In a strange way, community organising is both about organisations and not about organisations! On the one hand, the famous definition of community organising is the 3O’s: Organisers Organise Organisations – in other words, the focus of organisers is the creation of an authentic and organic people’s organisation. On the other hand, organisers are encouraged to avoid existing community organisations that will distract from, bias or seek to direct the organiser’s work. The current drive for ‘partnership working’ is explicitly rejected by community organisers as an imposition on the community of another agenda.
This dual nature to organisations is all around us. As employees and other participants in organisational life, we know that they give us access to resources and technical specialisms held only in such settings. We know they allow us to share knowledge over time and space and achieve the common task in effective ways. They can channel leadership to a complex goal and provide us with a routine and social support for the journey to completion. Organisations are immensely positive influences on our lives.
Organisations though also have a darker side. We have all been aware of organisations dominating the thinking of the individual through their culture, brand and ethos. They can unwittingly limit the options leading to ‘group think’, blocking out strong evidence because it does not fit the parameters of the group’s world view. On the receiving end of organisational culture, we can feel oppressed and our opinion ignored. We can recognise that the necessary bureaucracy of organisational life has become a cause in itself.
It is the negative side of organisations that has led the Occupy movement across the world to remain leaderless. No one person or hierarchy of people can speak for the movement. Decisions are made in daily people’s assemblies. The culture and priorities are contested and emergent, the actions planned swiftly using secure online networks. Rather than leading to anarchy, such inclusive forms of democracy are paving the way for a different form of dispersed organisation that has only become possible with the evolution of mobile social networking.
The capacity of organisations of all sizes and types to create an acceptable ‘way of being’, of socialising us into their norms is undoubted. People will act in the strangest of ways when commanded to do so; they will also do the most heroic acts of bravery under direction. But this cultural formation has detrimental effects when it is imposed on others who do not have the power to resist. We have recently been reminded of the role that institutional racism played in the Stephen Lawrence investigation. Actions that are taken in good faith within the organisational culture can appear bizarre or cruel from outside.
This week I have been thinking about the way local authorities and other public bodies undertake community consultation. From my experience in Southwark, it appears to have strongly detrimental impacts, leaving the majority of the citizens feeling ignored. ‘They just don’t listen’ is a constant cry at doorstep after doorstep. Yet I have also every confidence that the members and officers of the Council are trying their hardest to listen to citizens’ concerns. The problem is their organisational clothing; they are unable to shed the council’s world view and approach their community members stripped of corporate assumptions.
The distance between the culture of corporate Britain and community life is explored in a telling discussion paper (see below) by Eileen Conn who is a Southwark resident and long-time community activist. She highlights the complete misunderstanding in most large (and small) organisations of the alternative style at the heart of community life. As a consequence, the attempts at dialogue between state agencies, business or the voluntary sector and the grassroots is doomed to failure. Her paper is a wake up call to a deeper and more transformative approach to relationship building at community level.
As I said at the opening of this post, community organising is about creating an authentic people’s organisation from the grassroots. Organisers are not the leaders of this evolving organisation, community members are. Organisers do not set the agenda or chose the priorities, community members do that. By listening, heeding and reflecting, organisers enable and facilitate citizens to develop their own politics of the everyday, shaping their organisation to suit the task of holding power with the people. Staying alongside people from all parts of Southwark life, we are working to develop a responsive, reflective and radically distinctive network of groups and individuals ready to take action for the common good.
Eileen Conn (2011) Community Engagement and the Social Eco-System Dance Third Sector Research Centre
Richard C. Harwood and John C. Creighton (2009) The Organization-First Approach: How Programs Crowd out Community Kettering Foundation