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 http://livingwithrats.blogspot.com/]. Over and out…!