The land is not really the place (separate from ourselves) where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies. It is not a means of survival, a setting for our affairs … It is rather a part of our being, dynamic, significant, real.

Paula Gunn Allen, Native American Poet

Real / Symbol is a three part podcast and publication that explores the real and symbolic questions of land, gentrification and displacement in urban contexts. It has emerged from the William Leech research fellowship of community organiser Alison Merritt Smith and her ongoing research into faith based responses and theological reflection around issues of urban development, gentrification and the displacement of working class communities. Working alongside organisations such as Shieldfield Art Works, Dwellbeing Shieldfield and The NewBridge Project, Alison has been researching how artistic action and community organising can provide opportunities for resistance.

Real / Symbol invites you into layers of conversation, storytelling, poetry reflection and design with a variety of voices including local residents of Shieldfield as well as activists, researchers, artists and theologians. Together, we explore the real and symbolic effects of urban development on working class communities, why land and place have significant real and symbolic value for communities and why this needs to be taken seriously in how Christians and churches and the wider community might reflect on and respond to these issues.

Much of the churches’ response to these issues around land, housing and gentrification have been quite rightly practical, solutions and outcomes focused:  For example: “How might we find new ways of providing affordable housing using church land?”, “How can we seek to directly influence land and housing policy and increase community empowerment?” These responses are critical and should be central. However, there is other work within our community organising that can recover and cultivate renewed poetic connections between people, place and land.

As Archibishop of Canterbury Justin Welby set out in his book Reimagining Britain “we must find fresh strength and passionate commitment to imagine ourselves afresh in the midst of such change”. This research project is about uncovering and cultivating some of that fresh strength and energy that is already present within many of our communities.

Real/Symbol explores how communities are surviving processes of development and displacement with symbolic and real acts of defiance and hope. These small, simple, poetic, and ordinary acts of defiance include community walks, guerrilla gardening, building knowledge about urban planning and development and bringing back land into community use. Real / Symbol asks important questions about how small and symbolic practices of ordinary communities are important tools of survival, repair and change in turbulent times. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas and sociologist Romand Coles state:

the locus of energies and intelligent visions for such projects are nourished in the textures of relational care for the radical ordinary… the ways in which the inexhaustible complexities of everyday life forever call forth new efforts of attention, nurtured struggle… And we think that nourishing these textures of relational care ought to be a chief aspiration of genuinely revolutionary (which is to say resurrectionary) politics.

Roman Coles & Stanley Hauerwas, Christianity, Democracy and the Radical Ordinary, (2008)

The research has emerged from the work of, and with support from, the organisations Shieldfield Art Works and Dwellbeing Shieldfield. Alison Merritt Smith was the Director of Shieldfield Art Works from 2010-2019 and is one of the co-founders of Dwellbeing.

Real Symbol podcast was produced by Alison Merritt Smith with post production by David Benjamin Blower.  The Real / Symbol three part zine publication that accompanies each episode is designed by Benji Spence and Alison Merritt Smith. To receive a copy of the publications please email alisonmerrittsmith[at]gmail.com