Understanding activism

Over the last five months, I have been studying activism in Southwark as part of an MA in community organising. The course has run for the first time this year in the
School of Geography at Queen Mary University of London. The course has
introduced a wide range of practical and theoretical material that underpins
community organising and then went on to look at the history of organising in
the States and UK. Based on a partnership with Citizens UK, we were offered a
placement with them as part of the course and I decided to do mine in
Southwark. I worked with the newly formed Southwark Citizens to explore how
organising through GP practices might be started up. As a result, I already had
some contact with activists in the borough when I was deciding my dissertation
study. I took the opportunity to uncover as much literature about campaigning,
advocacy and activism as I could.

Disruption from the cuts

The cuts to Southwark public services have destroyed many community-facing social networks. The disruption experienced by remodelling health or social service units to
save costs has led to major changes in personnel and responsibilities. In the
same way, the trust and loyalty developed with voluntary organisations has been
undermined by the withdrawal of key funds that have required them to down-size
or in some cases close all together. Whilst these impacts are indirect,
activism in Southwark has suffered significantly from the loss of these
networks of support and information. The results of the riots are showing that
Southwark – whilst facing significant looting and violence against property and
the police – has a strong civil society that can bounce back when threatened.

Activists of many types

Alinsky Power to Two Poles (cletch CC Flikr)

My study has shown that activists interpret their role in a variety of ways. For some, their
volunteering to bridge between communities and to enhance their mutual
understanding is a fundamental way to achieve a better society. For others,
their role is to hold the Council to account for their actions, to question the
attitude of officers who threaten and bully, to challenge the decisions of
councillors who ignore their own agreed policy. Activists are immensely diverse
and act at any different scales, from the global to the very local.

Networks and organisations

Activists are however often linked to each other and to organisations that support them. They even form their own organisations to further the cause or concern. These
networks form a key part of activist life and I looked at how they are
currently working in Southwark. The evidence of my small sample showed that
whilst neighbourhood networks were sometimes quite strong, the networks were
not yet weaved together. A few individuals provided much of the linkage but
their central role made the network more vulnerable and less powerful than it
might be if the network was more densely linked up. There are key organisations
– like the settlements – that provide some of the linkage and they have the
opportunity to become more consciously engaged in supporting frontline activism
than they are at present.

Gene Sharp (2010)
From Dictatorship to Democracy: A
Conceptual Framework for Liberation
(4th Edition) The Albert
Einstein Institute Available at www.aeinstein.org/organizations/org/FDTD.pdf (Accessed
9 Aug 2011)

Gene Sharp (1973)
198 Methods of Non-Violent Action
Available at http://www.aeinstein.org/organizations103a.html (Accessed 9 Aug 2011)

Gene Sharp has been the inspiration of much radical but non-violent action across the world. These two works provide a valuable insight into his thinking and the practical
options available to any non-violent activist.

Eileen Conn (2011) Community Engagement and the Social Eco-System Dance. Available from the Third Sector Research Centre at http://bit.ly/EngagementDance

Written by longterm Peckham community practitioner and reflective academic Eileen Conn, this discussion paper offers valuable insights into the distinct cultures of institutions and the community, together with recommendations on how to bridge between the two whilst respecting the community’s side.

Trapese Collective (eds) (2007) Do It Yourself: A handbook for changing the world Pluto Press


Do you recognise my description of grassroots activism? Does it ring true to your experience?

For most people the Conservative’s ‘Big Society’ was killed by the English riots. Do you think either has an influence on activism? If so in what way or ways?

What should activists do to strengthen their collaboration across neighbourhoods and across issues / themes? How would this help? How might it hinder?

Rather like cats, activists are self-willed and often resist being herded together. I think we are stronger together and that the ingenuity and creativity of Southwark’s activists would be best expressed in collaboration rather than just competing for attention, resources and public profile. Do you agree? How could we develop the right approaches to help it happen? I want to learn from your ideas and thoughts on activism more generally or about how Southwark activists might work together. Share them and we can take thing further.

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