The first batch of community organisers – participating in the Locality-led national training programme – are nearing their mid-point. Employed as trainees for one year, we are spread across the country in eleven different locations, each hosted by an established community organisation. In September 2011, we all spent three residential days at Trafford Hall near Chester (see the photo below) learning the basics in brilliant sunshine. Since then, we have been mentored and supported by RE:generate Trust staff, both in person and online as well as undertaking accredited learning in community organising with the Open College Network (Yorkshire and Humber Region).
The process of learning has focused on on-the-job training with regular contact with key national staff, especially in the early days. Three times we have come together for shared learning events using online conference facilities based on the Adobe Connect platform. These have involved all forty-five trainees as well as staff and administrators spending up to five hours in large and small group discussion and presentations. The online sessions have allowed typed and verbal exchange from across the country and ensured that we were able to explore key concerns and learn more about the process we were involved in.
Struggle and success
The experience on the ground has been hard going. Some of the trainee organisers have said how difficult they have found it to move people from a vague sense of engagement at the door to actually taking action a few days later. I found myself repeatedly listening to residents, having a successful conversation with them leading to a clear commitment to action and then being disappointed when they did not follow through. When I tried to contact them again, they just seemed to go to ground. This experience has been widely shared across the network.
On the other hand, some trainees have been able to persevere and come through to a place where they are joined by volunteers in their listening and find people willing to draw some friends together for a chat about the area. These ‘voluntary community organisers’ in waiting are key people to help make the local network of citizens come to life. The focus has turned – as it has for me in the last few weeks – to helping these individuals to pursue their project idea or to get out listening to friends and family. The time for the foundational listening has been limited by these other demands.
Meeting in person
This Monday, I travelled with Kathleen Murray (below) another trainee organiser in Walworth to visit our colleagues hosted by Barton Hill Settlement in Bristol. We got there for a 10:00 start and spent the day exchanging experience and insights from our different cities. For the Bristol team – Leo Singer, Richard Parkes, Rebecca Cant and Steve Crozier – I was very aware that they committed each individual trainee to a different neighbourhood. Chosen by a number of criteria, their experience across Bristol has been varied. This compares with the Southwark setting where we five have taken on three neighbourhoods, with three organisers focused on Walworth.
Yesterday, on Wednesday, I spent the afternoon with a group of eight from the same cohort of trainee community organisers. We are hosted in different parts of the country but have shared the same training journey so far. This online supervision and support session was hosted by Helen Wallis-Dowling Director of Training at RE:generate Trust and offered a much more intimate opportunity for discussion and input than the large group meetings. The full cohort of over forty organisers have been split into four online groups; this allows us to debate our practice and dilemmas during these new monthly online training sessions.
These two days have helped me gain a greater perspective on the programme and its development so far. We have shared positive stories of new people being engaged in their communities, old assumptions being challenged and persistence in the face of freezing weather. Communities are all the same and yet unique. We discussed handling racism on the doorstep and the roles we can see volunteer community organisers playing; we exchanged stories of politicians as opponents and allies of the process as well as the power of finding the one person to unlock access to a whole street or tower block.
For us all, there are days that make us feel inadequate. Some weeks are interminable and seem to lead nowhere. But then our colleagues and tutors offer an insight or draw out a lesson from a story and the gloom lifts. Even more special is when a local resident – just starting to get to know us – takes a leap of faith and does something extraordinary – like invites half the estate to their home or joins us listening for an afternoon. This makes the waiting all the more worthwhile, if no less difficult at the time.
Taking it further
A second cohort of community organisers joined the training programme earlier this year. And a third will start later in March. Their experience will be different to ours as we went ahead, spying out the land. We will also now be the first cohort to have to chose our specialist focus for the second half of the year from amongst four ‘Go Deeper’ options. These will build on the foundations established in the first six months and provide a more extensive understanding of one aspect of community organising. The training will remain firmly grounded in the experience of day-to-day practice and the lives of low-income households in modern England. We just need to reflect on that experience and use it to offer support to people who seek justice for their communities!
A Guide to Root Solution Listening Matters – an introduction to the Re:generate Trust approach to community animation