Why I’m an Organiser

Many people working in community building – and more widely in the social sector – will affirm their commitment to social justice. I am an organiser because my values start from a deep seated conviction that each human being is worthy of the same respect as I am. Whatever your background, knowledge, age or race, you have an equal right with every other person to be treated as a valued contributor to your own life and that of the community in which you live.

Citizenship as public participation

My understanding of social justice has been expanded by studying community organising. I now recognise the way we construct our approach to citizenship as a means of giving some people privileges over others. Citizenship – the role we play in our common life together – is too often framed around insiders and outsiders and the distinction is drawn up and imposed by the insiders. Participation in our common enterprise of forming thriving and sustainable communities is fundamental to our nature as social human beings. We have too often restricted such citizenship to the few, leaving the many to become subjects of the few.

How do we become actors in our own destiny?

For the many, both the state and the market take power away from citizens, inviting them to become passive bystanders to their own future. Turning round this experience of powerlessness requires effort at several levels. It certainly means awakening community solidarity and an awareness of how power is distributed and used. It requires us to find allies and friends sometimes in unusual places with whom we can collaborate. It means building a sense of common purpose amongst those independent of market and state. And it will undoubtedly mean calling to account those who wield power and bringing them into living relationship with their own community.

Divisions and oppression

We have created a prison for ourselves, no doubt made up of good intentions. We live in human silos that keep us separate and powerless. The divisions we encounter are based on superficial characteristics such as our gender, race or disability. The fundamental reality is that our human nature gives us the same respect and value whatever these apparent distinctions may mean in society. These differences are transformed into exclusion, discrimination and impoverishment by the abuse of power – by one group or interest running rough shod over the aspirations and dreams of another.

Power used wisely

So, social justice is a question of rebalancing power. Power comes in many forms – power-over, power-to, power-with for example – and it exists inherent in every human relationship. We can exercise our personal power with care and awareness or we can abuse others with it and crush their spirit. Parents and children, partners in relationship, employers and employees, retailers and customers all exercise power in relationships. Lawyers and clients, teachers and learners, authors and readers, athletes and spectators exercise power in differing degrees and with wildly varying results. Analysing power and its sources is a critical factor in addressing social justice.

Useful Resources on Social Justice

Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller (2006) A New Weave of Power, People & Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation  http://www.justassociates.org/ActionGuide.htm

Paulo Friere (1993) Pedagogy of the Oppressed Revised edition Penguin

This foundational document inspired many to engage in raising the consciousness of oppressed people around the world through working as teacher-learners. Highly
recommended.

Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel (2003) Understanding Power: The
Indispensable Chomsky
Vintage

A useful introduction to the thinking of Noam Chomsky, one of the most influential activists of our day.

Questions

Do you agree that social justice is about rebalancing power?

Does your vision of justice also start from respect for the fundamental equality of all human beings? Or do you have another starting point?

I want to include justice for the global eco-system for which we are stewards. How can we frame a single justice paradigm for social and environmental justice?

Justice is a great topic to start this blog with as it is something lots of people hold dear but express their commitment and practice in really different ways. I look forward to hearing what you think.

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3 Responses to Why I’m an Organiser

  1. daniel caro says:

    think carefullly about working with orgs like london citizens. remember that they have their own agenda and they may well see you as a job-lot with a bunch of similar orgs. they will beaver away at trying to find concordances between your group and other unrelated groups that do not necessarily exist, in order to broker some sort of ‘action’ or ’empowerment’ which is inevitably a meeting that is primarily about one thing, and one thing only- a springboard to get their faces in front of the movers and shakers who constitute their next career step as community activists. .

    certainly for a start-up community org some of their techniques can be learnt from, but the depth is missing. they are broadly based but shallow. complex issues continue to elude them, you will find yourself having to brief them time and time again on the basics of your campaign. i found it was a bit like talking to a cat about astrophysics.

    and if you rely on them for representation on a difficult issue- well, look out is all i can say!

    in short, you’ll learn all you need to know from them in about six months, and then it’s often best to shrug off their one-size-fits-all model and the infantlism and ego problems that seem to be the calling card of the twenty-something professional activist, and set out to make your own mark. .

    • Mark Parker says:

      Hi Daniel and thanks for your comment. My Masters in Community Organising was undertaken at Queen Mary University of London and the course was designed with London Citizens. As part of the course, I spent five months working in Southwark – my home borough – with South London Citizens and as a result of these experiences, I got a fairly rounded experience of how London Citizens operates. They draw much of their inspiration from the Industrial Areas Foundation which was found by Alinsky in the 1940s and which today has chapters across the US and the world. I think London Citizens has been successful in raising the profile of key concerns to their members and consequently in promoting the importance of broad-based organising in the UK. I attended three Assemblies during my time and was impressed by the numbers, the real depth of community reach and the commitment shown by the delegates. I am also very aware of the sort of critique you voice and agree with you that they have not got everything right. I am now being trained by RE:generate in their approach to community organising and so am in an unusual position of having first-hand experience of both approaches. I recognise the wide differences between the two but also see they each have their strengths.

  2. daniel caro says:

    mark

    i think you are correct in so far as broad based organizing goes. if raising the profile of an issue is the thing, then there are definite pluses to their approach.

    there is also the emotional energy generated which i think owes something to US faith-based sector models.

    however when it comes to issues requiring technical understanding and tenacity over a long period, i found their approach lacking.

    sadly, i noticed that if there was a choice between a meeting or event to progress an issue that involved a key decision maker and the member organisation but did not involve london citizens staff themselves, or acting to endanger that opportunity with the result that there would be no opportunity to progress the issue, LC were quite prepared to sabotage the thing.

    i saw this happen with two organisations in their coalition, both of which left, both now deal in a more strategic and targeted way on their issues. both learnt a little about the LC model of organising and grew in stature while in partnership with LC, but fundamentally realised they’d outgrown them. there was a definite tipping point after which involvement became a liability.

    this makes me question at a fundamental level what the raison d’etre of LC actually is…. beyond self-promotion, that is.

    without a rationale aside from broad-based organising as an end in itself, i must wonder if they perhaps find themselves lacking both a moral compasss – hence the sabotage example above – and the killer instinct to get in there and actually resolve an issue, unless it can be resolved in a way that sustains LC itself.

    this says to me that organisations considering involvement with the ‘citizens uk’ type of approach should think carefully about what a win looks like, for them, in their individual campaign.

    does that win look like the sort of thing citizens UK regard as a win?

    is what citizens UK/LC regard as an outcome the sort of thing your members regard as an outcome? if not, the member organisation should think twice about involvement.

    i wonder what you and others think about this. i find my conclusions troubling, particularly those aspects in which their ethical shortcomings became clear. i spent more than six years dealing with them and am sure i will never do so again.

    dan

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