The Beauty of the Feedback Loop

I made a comment early on in the Community Organisers programme that I assumed that a programme of this sort should be open and engaging.

My colleague, Neil Berry, a longstanding stalwart of the DTA and soon to be Head of Enterprise for Locality gave a talk about the Community Organisers programme at the YCAN conference on 8th March in Leeds.

I’d also like to thank other colleagues and partners who are going to meetings and events all over the country to stand up for and help explain this exciting, complex and challenging programme. It’s not straightforward because we’re in development phase so there are many as-yet-unanswerable questions.

But it’s certainly worth it. Here’s the very useful feedback provided by YCAN, each bullet of which would be worth debating widely. I’ve kept my response below to focus on the Concerns section.

1.    Comments made in groups

  • Using existing structures – are they working at the moment? What’s the value of using them if they aren’t?
  • Sustainability? – Where will it come from? How will community organisers become sustainable?
  • Loss of services mean communities forming community groups in order to run a service, but is an organisation in early stage of development. Community organisers work better with established organisations so there is a gap.
  • Who are the community organisers accountable to? Once trained how do you prevent losing them?
  • Good principle of linking with existing organisations. So glad you got tender on that basis but make sure not just DT’s that you link with.
  • Will the programme benefit (or distinguish between) community based organisations (residents, volunteer led) and infrastructure support organisation (voluntary sector with paid staff)?
  • How will people be recruited? Should be local communities appointing people who live in, and are committed to areas not professionals.
  • Need to facilitate skills networks. No one has all the skills needed.
  • Need to link with potential partners you might not have considered.
  • Needs to work with the grain of what is already happening – not in parallel.
  • Community organisers need to help communities see /achieve an outcome or impact for getting involved. Volunteers are very different from paid staff (doesn’t come for free).
  • Community organisers role and volunteers is blurred.
  • Community organisers need to be involved in their communities already, so they can ‘hit ground running’.
  • They need to be part of existing networks.
  • Community organisers could support community to develop work /activities in an area.
  • Community organisers could support volunteer co-ordinators to ‘grow’ the number of volunteers.

Concerns

  • Income generation from other sectors. Where will this come from?

There are no obligations on Community Organisers to raise ‘match-funding’. The point of the programme is to show how effective organising approaches can be and to make sure hosts and organisers are well-primed to push that point. Together we will also build a network that is capable of drawing in resources from any sector at any geographical level to support community organising in the long term. We have built in support for the hosts and organisers in exploring potential future funding. Maintaining the work is the major challenge of this programme and we’re not pretending it’s going to be easy – but if anyone can do it, it’s the entrepreneurial, resilient on-the-ground organisations that we are choosing as hosts.

  • Communities of interest will be hit harder than geographical communities

Hit by what? Presumably this means cuts but it isn’t true. Some communities of identity will be hit as hard or harder than some communities of place, and vice versa. This is not a suffering competition. What matters most is what people can do, not what they can’t. Have to start by turning what Alinsky called the ‘bad scene’ people are coping with/drowning under, into some specific issues that people can take effective action around.

  • Imposing programmes on communities that communities may need but may not want. Need to connect with representatives.

Community Organisers listen to people and encourage dialogue. They do not bring any message or seek any specific outcome. An Organiser’s first and foremost task is to initiate a dialogue that will build trust, respect
and
networked relationships between individuals and communities that moves people to take individual and collective action towards a common goal.

Community Organisers will listen to individual people one-to-one to identify those who are motivated and willing to take an action to tackle their communities’ concerns and help fulfil their personal and collective aspirations.

Organisers will listen to people in their homes and on the street and where they gather. They will listen to public services and third sector workers and leaders, small businesses, business leaders and local institutions.

Organisers will tap into the rich seams of experience, skills and talents that are lying dormant in every community, find the people who want to do something to change things for the better – and offer them support to plan equitably and organise strategically.

The CO will facilitate the analysis of the listening and the organisation of a network of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people who will build and grow their work together using face to face connection and digital media.

Some of these people will take small simple steps to achieve the communities’ collective aims and objectives, some will dedicate themselves to leading actions and developing complex activities that will challenge and transform for good the way communities and institutional structures and systems develop, behave and interact. Some will volunteer as mid-level COs to extend the listening further. Some will use projects and enterprises that others create locally. Some will simply vote for the politicians who support and promote the changes that communities need and want.

Logistics of how people will be put in place?

  • Existing volunteers?
  • Future sustainability
  • Existing paid posts?

Senior Community Organisers will be recruited and supported by hosts all around the country. These will begin with the Kickstarters who will be both pioneers and guinea-pigs for the programme. See http://www.dta.org.uk/whatsnew/hottopics/communityorganisers

2.    Feedback comments made at plenary meeting about Community Organisers

  • (Neil) put it across well
  • Real potential
  • Not much money – good that DTA involved
  • Training bursary or salary for year 1?
  • Intrigued by ‘working with conflict’
  • 4,500 community organisers are volunteers –will this happen?
    • Will they be resident or parachuted in?
    • How will it work with people’s benefits?
    • Proposed community allowance may help
    • What about low pay regulation?
  • Many volunteers already at full capacity
  • Will it link with national citizen’s service?
    • Are community organisers the right words? – What will they be organising
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2 Responses to The Beauty of the Feedback Loop

  1. karen wood says:

    I attended the event at which these comments and concerns were listed. I think that what wasn’t captured adequately in the feedback was the frustration of the audience who whilst wanting to embrace the community organisers initiate as an opportunity felt:
    (i) that there is a real lack of recognition of the value of current activity.
    (ii) that the tone of the community organising agenda suggest that individual volunteers and organisations currently lack dynamism, enthusiasm and a postive approach
    (iii) that the community should be empowered to choose their own kickstart organisations. how have they been chosen/assessed as suitable etc.

    I would like to take this opportunity for thanking you for responding to the point raised. Could I ask that you respond to one thing missed in your answer(s)?

    Who will community organisers be accountable to once trained?

    And one question of my own?
    How will the programme be rolled out in rural areas? Certainly the current kickstart organisation in my own area would not have the hosting skills to faciliate such activity

    • jesssteele says:

      Thanks for this Karen.

      It is probably inevitable that in explaining what we are trying to achieve with the Community Organisers programme it will sometimes seem like a rejection of what has gone before or is happening now, but in fact that certainly isn’t the case. There is a great deal of superb community work underway in many places around the country and has been for many years. What is new is the large-scale support for explicitly grassroots work that ‘brings no message’. In other words, the systematic listening process at the heart of Re:generate’s ‘Root Solutions Listening Matters’ approach, in which organisers listen directly to large numbers of local people without seeking a specific outcome. I have watched with frustration over many years when project leaders talk about the difficulties of ‘engaging’ residents with particular projects or messages. The engagement at the heart of organising focuses only on what people themselves care about, the specific issues that will motivate them to take action. This approach is sometimes – but far from always – at the core of existing community development work (which is too often hamstrung by funder-driven agendas).

      Our approach is that community organisers should be hosted by local organisations. To get us started quickly we selected a set of ‘Kickstarters’ for the bid itself and are currently looking for some further specialist Kickstarter hosts who have ‘reach’ into specific communities and groups that might otherwise ‘count themselves out’ as organisers. Future hosts – and there will be at least 100 more from next spring onwards – will come from suggestions from communities themselves. We have already had over 170 expressions of interest in hosting through our website http://locality.org.uk/projects/community-organisers/ even without publicising. We will begin to promote the opportunity later this summer and throughout the programme, with detailed guidance and hosting criteria.

      The role of the host is to provide a supportive learning environment for community organisers during their bursary year and to seek ways to make the role sustainable after that year. The accountability of community organisers is to their local communities, including the ‘mid-level organisers’ (street-level activists) and the people that are listened to. The information they gather in the listening process belongs to that community (not to the organiser, the host, Locality, or the Government). We have not built in structures of accountability because we believe this is best developed locally and through the experience of the first few cohorts. In terms of the quality of their organising, and their continuous professional development, this is the purpose of the ‘institute’ which was a key part of the tender requirements. Our approach is that this should be owned by organisers themselves and should also have an ‘employers and hosts’ group to respond to the interests of the ‘demand-side’.

      You also asked about the programme rolling out in rural areas. Just as in all kinds of areas throughout the country, this will depend on future hosts coming forward in rural areas. We will learn some useful lessons from the Kickstarters in Cornwall, Cumbria and the eastern counties, as well as from the wider rural membership of Locality and other networks. If you have ideas or suggestions I’d be delighted to hear further from you.

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