Edinburgh — HELEN CRUMMY was angry. She had requested violin lessons for her eldest son and was refused by his headmaster. What Helen did about it almost 24 years ago changed -- and is still changing -- the complexion and spirit of Craigmillar, a big, ugly, postwar housing development in Scotland. It's a tale that shows the ripple effect of a good idea -- how one mother started social action rolling because her son wanted music lessons. And it's a success story that has caught the attention of poverty-stricken areas around the world.
Craigmillar, just two miles from the center of prosperous Edinburgh, has unemployment of 41 percent in a population of 22,000. There is widespread poverty, and Craigmillar has some of the highest rates of drug addiction, vandalism, and child abuse in Scotland -- and Europe.
As early as 1962, the community already had a bad name. It had no recreational or social facilities and the large number of jobless had too much idle time on their hands. But 1962 was when Helen began organizing a community-run network -- an unofficial government-within-a-government -- that has since fought for and won an industrial complex, a nursery, and better housing and social services for the community.
Today the network provides entertainment, care, and transport for the elderly and handicapped, arts workshops, music workshops, a print shop, a vacation cottage, employment programs, and entertainment for the young. This year it started a three-year program to retrain the long-term unemployed, funded by the European Economic Community. The project began as an annual arts festival that is still the high spot of the year for Craigmillar.
All this because a young boy wanted to learn to play the violin.
Back in 1962, the headmaster ``told me that it took them all their time to teach these kids the three R's, never mind music lessons,'' Helen recalls. That angered her, she says, because it was yet another slur on the community that she had been brought up in and loved. She felt that the talents of the people of Craigmillar deserved to be nurtured. So as secretary of the local mothers' club she suggested that Craigmillar should have an annual people's festival -- like the more posh Edinburgh Festival up the road -- but theirs would be run by locals. Again she went to the headmaster for advice and this time he was more encouraging. The next year, with his help, the mothers' club put on a small festival featuring a parade and a musical.
The idea was a hit. Every year it got bigger. Before long, a Festival Society, made up mostly of mothers' club members, was set up to run the yearly event. The society found that providing a creative outlet for the local talent did more for the area than anyone could have imagined. Many people discovered talents and abilities they didn't know they had, says Helen, and they felt a new sense of worth. And because many of the festival shows were based on the history and culture of the area, they gave the community a sense of pride, helping townspeople to put down roots in what had seemed a desolate wasteland.
What no one had foreseen, however, was that through the festival, townspeople would become very much aware of their environment and realize its inadequacies.
``The vehicle for tapping the people's creativity was the festival,'' says Helen, ``but we had nowhere to put it on, nowhere to rehearse or meet, and we couldn't get any of the equipment that we needed for it.'' They realized that they received next to nothing in return for their local taxes -- no library, no community center, no nurseries, no recreational facilities for the old, the young, or the handicapped. So the society decided that Craigmillar residents would have to do something about it, as clearly no one else would.
The first step was to capture the interest of a local Member of Parliament. Helen's solution was as artistic as it was politically expedient: She wrote a musical based on the life of the Scottish poet Robert Burns and gave the lead part to the local Parliament member.
With his help and that of native professionals and academics from Edinburgh University, the townspeople learned how to lobby and pressure local and national government authorities for more facilities. By 1969, they had fought for and won a community center, a library, and additional school facilities. They had also set up workshops for the arts and started employment programs.
But the society was still a volunteer organization, although its members were working full time in the community, and they realized that Craigmillar's needs were such that it had to have full-time paid workers to operate effectively.
``We thought, why not give local people the job that they're perfectly capable of doing,'' Helen explains, ``because on every street -- doesn't matter where you live -- there's always someone you naturally turn to when you're in trouble. Why don't we give them training and a telephone, and then people can come to their house, not only with a problem but with an idea for an activity, too.''
That was the start of Neighborhood Workers. They were mostly women at first, and they were available 24 hours a day to help address local complaints. Being working-class people themselves, they were easily approachable and could pick up and identify real needs in the community. To this day they represent the core of the society.
The Festival Society's constant struggle has always been to find funds for the vital services it provides. In 1975, with a strong organizing structure, a network of Neighborhood Workers, and an even greater awareness of the growing poverty and desperation of the area, the Festival Society decided to look to Europe for help. Although Helen had never been out of the country before, she traveled to Brussels to apply for aid from the European Economic Community's antipoverty program. The Craigmillar Festival Society was given 250,000 (about $355,000 US) over five years to spend on ``action research'' in combatting poverty. With that money they employed over 600 people and ran 21 pilot projects for bettering the community.
The society also produced a book containing Craigmillar's comprehensive plan for action against poverty, which has since been used by community groups around the world -- notably in Israel and the third world.
Despite all this campaigning and politics, though, the society has never neglected the arts -- in fact, the annual festival has flourished during its 24 years. Helen's motto is: ``Art's the Catalyst. Education's the Tool.'' And that catalyst goes on working -- drawing people out of their homes, getting them interested in life, their area, and their neighbors.
``We believe that everybody has something to offer,'' says Maggie King, who is in charge of visual arts. ``And drama probably is the best medium, because it incorporates both the performance side of it and also a hundred varieties of backstage work that most people can get involved in -- even if it's just down to making the tea in the interval [intermission] -- that's as important as anybody else.''
One year the children's show needed 50 helmets but was on a very low budget, Helen says, ``so the wardrobe mistress had a brilliant idea to make a very simple knitting pattern using black and gray wool and big, thick needles, and we handed it out to 50 pensioners who each knitted a helmet. Then they came along and saw the kids under the helmets, and they saw them in a different light -- they saw them acting instead of the wee monkeys up the road that were always annoying them.''
Each year the community musical is based on a current local theme. Last year it dealt with the heroin problem and this year with youth unemployment, but it is always humorous and always related to the history and culture of the area.
The workers in the society see the partnership between the arts and the network of Neighborhood Workers as the main success of the society. ``After the emotional and mental strain of campaigning and fighting, taking part in the arts recharges your batteries,'' says Muriel Wilkinson, a Neighborhood Worker and committee member. The annual two-week festival brings everyone together at least once a year and spurs them on to keep working toward their goal of a better society to live in.
After 24 years as organizing secretary and driving force of the society, Helen has decided to retire. Meanwhile, the Festival Society is facing new challenges as national unemployment reaches its highest level ever and resources seem even more limited. Helen says her greatest regret is that she has never convinced the government of a need for what she calls a ``corporate approach'' to governing a community.
``More and more I realize that it's vital to have a partnership between the people and the various tiers of government with the structure we've established. It makes so much sense for us all to look together at the range of available resources and collectively decide how to maximize them.''