1 A necessary introduction
Writing a few words about the social sector is always stimulating and enriching. In fact, reflecting on this subject in greater depth is essential and almost a duty, because of the role that this sector has assumed over the last twenty years, and all that it has made public and visible over this time: namely, the poignant reality of many people and groups, and the work that social sector organisations undertake to meet social needs and address situations of injustice and inequality, and thus defend the social rights of thousands of people and families.
However, before we address these issues, we should perhaps describe the social sectorand the organisations that it represents in greater detail.
At this stage, few would question the role that the social sector has assumed in recent years, the work it carries out, and the place it has come to occupy in the existing relationship between state, market and society.
In this relationship, the first sector, which is public, governmental and non-profit, and the second sector, which is private, commercial, profit-based and non-governmental, have witnessed the emergence of a different space with its own identity. In the past, the strengthening and organisation of civil society led to the formation of entities and organisations through social initiative. This is the origin of what is known as the third sector, which encompasses all kinds of cultural, sports, social and environmental entities, associations and foundations, as well as cooperatives and organisations related to local community movements. This broad sector includes the social sector, which brings together and defines non-profit organisations and entities that serve the public to achieve inclusion and social cohesion, and are focused on the most vulnerable groups in society and specifically on people, families and their living environments.
These are individuals and collectives who find it hard to integrate into their environments and communities, and to function on an equal footing and with equal opportunities to their fellow citizens. They include individuals and families in situations of poverty, those that are homeless, people with disabilities, people with addictions, immigrants, as well as elderly, children and young people at social risk, among others.
Initially, the social sector was mainly active in the provision of services. However, for some time it has played a prominent role in the promotion of social welfare and public participation, and has been present and involved in public debate in contemporary societies. This role has probably been reinforced by the proliferation of entities in the social sector, their rate of growth, their scope and social commitment, among other factors. Reality often shows that this new space is not entirely conquered and is still far from consolidated, perhaps due partly to the fear of those who find it hard to accept civil society’s activism and capacity for decision-making; but we cannot deny the strength and determination of the social sector’s role in developing welfare and social cohesion. This is illustrated in its function of expressing social demands and designing, defining and implementing social policies; and in its focus on establishing services and resources to meet social needs and face the challenges that arise daily.
2 Social and economic crisis: a potential turning point
Over the last ten or fifteen years, two factors, probably among others, have had a profound impact on social organisations and the entire social sector.
The first factor, which has had a direct and unfortunately predictable effect, is the scope and impact of poverty and vulnerability. Profound processes of social change and the recession have permanently changed the characteristics and limits of vulnerability and social exclusion, which have become increasingly and dramatically visible in the areas of health, housing, the job market, education and the economic and personal spheres, among others. Due to a complex combination of causes, this reality has emerged in a range of areas that are essential to life. We are still suffering from the main consequences and results, and will continue to suffer from them for a long time to come.
Here, we refer to the individuals, groups and collectives who experience situations of difficulty or social conflicts and as a result cannot meet the basic needs of food, protection and safety, health, education and access to normal social networks, and therefore cannot benefit from these resources. As a result, they are denied any opportunity to be citizens in their own right and active members of their environment, and to participate and have a constructive influence on their community. In short, this set of situations and risk factors make it difficult or impossible to achieve inclusion and have access to the spaces and the tangible and intangible resources required to fulfil social, personal and development needs, which is also a prerequisite for the personal, social and psychological well-being of all individuals.
Increasingly in recent years, social organisations have found that they are caring for and supporting individuals and families who experience situations and processes of progressive, chronic impoverishment that lead unequivocally to precarious living conditions, social isolation and alienation, with a clear gap between individuals’ expectations and real opportunities to develop optimally with the same opportunities as their fellow citizens. Entities have seen how many other people, young and old, as well as entire families, have joined the list of disadvantaged and deprived people. They are the new poor: those who have experienced slow, bewildering processes of exclusion, precariousness and vulnerability for the first time, new profiles and faces who have seen how their personal economies fell under their feet, and consequently, how their lives and real opportunities to get out of the situation faded. This has been and continues to be a form of poverty that is emerging and, as it progresses, is more closely associated with normality than social exclusion as we understand it in its pure form.
The context of social change that we mentioned at the start of this section has been constant, and accelerated and accentuated by a recession that is of a markedly structural nature, rather than exceptional and temporary. This has influenced the development of the social arena and added a new dimension to public policies. Furthermore, it has demonstrated to those who did not previously wish to acknowledge it that this has been a major social crisis that must be addressed with new parameters. Poverty and vulnerability cannot be measured solely by economic and material perspectives; we must also consider intangible aspects such as the lack of opportunities, social isolation, and difficulties in accessing intangible assets such as personal welfare, public participation, culture and social bonding.
All of this leads us to the second key factor that, in my opinion, has marked, and indeed characterises, the social sector. The rise in inequalities, discrimination and situations of precariousness and vulnerability described above have brought about a situation of injustice, conflict and social divide that makes us unable to attain the necessary levels of personal welfare, social cohesion and networks of relationships. Clearly, in this situation, the defence of people’s fundamental rights and their dignity is not guaranteed.
Consequently, it is essential to promote values based on justice and social welfare, equity and equal opportunities, in short, values that generate others such as solidarity, collaborative work and social commitment. By this logic, the recession represented a turning point, a before and after in terms of increasing sensitivity, public awareness, and the participation and involvement of other social, civic and cultural agents to address these dynamics and forces that seem to be uncontrollable.
Public policies must respond to the range of situations that affect people, their welfare and possibilities of individual and group fulfilment. In this task they cannot and should not be alone. They need the understanding, involvement and leverage of all social agents, other institutions, and the public in general. Real proposals for collaboration and coordination based on the values of democratic commitment, social transformation and joint responsibility between the government, the social sector and other social agents and actors will bring us a little closer to working effectively and thoroughly to achieve inclusion and social cohesion.
We must reinforce social bonds and the informal protection networks that are associated with them. Social networks and personal ties play a symbolic, cultural and psychological role, and create spaces for supportive protection and feelings of belonging to the community. These factors are key to explaining mechanisms that can keep vulnerability and social isolation from spreading.
We can combat the effects of this social crisis if we invest in everything that generates social cohesion. We must promote values to transform, expand, and increase the visibility of attitudes and actions based on participation, commitment, transparency and honesty. All these values enable us to work for a society that embraces equal opportunities, social justice and tolerance of diversity, among other factors. This can be achieved if individuals and social groups work together from the perspective of responsibility, solidarity and effort to strengthen our social capital and create communities that are committed to social transformation, joint responsibility and the culture of the common good.
In all the above, we find the strength and meaning of the social sector. In these words, gestures, actions and attitudes, we find its ethics and values: the ethical commitment behind the main objectives that are sought, which are to put individuals at the centre of all actions and ensure their full development and their rights.
3 Opportunities in the local environment and region using public libraries and the social sector: a bold idea?
We have stressed how important it is to work on all aspects that affect people, and address the factors that have an impact on their lives and their opportunities to develop. We know that this often means working at short distance. Although challenges should be set at a global level, we must not overlook the fact that their effects are greatest at local level, in specific spaces and stories, in neighbourhoods and cities.
As we have seen, the values that the social sector promotes and defends are closely related to these considerations, with interventions and approaches based on the local arena and the immediate surroundings relating to socialisation, learning and coexistence. Hence, all society must feel involved through a wide range of responses and actions of agents, resources and services to invigorate the community, culture, society, education and the neighbourhood. Basically, three approaches should be taken:
- Create human, cultural and social activity so that individuals can develop to the maximum their opportunities and experiences of success and personal and social satisfaction, to dignify the individual and their self-perception, self-appraisal and self-esteem.
- Promote and work on empowerment and activation of skills so that people and groups feel that they are the subject and protagonist of their own pathways of inclusion and life projects, strengthening feelings of belonging and community.
- Increase the visibility of and bolster the local culture and its social dimension through projects, programmes, facilities and networks as a key tool for building values, for transformation and social cohesion, and for the generation of social bonds.
Clearly, truly transformative actions for individuals, groups and collectives in a community are brought about through experiences and good practices, often in the local arena with a focus on proximity. Without overlooking many other resources and mechanisms that exist, a clear example of what we are discussing here could be public libraries and the work they undertake in neighbourhoods and regions. Public libraries are a space for socialisation and proximity, which contribute to fairer, more caring communities and better educated and informed citizens, who are in turn essential to a just, equitable, empowered and democratic society.
The Social Library Foundation was founded in 2014 with the intention of highlighting the role of public libraries, which are clearly committed to society and community. The Foundation’s objectives are to increase the visibility of their work, the awareness and the social commitment of public libraries and their community projects, and to value, promote and strengthen the social dimension that is both the essence and raison d'être of the public library as an institution.
It is exactly with this strength and conviction in the possibilities and potential of these public facilities in their daily work, and their presence in the community, that the Social Library Foundation asserts and highlights the coordinated work, in networks, of many libraries, social entities, schools and health services, among many other institutions, to meet the challenges that arise together more directly and thoroughly.
As these community intersections occur, new opportunities are generated, and it is revealed that many of the characteristics, values and virtues of public libraries are shared with the social sector. As examples, we could give: working in, for and with the community; the importance of creating networks and promoting collaborative work; the creation of spaces for personal and collective learning and development; equal access to resources and the rights of people to use them; equal opportunities and non-discrimination; and work for inclusion and social cohesion.
These values form part of a bold proposal to work from the perspective of proximity in the region, which is one of the most important characteristics of the social sector. This, we believe, is also associated with the social commitment of working in a network with other facilities, resources and services; other knowledge and skills. These are new spaces of convergence for sharing knowledge and expertise to grow together, progress and, without a doubt, achieve more.
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