Many questions were raised back in 2010 when the Conservative manifesto committed an incoming Tory administration to train 5,000 community organisers; the voices asked many things but amongst them was a concern about how this new ‘army’ (yes, sadly that was the language used!) would relate to the existing community sector and particularly the uncounted number of local residents struggling with voluntary capacity to make their community better. The manifesto made it clear that the Conservatives were looking to develop a new dynamic look to their community-facing policy.
Cuts and Challenge
Alongside the cuts to public spending, they wanted to challenge many of the assumptions that the Labour government had instilled during their thirteen years in office. Amongst these was a distinct antipathy to community development and particularly to dependence on state funding for work on empowerment, diversity or cohesion. At the same time, David Cameron had staked significant personal capital on his Big Society concept and was determined to press ahead to change the way citizens relate to the state. Their Lib Dem partners in the new Government were fully in favour of this change in direction so it became a central pillar of the new administration.
This week, I have had several opportunities to reflect on what is distinctive about organising. But how different in practice is community organising from community development? Are they cousins, siblings, twins or identical? As different as apples and oranges? Or rather like the chicken and egg? How far can we get without descending into petty arguments about terminology?
Such questions are beset with difficulties. There are numerous different styles and cultures of community development and of community organising. They have never existed in separate worlds and it is clear that in the skills and knowledge of practitioners there is huge common ground. The community development scene in the UK has been on the whole developing without regular insights from community organising; in America, similarly the impact of community development on community organising has been weak. And no doubt the cultural differences between the UK and the US has played its part in driving a wedge between the two.
You also have to take account of the different trajectories of development of the two terms on either side of the Atlantic. For Americans, community development is often about quite large institutions of service delivery – Community Development Corporations (cf. UK Housing Associations) – whilst for the Brits, it has term adopted by many to reflect their concern for grassroots equality and justice. Efforts to develop community development as a professional discipline have often been ground down by government indifference and disputes between agencies. Community development has remained on the side-lines in most UK policy making whilst in the US it has been mainstreamed in a highly bureaucratic way.
Both schools of community-facing activity have developed over time too. Some people read Saul Alinsky writing in the 1970s as though his were the final words on organising. In practice, organising has a wealth of literature developing, refining and in some cases refuting Alinsky. Similarly, the academic purist or policy officer in UK community development circles often holds a pretty radical view of their discipline whilst the practice of local workers is often constrained by real resistance to change amongst their peers and in the community itself. Many Labour government programmes had significant investment in community development staff and training but failed to prove the value of the on-the-ground resources so devoted. Practice and theory don’t always inform each other, especially in the eyes of a sceptical observer.
Good quality, up-to-date practice of both schools of community activity is difficult to find and to compare accurately. But I would point to some distinctive aspects of community organising which set it apart – in my view – from the majority of UK community development.
First, community organising has always been politicised and propelled by a concern for challenging the status quo. The possibility of collaboration with the state or of ‘partnership’ has always been anathema to community organisers – which raises some difficult questions about a government-funded training programme! This stance derives from a deeply polarised view of society echoed in the Occupy movement of today. Alinsky pointed to the Haves (1%) and the Have-nots (99%) and organisers today continue to emphasise their essential and abiding opposition. Society today is highly polarised between an ultra-rich elite who run things and the impoverished mass who have a smaller share each day of both power and resources.
Some versions of UK community development have adopted this view of society in fundamental conflict and their practice has been enhanced by its politicised content. However, most practitioners whilst inspired by such rhetoric have been unable to implement such an approach with much rigour given the dependence on establishment funding – government, trusts and rich individuals. Since 1980, it has also been a difficult phase of British political life to engage in radical community development when the freedom to protest against ‘partnership working’ has been so denied. Few in community groups want to engage with such tendentious politics fearing fearsome debate and crippling inertia. (The diagram comes from Achieving Better Community Development (ABCD) on the Scottish Government’s website)
People vs Privilege
Secondly, community organising is fundamentally about pitching the power of the people against that of privilege. For many in community development organisations, their appeals to the powerful for better treatment of their low-income community are based on rational argument, evidence and fellow feeling, on liberal sentiment and on occasions on pure pleading. Community organisations on the other hand are able to bargain with powerful interests by offering attractive inducements and threatening real world loss of status and power. By threatening to withdraw their cooperation, the 99% are able to hold the 1% to account. Such a power focus makes the internal democracy of the organisation a central plank of their legitimacy.
Community organising is well suited to tackling structural injustice but it also has its drawbacks. Pressing for a change of policy can be achieved by the pressure of numbers but taking control of the resources to deliver that policy requires specialist expertise and a very different paradigm. Community organising is best suited to local neighbourhood work where people can have face-to-face relationships of trust and respect. It does not translate well into citywide or national multi-neighbourhood networks without becoming blighted by overbearing bureaucracy. Community development has proved itself better able to implement large programmes but in the process, all too often becomes dominated by the programme logic of partnership and loses all dynamic links with its actual community.
So in the UK what is the relationship between community development and community organising? For many stalwarts of the community development world, the political background – and especially the draconian cuts to frontline services – makes community organising suspect at best and loathed at worst. For those committed to community organising, the the allegiance of many in community development to partnership with the state apparatus makes them unpalatable fellow travellers. The dialogue between these two models of action in the community needs to be more generous and carefully framed. Only then will the strengths of each be recognised and important lessons drawn for both parties.
Randy Stoecker (2001) Community Development and Community Organizing: Apples and Oranges? Chicken and Egg? from the Online Conference on Community Organising at http://comm-org.wisc.edu
Aaron Schutz (2008) Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing: What is Community Organizing? What isn’t Community Organizing? from Education Action now at Open Left http://openleft.com/user/educationaction
Dave Beckwith with Cristina Lopez (1997) Community Organizing: People Power from the Grassroots from The Online Conference on Community Organizing at http://comm-org.wisc.edu
Margaret Ledwith (2011) Community Development: A Critical Approach Policy Press
Alison Gilchrist and Marilyn Taylor (2011) A Short Guide to Community Development Policy Press
Meredith Minkler (ed) (2005) Community Organizing and Community Building for Health (2nd Edition) Rutgers University Press
James DeFilippis, Robert Fisher and Eric Shragge (2010) Contesting Community – The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing Rutgers University Press
Douglas R. Hess (1999) Community Organizing, Building and Developing: Their Relationship to Comprehensive Community Initiatives from the Online Conference on Community Organising at http://comm-org.wisc.edu
Note: I have restricted my discussion to the pattern in the UK and US. This is where my knowledge is most secure. I am very aware that my readers may be able to comment from experience in other global contexts such as India, Canada, Hungary, Brazil or Australia where the two traditions flourish alongside each other. I would welcome your views.