I mean it about open… but there’s no need to be nasty!

#communityorganisers #corganisers #corgs

Here’s what the National Coalition for Independent Action thinks about Locality.

Community revolution entrusted to Locality

March 21, 2011 · Filed Under NewsNewsletter

The issue that has, by far and away, put the national gossips in a tizzy has been the award of the £15M community organisers contract to Locality, the pseudo-business quango formed by the merger of Bassac and the Development Trust Association. Expected by all (including Locality) to go to the Citizens Organising Foundation (which at least does community organising), the decision has caused the sector’s blogs to glow red hot.

Discussion is full of the challenges, the excitement, the contradictions and the dichotomies as the 500 ‘senior’ paid community organisers and 4,500 mid-level unpaid community organisers will be unleashed on ‘needy communities’, as the BBC described it. Bold talk of Alinsky and Freire and ‘wresting the programme away from the government’. Jess Steele, the programme’s director had to admit to having to borrow a copy of Freire’s main text from her mum (a noted activist in the homelessness field), who had a copy from the 70s, but she’s clearly up to speed now.

In an embarrassing gaffe, it became public that Locality had invited Ian Duncan-Smith’s Centre for Social Justice to be a partner in their bid for the dosh – an offer which was declined. A Locality spokeswoman said she was unable to provide details of the help that was requested but that it was linked to “learning, policy development or training”. Nothing to do with contacts then.

To their credit, Locality has published their bid and Jess has set up a blog to tell us all how they are getting on – you can download the bid there too. If you want to see what Matt Scott at the Community Sector Coalition thinks about it all, click here. Lastly a critical discussion of the equalities aspects of community organising has been produced by Sue Robson and Jayne Mills: Does community organising empower or oppress?

This is certainly one of the most intriguing developments of the moment and has offered up the prospect of some very weird bed fellows. Alinsky was a technician so pretty well anyone could reach for him as a mentor. Freire was a true visionary and a revolutionary. But he’s dead now.

At the moment Locality looks about as revolutionary as a packet of digestives. Let’s hope that doesn’t turn out to be the case.

And here’s my response…

I do object to ‘pseudo-business quango’. It shows utter contempt for basic journalism as well as for an independent movement of community-led organisations. Bassac was formed in 1920 as the membership body for the settlement movement; the Development Trusts Association was set up in 1992 by a small group of early development trusts (including Coin Street Communitybuilders, Westway Development Trust, and Hastings Trust) for mutual support, shared experience and solidarity.

Locality is the result of the merger of DTA and bassac which was overwhelmingly supported by both memberships (votes in favour of 96% and 97%). Locality members are independent and so is the organisation itself. It is not a quango; it has no sponsoring department; no core public funding; no regulatory role. It cannot be instructed or abolished by Government. DTA members hold assets worth more than £590 million and create earned income of over £157 million a year; they employ 6,700 staff and are supported by nearly 20,000 volunteers; they help 9,000 community groups and 8,000 small businesses a year.

What the DTA and bassac have done, systematically and increasingly successfully in recent years, is to bring community enterprise above the radar. Ask our members: they know that they have a stronger voice because they are together, and that’s part of the reason they supported the merger – to give the can-do community sector in local areas an even stronger voice.

I am mystified by the fact that ‘taking government money’ is increasingly made out to be a sin by the very people and organisations who would vociferously argue in favour of taxation to protect and enhance the public good. This is not the filthy lucre of blood diamonds smuggled across continents on slave-ships, it’s the hard-earned cash that a civilised society makes available to its freely-elected Government.

Of course there are power dynamics at play, what you might call ‘long-spoon’ issues. In a separate email Andy Benson from NCIA says and we have yet to see Locality display, let alone use such tableware (though that may not be true of you personally).”
It seems unfair to ask Locality to ‘display’ anything given that it doesn’t start life until the beginning of April. So let’s consider how DTA has behaved towards the Government of the Day. DTA is obsessive about assets and enterprise – it’s our theory of change that the community sector is so vulnerable because it is undercapitalised and generally under-enterprising. Entrepreneurial community organisations with some ballast in their balance sheets have proved to be some of the longest-lived and most impactful (see 13 acres on the South Bank of the Thames or an £11m asset portfolio supporting projects on one of Hull’s poorest estates and beyond throughout the city). So we pushed very hard for the Quirk Review, made sure Barry Quirk saw the best of the movement and were delighted but not surprised when he found in favour of community asset transfer. When he said that what was required was ‘culture change’ we said we can help with that. And ever since we’ve been supporting local authorities and local community organisations to achieve fair and effective asset transfers (including helping them say no where the result would not be fair and effective). That work has been paid for by Government (both the previous administration and this one). We have also initiated, tested and embedded the Meanwhile use of empty assets for community benefit, again using some Government money and plenty of ‘beg, blag and borrow’. When Government wants to pay for things we want to get done we think they are doing our work rather than us doing theirs.

When they can’t be made to see the light we rely on other parts of our diversified financial portfolio – we own and manage the Community Hub, we have a successful consultancy of practitioner experts that paid back over £120k to our members last year, we run successful peer-to-peer learning courses, sell our support services to social investors and receive a range of charitable funding for project work and leading campaigns like the Community Allowance. We reinvest our surpluses in helping sister organisations like the Pool in Scotland, investing in new enterprise development in partnership with members, experimenting with cutting edge ideas like the Place Station, and providing both Knowledge & Skills Exchange and Lifeboat services to our members.

And then to the personal. I’m not very happy about the line: “had to admit to having to borrow a copy of Freire’s main text from her mum“. I freely and joyfully blogged the fact that I had been able to dig out my mum’s original Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It seemed too precocious to mention that I had read it at the age of 14 being bored in the summer holidays and that Freire has been part of my approach to life and politics ever since.

I’ll admit now to never having been exposed to Alinsky (the idea of my mum with the Rules is truly scary!) but long before I read the books I had a series of first-hand experiences that prepared me: many years of struggles that could have been more effective and less gut-wrenching, a fascinating night with London Citizens and Boris at the Barbican, and a superb and notably effective campaign in Hastings guided by RE:generate. Our addition of Clodomir Santos de Morais to the mix comes from direct contact with and ongoing support for Marsh Farm Outreach in their pioneering work to bring the Organisation Workshop to Britain.

I don’t pretend to be either an academic or a dyed-in-the-wool organiser – any more than I pretend to be a social media expert – but I do have some useful experience (even my first decade involved going with my dad to meet the families of black men he had sat with in Ladywell police station to make sure they weren’t beaten up, and culminated with the Fares Fair demonstrations on the buses). Which in every case has been reflected on – digested, even – and turned into critical awareness. And I would happily vouch for the integrity and commitment of every member of staff within Locality. Andy says “you’re going to need some critical friends as you continue on this journey” and I completely agree – but you don’t have to resort to nastiness.

When it comes down to it, someone has to make sure that 5,000 Community Organisers are recruited, trained, networked, hosted and supported. And that a truly independent Institute for Community Organising is developed. Our unique approach to the ICO is that it will be a 21st century guild, owned by organisers themselves, able to make its own way in the world, and effectively supporting the vocation of community organising into the long-term future, beyond this Government’s lifespan.

Locality is exactly the right place from which to launch the Community Organisers programme – how it flies will depend on real, live communities all over the country (and a lot of help from their friends). But then I would say that…

[I have to apologise for not being fully in control of this blog. I only just worked out how to stop it doing that thing where it randomly underlines everything as hyperlink. I still haven’t got a clue how to control the pics. I need a social media surgery!]

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5 Responses to I mean it about open… but there’s no need to be nasty!

  1. Andrew Climo says:

    It seems to me worthy of study in its own right that there are two such different views about community organisers running in parallel here. Jess’s take is that community enterprise is the (main/sole?) vehicle for cost effective community renewal and Andy’s view seems to be that the community organiser role is politically loaded, negative and potentially disempowering.

    So quite a gap.

    But there is a valid chink in the community enterprise view of the world: Only a very small number of community groups are, would consider themselves, or want to become ‘community enterprises’. So as a policy approach it is unlikely to inspire or engage the nation’s social capital and may actually alienate people who wish to affiliate to an explicitly non-business model of community action.

    There may well be a role for social enterprises to take up service delivery: But the conflation of service delivery policy with grassroots community action seems to be a problem area and a likely flashpoint for ongoing policy conflict.

  2. jesssteele says:

    I certainly wasn’t conflating community enterprise and community organising. They are different, though potentially interconnected in some circumstances on the ground and with plenty to learn from each other. What I was doing was defending the record of Locality (DTA/bassac) more widely – we have been supporting entrepreneurial community organisations for many years and will continue to do so, alongside the development of the Community Organisers programme.

  3. Pingback: links for 2011-03-28 « Sarah Hartley

  4. Andy Benson says:

    Well I don’t think I was that nasty, and though you may not like the off-the-shoulder style, the points I made are serious ones. It was a surprise that the contract didn’t go to COF, when there was every indication that it had their name on it. One is entitled to wonder why. My own speculation is that unlike COF, who are seen as somewhat of a loose cannon, DTA/BASSAC is, in contrast, seen by the government as an agency well used to using government money to work to government intentions and have shown that they can ‘deliver’ within the performance management frameworks now regarded as normal for such activity. DTA/BASSAC has also long had a ‘seat at the table’ and its ‘preferred provider’ status is confirmed by the half a million quid just approved for you as an OCS ‘strategic partner’. Through the Labour years DTA/BASSAC managed to avoid any political association with the regime and presented itself as a values-based, essentially technocratic organisation and was thus in a good position to transfer this professional relationship to the incumbents. And the revelation that you had approached Ian Dunkin-donuts outfit to join you in the bid does, I think, entitle us to question the company that you want to keep and which side your bread is buttered on.

    With respect to ‘pseudo-business quango’, well I know that you are not formally a quango, but so much of Locality’s income is now going to come from the ConLib government that one can be forgiven, surely, for wondering how easy it will be for you to hang onto your independence? As for the ‘pseudo-business’ part, well it seems pretty clear that the trajectory of DTA’s previous work on assets and entrepreneur-ism, alongside the language that is used to describe the pitch, poses only a limited challenge to the established order as far as business objectives, ways of conducting business and the property market is concerned. There is a left/right split in the debate about property ownership and community-held assets, which has not really surfaced yet, but on which light is now being thrown by Bob Colenutt’s work at the Nottingham Institute for Urban Affairs.

    As far as taking public money is concerned, there are some within NCIA who argue that we shouldn’t, that things have now got so bad with the co-option that it’s now effectively off limits. That’s not my view. I think public money is our money and it is completely appropriate that it should be used by voluntary and community groups for a multitude of purposes (though not, I would say, the delivery of mainstream public services). The issue is about the terms of engagement and the evidence of the damage that has been done by commissioning to the self-determination of voluntary action is so obvious that one has to be willful to ignore it.

    As to the personal side of all this, I’m not at all surprised that you had read Freire by the time you were 14; it’s just how I remember you. And I certainly vouch for the fact that you have done your time in community struggles. I hope that both experiences will guide you through the journey you’ve decided to make. As I said in our email exchange – if you sup with the devil, you need a long spoon…..


  5. Glenn Jenkins says:

    I’m a founder member Marsh Farm Outreach in Luton, one of 11 organisations selected by Locality to host the first batch of Community Organisers. We are unemployed residents of the Marsh Farm estate in Luton who have been working on a mainly voluntary basis for many years to bring about community led solutions to the higher than average levels of social exclusion, unemployment and dependency on state and/or external agencies which exist in Marsh Farm (see below for background)


    Having read this post and the links provided, a few things in response:

    Why Locality?

    As one of the kick starter areas in Locality’s bid, we were obviously chuffed to hear that they had won the tender to deliver the programme. We agreed to be a kick starter with Locality because our previous work with Jess Steele and the team at DTA on the UK pilot of the Organisation Workshop (OW) project (long before there was a Coalition Government or a CO programme) has been nothing short of a breath of fresh air.

    Unlike most of the mainstream regeneration professionals we have dealt with along the way, Jess and her colleagues at DTA are truly ‘bilingual’ – i.e. they value, and can translate into ‘regen-speak’ the hopes, aspirations and solutions proposed by people living in poorer communities without losing any of the vital content or spirit of the proposals.

    Crucially, the team at Locality also fully understand the massive potential to change our lives for the better in places like Marsh Farm, by the setting up of estate based social enterprises to plug our economic leaks, create local jobs, build organisational capacity in the community, improve (I reckon save!) publicly owned services and replace a deeply ingrained ‘wait for the service provider’ mentality with a spirit of self help and civic responsibility.

    Locality’s inclusion of Clodomir Santos de Morais and the Organisation Workshop as one of the tools in the CO programme kit will be crucial to the success of our efforts here in Luton, and we think of the whole national programme.

    De Morais’s emphasis on ‘organisational and entrepreneurial literacy’ is a crucial contribution to the field, as well as his addition of a further stage of consciousness (organisational) to the 3 already defined by Freire (magical, naive and critical) .

    Our years of community building from the grassroots, coupled with our first hand experience of the crapness of top down regeneration methods used for 10 years here in Marsh Farm, makes us certain that de Morais is spot on when he says that “it is not the work that is ‘done for’ the people which are the sole realistic, solid building blocks of ‘sustainable livelihoods’, but the enterprises, jobs and livelihoods they can create for themselves, and by themselves”.

    Locality ‘gets’ all of this, and this is why we are certain they were the right choice. And why I laughed out loud when I read the ‘radical as a digestive’ jibe.

    Citizens UK

    When I read Neil Jameson’s statement on the CO contract being awarded to Locality, followed by a little research on the methods used to ‘ignite the impulse to act’, my first thought was ‘well this is all really good stuff – but where’s the focus on enterprise?’

    Whilst there is undoubtedly great value in use of some aspects of the Alinsky-ite approach, the crucial enterprise element was nowhere to be seen. I wondered why CUK and Locality hadn’t joined forces to ensure that the best of all approaches were combined, to maximise the prospects of success. After conversations with people at Locality and Citizens, I learned that DTA had made a proposal along these lines prior to submissions, but that this had been rejected by the folks at Citizens UK.

    So instead of slating Locality, lets pool our resources and energies, and work together to make the best of this opportunity to effect real change ….from the bottom up.

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