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A Magazine for Sheffield

An open letter to Sheffield changemakers

Susan Hunter Downer reflects on Sheffield: We Can, the event she hosted last month as part of Festival of Debate 2024.

Sheffield we can 2024 2

The first Sheffield: We Can event at Common Ground Community Centre as part of Festival of Debate 2024.

Opus Films

CC: Tom Hunt, Oliver Coppard and Sir Keir Starmer

I recently read a story about a soldier who fought a war for what he believed was a just cause.

After several months on the battlefield, risking his life and watching his friends die, he realised his role was to pare his humanity to the bone to enrich and empower the elites. He published his truth and faced the inevitable backlash.

I don’t remember the man’s name or which war he was fighting, but I often imagine that moment of realisation – the pain, the sense of betrayal, the knowledge that the blood of the masses was being turned into a river of wine.

Many of us feel that we’ve been failed by representative democracy. Not just by individual leaders, such as they are, but by the beast as a whole; its eyes were always on the big geopolitical prize. If there is any trickle down, it’s apparently not enough to fund our schools, hospitals, housing, social care, public transport, universities, etc. So, what can we do?

Last month, I ran a community event called 'Sheffield: We Can' as part of Festival of Debate 2024 because I believe that Sheffield has the potential to become a place of citizen-pioneers who fight for greater fairness, equality and sustainability. The event will run every year to bring people together to share ideas. Anyone can apply to host it and it can take whatever shape you want.

Sheffield We Can illustration Jonathan Bradley

Illustration inspired by Susan's previous article for Now Then, titled 'What If When Is Now?'

Jonathan Bradley

I hosted the first event at Common Ground in Nether Edge. About a dozen of us discussed what we were doing and what changes we’d like to see. The emphasis was on activism with joy and one of my favourite ideas was to build a Lego model social housing village, engaging architects and architecture students in playful design and debating the future of affordable housing.

After the event, I found myself talking with friends about post-war prefabricated housing and REACH container homes. I imagined legacy housing and ‘tithe’ housing, whereby people would gift housing in their wills or donate a portion of their huge property portfolios to the city. There could even be a form of shared ownership where someone who can afford, say, half a house gets secure affordable housing now and their share is transferred to the state when they die for social housing in perpetuity.

Another idea was for a social prescribing bus, which could take people on low incomes out into the countryside to reduce social isolation, improve mental health and help them connect. Some of the trips could include a focus on climate change, creativity, countryside stewardship, healthy eating or anything else participants were interested in. There wouldn’t need to be a wider agenda, but Peak District Mosaic runs such themed events very successfully.

Imagine a National Health Service based on this kind of active citizenship, backed by preventative measures. I’ve never understood why gyms don’t sell healthy food or offer awareness-raising talks on issues like healthy ageing. Maybe some of our retired sportspeople could be persuaded to give the rest of us some tips...

Another issue that came up, here and elsewhere, is the need for a website or platform where people can find out what’s going on in the city or in their neighbourhoods. There are lots of great projects, but most of us don't have a clue about where they are, what they're doing and how we can get involved.

I’d love to see an online meeting space, call it a Communiversity, where people could find out what’s happening and exchange skills and knowledge. It would be useful for those setting up new projects and those looking to get involved in something. While we’re at it, we could trial a universal basic income as part of a citizen leadership programme.

At Sheffield: We Can, many of us discovered our city has a new community land trust which is looking to secure a community-owned building. And a few of us learned about like-minded organisations we could collaborate with.

The poem that accompanies this article is by Zoë, a young person who cares deeply about the world and wants to create change. It opened the inaugural Sheffield: We Can event, which also included a theme song written by Steve Graham.

A young person like Zoë might run the event next year. You and I could be there to share our stories and help to create change – because we can.


This story is about a child, who is lost and alone, struggling through a world so terrifying and out of their control, that they dare not look up at the sky, at the fear of being swallowed by the unforgivable vastness.
They've avoided it for so long, they cannot even move their eyes from the ground
Their gaze always slides off
The Edges
And Corners
And Faces
Of the wall in the sky
Even if they glare,
With desperate fury.

One dark day, when this child is at the lowest of lows, they become aware of someone else.
This person has also been lonely and terrified and furious for a very long time.
They take each other's hands,
And give each other the strength -
To continue onward even if it feels like they are getting nowhere.


Because when they look back, breathless and aching
They see how far they've come.
The path they've trodden winding away behind them,
And look up,
To see the many stars shining,
Meteors blazing,
And planets lighting,
Up the shadows of the sky.


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