The role of an organiser is to work with people to give them a sense of their own power and capacity for change. It’s to discern how leaders can emerge and to give them every support to pursue their dreams. It’s to remain fully engaged but with a clear purpose to open up the power of the new in people’s lives, to change the power dynamics in local life – and beyond. Whilst some say that local knowledge and the authenticity that comes from living in the area makes a resident the better organiser, others argue that the outsider’s perspective is equally valuable. Whichever is best, sometimes you need to start up afresh and that’s what I’m doing now.
For the last year, I have been working in Walworth, SE London. It’s a traditionally working class community now deeply challenged by hyper-diversity and gentrification. The last six months have been focused on one part of the Aylesbury estate, a 1960s and 1970s development now showing the evidence of decline and lack of investment. Our base last year was Cambridge House which is located just outside Walworth and the Aylesbury estate in North Camberwell.
As explained in my last post, through the generosity of our hosts Cambridge House and a grant from the government, we – myself and four other organisers – have been able to continue organising across Southwark. However, we have been asked as part of that deal to work in North Camberwell as well. So from October onward, we are focusing our thinking and effort on developing this new work from scratch. None of us has any prior knowledge of the area so we all start from the same place.
The area we are focusing on straddles Camberwell Road. On the one side, it borders on the newly opened Burgess Park with some very prestigious properties in a conservation area around Addington Square. On the other and larger side, the housing is much more mixed with some 1960s tower blocks, several 1940s estates and a pleasant area of Victorian terraces. In this part of Camberwell, there is some light industry, especially along and under the railway that runs parallel to Camberwell Road, a new school under construction and the popular Blue Elephant theatre.
Introducing the team
My colleagues are all working with me in this new area – you can see them in the banner above. They bring a range of experience and background and all live in the borough too. Nicholas Ogboyi has worked and studied in many countries in Africa and Europe and lives just across the road from our new area in the huge Brandon estate. He is a strong character with extensive experience and together with his writing abilities, has a very gentle style with people at the door.
Zara Lloyd is a Walworth resident and believes passionately in her neighbourhood. She brings skills as a graphic designer, photographer (one of her photos left) and artist as well as her network around Walworth. Ahmed Kabba is also a long term resident of Southwark, having for a while lived in North Camberwell himself. He has training as a youth and community worker and has run his own business; he is immensely friendly and is always greeted on the streets of Peckham, where he now works and organises.
Finally, Kathleen Cassidy brings drive and enthusiasm to the team. She has been developing local grow-your-own and gardening schemes in the area for about two years since she moved to Walworth. Her energy and practical orientation is missing at the moment as she has taken a month between roles to cycle from John O’Groats to Lands End! See her account here: http://embracingexperiments.wordpress.com
Our challenge now is to make a start in North Camberwell. We know that at the core of our work will be listening in depth to local people and exploring with them what action they want to take together to improve things. However, since we are no longer in training with Locality and Re:generate and indeed have to make things happen independently, we have decided to take a few weeks to prepare ourselves. In these early days, we are working out what is already going on in North Camberwell so as to be better informed and able to see opportunities that might be otherwise missed. (Photo Right: Three 21 storey tower blocks on the Wyndham and Comber estate which forms part of this new patch.)
Our first move has been to do several ‘walkabouts’. We have taken the time to wander the area slowly but purposefully and to open our eyes to what is there to be seen. I know from personal experience how easy it is to live or work in an area for years and to be surprised by the most obvious things when they suddenly become important. We have investigated alleys and pathways; we’ve read noticeboards and looked over fences. We have wandered into every shop and premises, chatting informally to the people we meet. We have noted down the organisations and institutions located in the area. Most of all, we’ve asked ourselves questions about what we are seeing – who lives here? how does that work? what is stopping this or allowing that?
In parallel, we are developing our knowledge of the area by researching online and on the streets. We have each taken one or more themes to explore. I’m looking at local politics, at the health services and at the recent history of the area. Others are considering such themes as education, business/ enterprise and crime. From these short overviews we hope to get a clearer picture of the area for ourselves, have a summary to share with our hosts and the community and a basis for later investigation. We hope to discover where there are strengths in the area and what assets might be developed further. (Photo Left: Blue Elephant Theatre, Bethwin Road – click on the picture to see their website)
In the midst of all this, we could easily loose sight of our purpose: to shape power differently, to refashion the levers of power to allow the community to gain more control over their future. Keeping this focus on power central means that in each of the themes we are looking out for the people and organisations that hold the power and for those who are less able to act on their own behalf. We need to know how power is distributed at present and where it is flowing already.
Preparing the ground
So we are preparing the ground for our listening which we aim to start in early November. How else would you prepare for work in a new area? What advice would you have for us at this early stage of the work?