverty is liberating, but the one upside is that if people don’t give you anything, they can’t tell you what to do.
Hannah: Do you have any advice for other initiatives on the map, or for anyone out there who is trying to bring about a more just and sustainable world?
Alisdair: I’d say, just get over yourselves. This is about being open and open minded. Be flexible and don’t dismiss something out of hand. Work out what it is you are prepared to give up. It could be in terms of control, in resources, spaces assets. Let other people have something. To anyone trying to bring about a more just and sustainable world, I’d say it comes down to what you think of as human nature. People basically are kind of good, they don’t need ridged controlling. So, trust in other people because without that level of reciprocal trust you are not going to get anywhere. Work out who your actual enemies are. They are usually those who have much more wealth and power. You might have differences of opinions with those who are working at the same level or who are lower down but acknowledge your own power and, because you are canny people, don’t abuse it. Never lose hope. Otherwise all the bastards have won. Saying that the species is doomed, the planet is doomed, well that’s a point of view but it doesn’t help you psychologically and it doesn’t help anyone around you and it is not necessarily an accurate view either. We might not avert everything that’s undesirable, but we can always make a bad situation better.
Hannah: At the very start of the mapping process you told us, “Just don’t make a shit map.” What makes a shit map, or a good map?
Alisdair: It depends on how maps are presented and how people read them. A map can make people think in geographical terms, so people can check what is going on in their neck of the woods, but it’s about more than geography. There should be thematic elements to it as well. There are loads of things being done on housing, on environment, on food, for older people, younger people… so the map should be able to show these strands and how they are thriving. The idea of the ‘north east’ has a certain resonance but it is a cultural construct. There is no inherent natural boundary that goes around the North East, its entirely constructed so we need the map to get beyond geographical thinking.
Hannah: One of the aims of the map is to create relationships between the different initiatives on it. If you were in conversation with another initiative from the map, what would you want to ask them or what would you want to talk about?
Alisdair: I’d turn it around and I’d tell them what we have done to date and ask them, ‘what can we do for you?’ In our way of thinking, if you give something out people give you stuff back. Something might come to fruition, or it might not, but there is no harm in exploring it or talking about it. There is a duty on us all. It’s not just about us, it’s about everyone. So, let’s keep going, let’s not sit around asking for permission, let’s do stuff.
* Disclaimer: No animals were hurt in the recording of this interview.