Working as a community activist can be very isolating. People who grasp what you are about are few and far between. There are always those nagging doubts that you can’t be sure you’ve handled the dilemmas of community in the best way. Working as a leader amongst your peers is stressful at times and a joy at others. Sitting at home with your chosen beverage in hand, your mind can play tricks on your sense of self-worth and -belief.
Bringing community activists together in Preston this week, I was pleased to see smiling faces and plenty of laughter. Recognising common cause is hugely restorative. People were able to relax in congenial company, to have conversations that seldom occur back at base. Thanks to the undaunted efforts of Jo Taylor and others, the National Community Activists Network (NatCAN) has a membership of around 600 and provides a great place for active citizens from across the UK to share experience and offer support. Meeting face-to-face is an unusual privilege but about 80 turned out on Thursday to share the day.
Aspects of organising
Four speakers took up the morning slot. Each offered a distinctive take on the situation facing community activists today and helped us think in fresh ways about our task. In some ways, the four illustrated very well the dimensions of organising community and spoke to a range of ways in which power is exercised. I wanted to reflect on the shape of their contributions in light of my work with residents in Walworth.
David Malone – author of The Debt Generation and prolific blogger – spoke about the global financial crisis and the propaganda war being waged to protect the banking system. David is a strong critic of the lies told to control the terms of the debate and the continuing collusion of global regulators. His understanding of the inside of the story allows him to speak with energy and passion about the unseen power of ideas. He uncovered with simple logic the appalling arrogance of the banking industry and the incredible incompetence that led to the crash and subsequent bailouts. His analysis offers to community organisers an alternative narrative of the cuts which places the bankers and central banks at the heart of the suffering of billions across the world – and of the despair of Walworth residents faced with benefit cuts, reduced services and an unfeeling bureaucracy.
The second contribution came from one of my travelling companions. I happened to meet Tim Gee on the train as he sat down and we recognised each other from contact over my review of his excellent book Counterpower. Tim pointed out that he had finished the book in the week that the Occupy movement had taken off and so used his talk to explore the themes using his continuing involvement with the Occupy London camp at St Paul’s. His reflections brought the focus from the global stage of international finance markets to the national anti-capitalist struggle. He reached back into the history of dissent to bring forward examples of the three pillars of power: ideas, money and force. He concluded by referring to the Counterpower needed by activists to tackle each pillar. For me, this simple but powerful analysis offers organisers tools to understand better how communities are coerced to accept removal of their basic rights and their imprisonment behind bars of their own making. In Walworth, people feel they have no alternative but to work with and for the local authority and the big supermarkets, never conceiving of any other way.
Andy Benson – from the National Coalition for Independent Action – has worked for independent community activity throughout his life. As out third speaker, he focused on the way community activists are being sucked into collusion with the state-sponsored agenda, marketising the whole range of voluntary and community effort. He showed how organisations of all sizes were being placed under huge pressures to take up a business model, to professionalise, to tender for contracts and to adopt an ideology of growth and expansion. For organisers, this tendency in the wider sector is a key component of the distance felt by many citizens from voluntary organisations. It is also a strong incentive to keep relationship building at the centre of our work. The particular mission of individual organisations – especially to survive – can infect organising and lead to a biased reading of the community.
The personal often gets little space in national conferences but Nick Beddow from Community Development Exchange focused on the need of community activists to find support and solidarity. One of the principle purposes of NatCAN is to help individual workers – often isolated in their own organisation and in their community too – to keep going under the pressures we had already heard about. Nick talked about his own inspirations and the way forward for leaderless organisations. As I reflected on his contribution, I saw it as bringing home to the personal the implications of the bigger picture we had been discussing earlier in the day.
Linking politics with the personal
Action for change takes many forms. It also needs many elements to be sustainable and successful. The conference dealt with the big picture, the national struggles and the intense cooperation between state and market to suppress opposition and dissent. We need our minds fed with such counter-cultural insights but we also need each other. Organising alone is very hard and offers few rewards. Linking up with others for ideas, support, laughter and commiseration is essential for community activists of all hues.
National Community Activists Network at http://nationalcan.ning.com/
Tim Gee (2011) Counterpower New Internationalist
National Coalition for Independent Action at http://www.independentaction.net/
Community Development Exchange at http://www.cdx.org.uk/