Transparency, creativity, power & responsibility

Writing this immediately after an animated meeting with Tessy Britton, whose recent blogs at Thriving Too have inspired deep and ongoing discussion about the Community Organisers programme.

She is right to raise the question of transparency and responsibility. In the initial weeks after Locality was successfully awarded the contract to deliver the programme, we made the full bid available online and I began the programme manager’s blog. I was commended by many people for an openness that was seen as unusual. But I haven’t written for more than a month – partly through being busy with work and with a 10-year old through the prolonged holiday period, partly due to the unfortunate delays caused by negotiations between OCS, HMRC and Treasury around the employment status of the Community Organisers. This has dragged on, and though I kept thinking it would be sorted soon, it is still not resolved, holding up the recruitment process and de-motivating the team.

Anyway, excuses over… I’m back!

Tessy and I exchanged backgrounds and I loaded her journey home with documents, fragments of my work over the last 20 years.

  • a copy of ‘Turning the Tide‘ my history of Deptford from the Romans to the Present (1993)
  • “Social Justice, Social Control or the Pursuit of Happiness: The Goals & Values of the Regeneration Industry” (2007), including the description of the loss of Old Town youth & community centre that taught me how information is power and led me to set up Magpie Community Planning Resource Library as an active citizenship charity in 1996
  • Get Set for Citizenship – the successful regeneration bid for Deptford & New Cross written and delivered by local people, supported by Magpie’s creative outreach team (2000-2003)

  • Hastings Pier postcards from the campaign that made the difference and turned HBC into an ‘active partner’ (2009/10)

  • No Time to Waste: report from the Meanwhile Project (2010) which I initiated and led in partnership with Meanwhile Space and which fits perfectly the collective DIY approach
  • Etc. etc.

All this was about explaining that my background and approach has always been strengths-based, focusing on the assets of communities rather than their needs, how they can achieve creative solutions collaboratively, by building on the ‘genius of place’. But also about my growing understanding of why so many actions that local people take have been ineffective and damaging, and how effective action, often based on leveraging networks, allows us to be less ‘confrontational’ and more confident.

Tessy’s diagram about Old and New Power is a useful overview but I think it hides a spectrum of relationships to power that include:

  • Acknowledging where power lies, the ways in which it can block or enable, and how it is sometimes abused
  • Taking action to change the decisions, behaviour, attitudes of the powerful – by understanding the roots of their self-interest
  • Setting out to build long-term empowerment so the weak are strengthened and more independent
  • Setting out to ‘take’ power
  • Encouraging or agitating for conflict (“rub the resentments raw”)
  • What Tessy calls ‘Hyperactivism’ – marching, strikes, direct action, occupations, riots, violence

I understand Tessy’s excitement with the collaborative projects she has been studying and working with – it’s how I felt in the National Community Forum, in BURA’s Awards for Community-Inspired Regeneration and still feel every time I meet another Locality member or another Meanwhile project. Like most activists ‘of a certain age’ (and historians) I am doubtful about claims of absolute newness – Meanwhile Gardens was created in the early 1970s. However, just as Tessy spoke of ABCD as ‘fundamentally different’, I spend a lot of time talking about how CO is ‘different’ from community development. The labels are unhelpful but I suppose we both mean that there are good and bad ways of working in communities. They do not come down to this model or that model but to integrity, honesty, and a willingness to learn.

The Locality approach to the CO programme is explicitly non-dogmatic – we draw on the ideas and thinking of Freire, Alinsky, Santos de Morais and others, but aim to nurture a community organising movement in England that is grown directly from the strengths, concerns and hopes of communities across the country. Organisers will be local people, recruited and hosted by local community organisations. They will build trust, respect and networks through dialogue and a systematic, broad-based local listening process that ‘ignites the impulse to act’ by focusing on what people care about – what they love, what makes them sad/angry/frustrated – and the dreams they have of a better life, taken forward through specific, achievable collective actions. Organisers will listen to residents in their homes, on the street and where they gather, and they will also listen to public service and third sector workers, small businesses and local institutions to help develop collective power to act together effectively for the common good as identified locally.

Tessy expressed serious concerns with our training approach, mainly because of some bad feedback from a recent 2-day induction session we held for the Kickstarter hosts and other partners. Devised by Re:generate, our lead training partner for the Foundations of Organising training, this included an exercise known as Majorians and Minorians. Two teams of participants take up roles based on a scenario in which the Majorians have resources to offer and a well-intentioned desire to ‘develop’ Minoria without undermining its vibrant culture, and the Minorians are uncertain how to take advantage of the offer. Things do not proceed easily, but we learned a lot about how hard it can be for people of different (organisational) cultures to work collaboratively even when they want to. We actually had a lot of good feedback from the session and I wish the person who spoke to Tessy would speak to me directly so I could understand the concerns better. But to set your minds at rest, we will not be using this exercise in the actual Community Organiser training, though we will use other experiential training approaches. None of these are designed to upset or ‘re-programme’ people, but to provide common experiences for the group as the subject for reflection.

Let me explain how the training is being developed. Re:generate is in the lead. I wrote them into the bid because I had excellent experience of their work – 15 years ago in Deptford and 2 years ago in Hastings. Government insisted that we pledge Re:generate’s involvement before the second interview and again before they awarded the contract. But they are certainly not alone. As well as Re:generate and Locality, the Training Group includes Carolyn Kagan and Jenny Fisher of Manchester Metropolitan University, Juliet Milican and Dave Woolf of University of Brighton, and Marj Mayo of Goldsmiths, Sally Wyatt and Barbara Watson from Trafford Hall and Guy Farrar of OCN in Yorkshire & Humber. Yesterday we met to work through the Re:generate ‘trellis’ (the core of their approach, on which all kinds of solutions can grow), to understand the skills that will be required, those that will be learned, how these can be measured and accredited, and how much of the process can and should be developed within the 6-month Foundations of Organising programme. One sign of our open and inclusive approach is to have created the ‘Go Deeper’ phase of the training – a minimum further 6-month period within the bursary year in which organisers will choose from a series of options. At present these include various postgraduate options being developed by our academic partners, action learning through deeper immersion in the work of Re:generate or Citizens UK, or training provided by Locality in our specialist fields of community enterprise and asset development. To complement these, we are keen to receive suggestions from bona fide training providers to develop other options.

We see part of the programme’s role as nurturing the ‘market’ in community organising – a series of choices that share common parameters yet may be quite different in their position on the spectrum. That’s why I’m delighted we’ll soon be launching the CO Knowledge Hub – basically an advanced wiki that we can all use to draw together and debate the huge and ever-expanding knowledge base of documents, articles, weblinks, project info etc that relates to community organisers.

One thing Tessy is surely right about is the need for proper understanding of impacts. Expecting that Government would require (and commission) an independent summative evaluation, we wrote into the bid a formative version for which we will soon be inviting proposals. This will consider impacts in the three inter-related fields of personal development, local action and wider society. We are also establishing a Learning & Policy Group to take the learning emerging from the programme out to a wider audience to shape policy and practice in a wide range of fields (including tax and employment!). The importance of developing better shared understanding of ‘Big Society’ interventions makes it distressing that Government seems so uninterested in evaluation – they have said it counts as ‘consultancy’ and is therefore unfundable. Despite the manifest failings of previous evaluations, this is a big issue, not just for this programme but across much wider fields – let them know what you think about it.

There is so much more to say and this blog is already far too long, and probably too specific for most people, not precise enough for others… I’m trying all at once to participate in the (fairly complex) debate, to keep people up to date with programme developments and to respond to specific criticisms and contributions.

Finally got home from Birmingham able to finish this and get it online. Just read Cormac’s very useful piece at Thriving Too. A helpful distinction made by John McKnight between Advocacy Organising and Neighbourhood Organising. Plenty more to debate there. And then Tessy’s brilliant piece about the kitchen as metaphor for Big Society. I’ve always been aware just how important the ‘fizz’ of small-scale, often short-term community stuff is just for keeping hope alive, as well as building people’s confidence to take further steps. For me this became more explicit through the Meanwhile Project – don’t wait, do it. I see this kind of churning creative fizz as completely complementary to the very long-term, hard-slog physical asset projects (like the People’s Pier!) that absorb and sustain many Locality members. But also share many of Julian’s views about the need to be realistic in a rat-infested world]. Over and out…!

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9 Responses to Transparency, creativity, power & responsibility

  1. Carol Packham says:

    An interesting and reassuring blog. However I am unsure how this process of development is taking place. I understood that there was already someone with experience of formative evaluation written in to the tender. How can you now invite proposals for this? Likewise other people have already offered training elements e.g. from the national Youth and Community Programmes, which were also written in to the tender, and presumably accepted and now seem to have been left out with no discussion. Please enlighten me as this process does not seem very transparent.

    • jesssteele says:

      I’ve replied directly to Carol and formally to MMU (which is why this comment has been pending for a few days). We are continuing to discuss and develop our partnership working together and I look forward to working with Carolyn Kagan, Jenny Fisher and others, including input with Carol about her experience of delivering community work training programmes for 20 plus years and the recent work with the govt through ALAC and Takepart programmes.

  2. Jess, You’ve found it hard to blog in the last month because you are delivering on the ground. I completely understand your time commitment being pointed at the grassroots of our physical communities. I fear that the blogesphere, whilst often thought provoking and a vehicle to spread our latest ideal, philosophy or casual point of view could distract us from the job in hand. So bravo Jess for your absence and balanced approach. The world of virtual connections and clouds that some are slipping into and dominating, will not be of much use to those people who want to get on with the job of influencing the health and well being of their communities by truly collaborating with each other (with their agencies, elected representatives and others who hold power) to transform.

    Powerful transformation involves challenging dialogue, critical reflection of and by self and each other – and the acknowledgement and resolution of the realities of conflict. Denial of anger and other feelings and emotions that give rise to conflict is naive and dangerous. Diffusion and discounting anger is as damaging as stoking it up – because aggression simply turns inward and then the vulnerable really suffer.

    Root Solution Listening Matters hears, respects and promotes grassroots and multi-level action that creatively channels anger and other emotions into positive and collaborative action for change based on the assets that people have. It releases the skills, talents and energies that lie hidden or dormant in communities sometimes for generations.

    The two day RE:generate orientation training has had a resounding thumbs up from most. Some people were deeply challenged by one exercise that is thought provoking and designed to help people to challenge their own perceptions about the parts they might play in what is going wrong in society. It is a powerful exercise that has the exploration of transformation at heart. It opens up different perspectives that people feel as well as see and hear. It is certainly not designed to make people feel cosy, warm and cuddly – although there is often a cuddle at the end!
    In the context of the two days training of CEOs, hosts and partners, all participants where given a warning that the exercise was challenging and where asked to consider their involvement over lunch – usual practice. They had a choice of exercises at that point. Nearly all chose the exercise in question and those who opted out took the role of observer.

    If we consider it appropriate in a given situation we will use it again in this programme. It is a very popular exercise that always gets good feedback in terms of learning from a personal, local and wider society perspective.

    Jess…..don’t get blogged down….. Your country needs you more than the bloggers.

  3. This doc is available on the web, but for information I am posting it here.

    RE:generate (Action to Regenerate Community Trust) is an enterprising social action charity. We train and support individuals, multi agency teams, community and voluntary sector organisations to deliver a dynamic and empowering process designed to tackle the root causes of poverty and disadvantage. It is called Root Solution – ‘Listening Matters’, because we believe that in the root cause of issues faced in society lie the root solutions. It is this process and strategy that will be at the heart of the training of 5000 community organisers in England in the coming 4 years and inform the development of the associated Institute.

    Action to Re:generate Community Trust has worked in the UK for over 22 years and in Zambia since 2001. On extremely limited resource we have developed our work, process and strategy organically – informed by Delta Training for Transformation as delivered in many countries of the world. Our work and our process has also been influenced by the philosophy, methods and approaches developed by educators and community activists such as Paulo Freire and Saul Alinsky in the Americas.

    The experience base for RE:generate’s process

    Root Solution – ‘Listening Matters’ is a holistic homegrown organising strategy conceived and developed by Action to Regenerate CommunityTrust – a social action charity founded by Stephen Kearney and Julia Olsen, social entrepreneurs with first hand experience of individual and community disempowerment. They developed their approach and process while working with communities in towns, villages and cities throughout the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    In the mid nineties, after training with USA Community Organisers Ed Chambers and Ernie Cortez and Partners Ireland, they incorporated aspects of Freire’s and Alinsky’s work and teaching. The working model for transformation has been tested in major cities, large towns, market towns, villages, disadvantaged estates and mixed communities and Root Solution –‘Listening Matters’ is now a highly effective development tool that supports people to act and transform their lives and communities.

    RE:generate has continually worked to develop, adapt and use organising techniques, participatory training methodologies and transformation training in very complex environments. To date thousands of people have been listened to in the UK, many have been trained in local and national programmes and thousands have directly engaged in activities and developments that have changed their lives and communities.

    This work has linked people’s personal growth to local action and institutions, which has in turn impacted on the wider society as we see from the Community Organisers Programme.

    In transforming communities, we are guided by shared values and principles that bind us and our partners in common purpose.

    Re:generate believes that

    • A healthy community is a living democracy where people work together to address issues that matter to them.

    • As citizens, we have a duty to shape the basic conditions that affect our lives with others.

    • If we are to get to the root causes of problems, power must be more effectively shared: local communities must have access to tools, support and opportunities to engage powerfully, voluntarily and appropriately in designing, shaping and delivering public services effectively.

    • The country needs to embrace approaches like Root Solution -‘Listening Matters’ that can support communities to unearth and unleash hidden skills and talents to be stronger socially, economically, politically, culturally and environmentally.

    Our organising strategy and process involves building trust, respect and relationships within and between individuals and communities at every level that leads to the development of an active digital and physical network.

    Root Solution – ‘Listening Matters’ fosters forms of participatory leadership that enable individuals and communities to grow in trust, openness and confidence; to identify and empower them to act purposefully on their hopes and synergies; to facilitate processes of analysis of root causes of issues or problems; and to plan for solutions and policies with people’s active participation; to build connections between community members and with relevant institutions.

    The strategy will make a key contribution to helping Local Authorities to fulfil their new obligations and aspirations under the Localism Bill.

    We will train people in all walks of life to build trust, relationships and active networks in communities that will take action to transform.

    Change Outcomes

    The achievement of power balance – shifting and sharing power intelligently and responsibly between the individual citizen and accountable local and community institutions – is the central tenet and purpose of the process.

    RE:generate’s work ensures that shifts in a balance of power are appropriately facilitated.

    Root Solution-‘Listening Matters’ wakes people up to their potential. It encourages and catalyses individuals to take creative and enterprising networked action to seek, find and develop collaborative solutions to deep seated problems. It supports people to make positive changes happen in their communities and their lives. Individuals, communities, agencies and authorities experience transformed working relationships that deliver better public services.

    The Coalition Government’s aims and objectives in relation to supporting the development of community animators and organisers in England are welcome. At every level and in whatever role citizens need to reflect on the part we play in the continuation of poverty and disadvantage – and the part we could play in finding solutions.

    Root Solution – Listening Matters is a framework any individual or organisation can apply to bring about transformation that challenges cultures of dependency and silence, and disabling structures and systems.

    Example: A letter from a Ward Councillor

    “The RE:generate system is more than just a process. It is a life changing programme that gets individuals, families, agencies, politicians, authorities and communities working together to arrive at shared solutions to improve their own neighbourhoods and lives.
    The work shifts power away from the state to the people and the Institutions. Apathy dissolves as people develop new relationships with their politicians that alter the balance of power in a very healthy way.
    By bringing people together Root Solution breaks down social barriers. By getting people to identify what they love as well as what they want to change or improve it improves pride in place and self- respect within individuals. It ensures that people act in big ways and little ways.
    Root Solution Listening Matters enables individuals and groups to grow in confidence and ability. By not being a quick fix but a project for the long term people know that it is for real and is worth working together to achieve. It creates a very powerful cohesion that cannot be ignored.
    In the Whiteway Estate where I am a Councillor we have been working with this approach for two years now and the impact has been impressive. The community is much more confident, individuals and teams have developed the skills to meet with agencies and be confident and assertive. They are well prepared having listened to the views of 600 people and analyzed their data. They have a list of 300 people that are taking action and they work on the politicians and structure with power to support them in their endeavours.
    Some are developing enterprises like the Proud of your Doorstep – an environmental business, some want to run the new centre for children and young people, some have set up a theatre community, a political action to reduce speed limits, some want to set up a free school to replace a school the council want to close, some are working with young people to turn them away from crime… this team have reduced offending by 90%.
    As politicians we tap into the energies and talents that hitherto have not being tapped into and the results are unprecedented. The targets set for this piece of work have been met and exceeded beyond our wildest expectations.
    The social impact is incredible. Families are helping each other more and the agencies have a better understanding of the dynamics of the community and are learning how to target public services more effectively and with the cooperation of the community, which makes delivery much easier.
    It is challenging for the status quo and power bases that have been there for an eternity – but this is precisely the positive challenge power structures need. I will continue to welcome the work of RE:generate because they have sown the seeds for changing the way we function. They have positively, quietly and assertively challenged our whole approach to the delivery of public services and that has to be a good thing, especially in the current climate.
    The next two years are going to be as big a journey as the last two. However we can only set off on the next part because of the in depth work of RE:generate during the first phase. Community transformation is not a quick fix. It is a long term process and Listening Matters and RE:generate are the ideal root solution to enable the transformation to start and grow.”

    Cllr Paul Crossley
    Leader Bath & NE Somerset Council Liberal Democrat Council group Orchard Rise Sham Castle Lane Bath BA2 6JL

  4. rick smith says:

    Hi Jess, love your writing as always. Would love to understand more about strength based as we always hear about the needs of a community and it is also the way many commissioners operate too.

  5. Toby Blume says:

    i’ve been meaning to respond properly to the discussion that has been generated by recent pieces by Tessy Britton, Julian Dobson, Tom Neumark, Anthony Zacharzewski and now you….still meaning to get round to that, but in the meantime i wanted to make a couple of points.
    the first is that i think this debate is incredibly healthy and constructive. the CO programme has attracted a lot of attention and, i think it’s fair to say, a fair deal of criticism. I happen to believe that some of this is down to misunderstanding and a lack of knowledge about what is being proposed. Some, however, is based on an in-depth knowledge of communtiy organising (as it is practiced in some places).

    Both of these need to be addressed – but in quite different ways.
    However, what they share in common is the need for transparency and engagement with the criticism.
    In this respect, on this occassion i have to disagree with Stephen’s comments that the blogosphere is a distraction from delivering the programme. On the contrary – i think it is a crucial way to communicate with others about the programme, to address and respond to criticism or questions, and to develop an approach to delivery that is as good as it possibly can be.

    Whilst it may be a distraction from delivery for some – for you (and Locality) in managing the programme, the external communciations are crucial to the programme’s success.
    So please dont stop blogging, tweeting and engaging in debate. without this the programme will be poorer and less likely to achieve its aims. And surely no one will take issue with the ambition of trying to support local people to achieve improved outcomes for their communities?

  6. David Wilcox says:

    I’m with Toby on this.
    One (OK, only one) reason good ideas in the Big Society proposals were overshadowed by criticism was the lack of any effective engagement and communications programme, and the lack of responsiveness by those at the centre. This increased suspicion and mistrust, and helped create the toxic climate we have now around Big Society.
    There’s lots of different approaches to community organising, and the discussions now developing around the issues offers a great chance to build some new frameworks, alliances and practices blended with past experience.
    Social media is just one way to do that, and not enough on its own. However, blogging by those running the programme is important because it shows preparedness to engage, and the realities of doing a very challenging job. That’s what builds trust.
    But external communications and engagement can’t rest solely on the moments Jess can find to post … however welcome that is.
    Is there a wider Locality comms programme?
    Head down and just get on with the job would, in my view, miss a big opportunity, and risk a lot of push back from those who would like to be friends, if occasionally critical.

  7. Hi Toby,
    I agree about transparency, I am calling for a balanced approach that ensures some people don’t have to regularly and possibly under pressure feel compelled to sit in front of the screen at 11,12 at night and 1 and 2 in the early morning to keep up.
    Some of my team are actually exhausted by this as they work hard to deliver on the ground and run their families. Balance is all I call for.
    Best wishes

  8. Hello everyone..

    I’m in the Marsh Farm Outreach team in Luton, one of the host organisations kick starting the CO programme with Locality, and went to the 2 day ‘orientation’ session in Birmingham.

    Just a quick one on the transparency and blogging issue – I’m 150% with Toby and David. The blog is a great idea to keep everything out in the open and if we all play our part we can get to a situation where it’s not left to Jess alone to engage with the blogosphere and deal with concerns, discuss issues, learn from others and generally keep the windows open for all to see in.

    Regenerates Majorians and Minorians exercise was a good and quite enjoyable way of making people think about power imbalances, treating people with respect, dealing with frustrations and other good stuff. It informed the rest of the discussion as well, because when we were looking at the CO role people often referred back to the exercise. Most importantly of all, the ‘experiential’ nature of the exercise made it accessible for people like myself and my co-Marsh Farmers, who are not academic in our way of thinking and have been caught kipping in quite a few more classroom oriented ‘training sessions’ (we call these ‘Teflon Training Courses’ because the content is non stick). I dont know that much about Re:generate, but from what Ive read of the Listening Matters material it seems to be a process that resembles our current MO in many ways and can only help us to improve. As we go forwards with the training I’ll keep feeding back on here.

    Last but not least, I sat with a few other Marsh Farmers and we read the discussions and Tessy’s revised ‘Rules for Radicals’ and to be perfectly honest we found it all quite annoying! this is because the ‘Tessy Rules’ take all of the ‘sting’ out of the equation, turning them into a series of what we would call ‘fluffy’ statements (sorry Tessy…lol).

    Whilst we are far away from being ‘Alinsky-ites’ (we dont do Gurus) and we really welcome the discussion about revision of the ‘Rules’ into a UK 2011 context, to remove the sting and suggest there is no ‘enemy’ as Tessy does, would render them pretty much useless for most people I know. Most ‘poor people’ are obviously pretty pissed off – more so than usual – living, as we do, on a daily basis with friends and families who are suffering the fallout from the mess the country is in because of the system, its ‘money is god’ set of values and its shameless set of crudely wealthy players (bankers, media, politicians etc).

    Our experience of building alternatives from the grassroots and the healthy conflict this leads to in Luton means that we more than understand the nature of the forces ranged against progressive change makers from the ‘bottom up’. Whether it be institutional resistance by a culture used to ‘top down’ delivery, or power hungry politicians and media barons with fiefdoms to protect, or the negative forces of greed and self interest that are more than present within our own communities, all of these forces are indeed ‘enemies’ of positive change and sometimes need to be firmly, but lovingly, defeated. Lots of the stuff Alinsky says about tactics cant be discounted because there will be times when the going needs to get rough, and its useful to understand that challenging the status quo leads you into battle, otherwise you will be likely to get hurt without expecting it.

    Theres definitely a need to review the Rules for our own context in UK PLC 2011, for example we really dont like his ‘the means dont matter as long as the ends are achieved’ stuff and wouldn’t adopt that part of his philosophy in 100 years. But there are plenty of other bits that reflect our own experience in so many ways, so although none of us had ever heard of Alinsky until a couple of years ago we understand the effectiveness of the approach.

    We reckon the key to balancing the need to keep Alinsky’s ‘sting’ with Tessy’s focus on the positive lies in learning how to ‘hate the action, but love the actor’. Then we can harness the anger and frustration people rightly feel in a way which doesn’t pretend there are no ‘enemies’, but which understand that negative behaviour or responses only makes us as bad as ‘them’, and that the only way of defeating the ‘enemy’ for good is to build constructive alternatives – be the change we want to see.

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