Making Waves

The current situation for most UK community organisers is a difficult one. The programme was born out of a Conservative manifesto commitment to train 5,000 organisers in the lifetime of this Parliament. It has always had strong personal backing from Prime Minister David Cameron as a key part of his much maligned Big Society policy. The organisers were seen by the Tory leadership striding across poor communities urging cowed and uneasy residents to take action and so build a better and more participative culture from the grassroots up. When Locality won the bidding process, many saw them as a safe pair of hands, confident with the machinations of government and politically astute. Many Locality members remain fiercely committed to the transformation of local communities by those communities themselves and well able to accommodate the radical edge of organising. Some commentators however observed that Locality was likely to be accommodating to the agenda of the new coalition and able to navigate the choppy waters that such a politically charged programme would inevitably bring.

Homeless and Hungry by Ed Jourdan CC FlickrCrisis at the grassroots

The other side of the coin for most organisers is that they are face-to-face with citizens who are losing much of their security and even more of their income under the Coalition ideology of austerity. Certainly as we begin to go out door-to-door in Southwark once more, we are confronted by numerous households who are barely holding things together. People are angry and hurt, resentful and hungry and the prospect of still greater cuts to benefits, services, transport, jobs and housing is crushing. This government presents them with still greater reasons to stay small, to be undemanding and to take what is handed out. Our oppressed communities are being shattered. People – able-bodied and disabled – are seeing their livelihoods utterly destroyed with little hope of a return to sanity. Young people – especially if you are male and black – face huge discrimination in the jobs and housing markets and have an easy ticket to prison or mental ill health or both. Women across the board are facing the greatest pressure, seeking to support their families and being given fewer chances than before to thrive and prosper.

Wendover, Aylesbury Estate by J@ck! CC FlickrPower analysis

So what is an organiser to do within a politically charged programme with their experience of collective anguish? The programme encourages them to do a power analysis of their situation and to look at root causes rather than at the superficial patina of symptom. Considering how concerns are related to root causes is central to the work organisers are invited to do with residents and community leaders. Exploring the way different forms of power are expressed in local affairs is central to the reflection that organisers undertake throughout their training. This is all intended to equip organisers and the community leaders as they arise with the ability to identify how best to take action to ‘shift power intelligently’. For many, it would be called raising consciousness, political education and the development of civic democracy in action.

A Conventional Convention?

This week I attended the Annual Convention of Locality, held at the Marriott Hotel in central Bristol. It was a sizable affair with over 600 delegates and two days of workshops, surgeries, plenaries, meals, panels and group discussions. I was invited – with all the other organisers from cohorts 1 to 4 – to help run a session on the first afternoon (pictured above left) aiming to give delegates an experience of organising in practice. It was of course shrunk to fit the session location and timeframe but covered first a listening with individuals, a house group where the meeting was intended to share their feelings about the community and lastly, a project meeting trying to tackle a specified issue. My experience of this relaxed session was positive and I hope the participants got out of the experience what they wanted.

I chose to stay on for a second day to allow me to catch up with the many people I know and respect in the movement (I worked for ten years for one of Locality’s predecessors bassac) and to learn more about what Locality are now doing. I enjoyed the main meal with 600 guests (pictured right) on Tuesday evening. I hoped to see some useful tools, approaches or people who could help us in Southwark do our job still better. I was also expecting to see reflected in the programme, the contributions and speakers a sense of fury and pain at what is happening to our people. I was hoping to come away with an renewed sense that as a network of neighbourhood activists, Locality was able to articulate the terror and anguish of ordinary citizens. I wanted to hear analysis of the place of neighbourhood action in campaigning to stop the vilification of people in poverty. Instead I heard a very muted disquiet.

Building the movement

The sessions were all excellently run in their own style. The platform speakers in the plenaries were well prepared and gave comprehensive accounts of their work. Most people were in the higher paid posts of their organisations, most were white and few were under 30 – with the notable exception of the organisers! The business was however dominated by a superficial ‘can do’ attitude, where the emphasis is on encouraging those with the skills and knowledge to lead the rest to success. Again the search for leadership – not dispersed and democratic but centralised and focused in individual (mostly) men – was repeatedly echoed. This was a convention of those who felt – or who wanted to feel – they had arrived, could do business with the powerful, could have influence and shape policy. Other voices were generally absent.

Values in print

My judgements of the conference were only later reinforced when I read the recent public letter dated 19 October to Sajid Javid MP the new Economic Secretary to the Treasury signed by eleven organisational leaders including Steve Wyler of Locality (pictured). In the letter, these leaders present their case for the voluntary sector to be the agents of government policy, of public service reform. They welcome the government moves to encourage more donations and ‘investment’ in the sector and ask the Treasury to extend tax relief to community interest companies. They go on to encourage the minister to use the voluntary sector to support the most vulnerable during ‘transition’ in welfare. Any underspends should be used in these leaders’ minds to boost employment and community initiatives. They oppose the reduction in charity tax relief by certain local authorities. The penultimate paragraph reads:

Voluntary organisations and social enterprises are not only important for their economic and social benefits. They are ultimately an expression of our society and values. They give form to the future that we want for ourselves and others. They are vehicles through which people can give time and money, serving causes beyond themselves, and through which people’s hopes and needs can be fulfilled.

Left waiting for analysis

In the end my jaw is left limp at the lack of any analysis of the current austerity agenda. The only note of opposition at the Locality Convention was sounded by Steve Clare Director of Campaigns (pictured) who criticised rising inequality in incomes and tax avoidance by multi-nationals using figures from Uncut UK and Occupy. Locality is a network of community-based organisations but increasingly seems to have abandoned its roots in marginal and excluded communities. Instead they seem to be courting power at the highest level and to encourage their members just to grow and expand. The search for justice is absent.

There is always a tension between the ‘voice function’ and the ‘service function’ for voluntary organisations but the absence of the former in both Steve Wyler’s letter and the Convention appears to confirm that Locality is failing to listen to its own frontline. The organisers are regularly meeting families in turmoil and crisis but this reality is not part of the dialogue within the movement or with government. Plenty of other voices are articulating the message that government – of whatever hue – should stick the course and see out the whiners; the role of a network of locally-rooted mission-driven agencies such as Locality is surely to call for the break to be applied, for a moral compass to be examined and for a less ideological approach to be adopted. The call for a change of course requires a power analysis and that seems to be lacking.

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17 Responses to Making Waves

  1. After reading that dreadful letter (signed by Stuart Etherington – NCVO; Joe Irvin – NAVCA; John Low – Charities Aid Foundation; Caron Bradshaw – Charity Finance Group; Graham Benfield – Wales Council for Voluntary Action; Nick O’Donoghoe – Big Society Capital; Peter Lewis – Institute of Fundraising; Steve Wyler – Locality; Seamus McAleavey – NICVA; Peter Holbrook – Social Enterprise UK; Stephen Bubb – ACEVO; Justin Davis Smith – Volunteering England; Issan Ghazni – Voice 4 Change; David Emerson – Association of Charitable Foundations) you have to ask yourself if what is left of the so called voluntary sector are of any of relevance whatsoever to civil society?

    If Blair crawling up George Bush’s backside wasn’t bad enough, now we have this lot kowtowing to the architects of the privatisation of public services, the dismantling of the welfare state and making ordinary taxpayers responsible for the banking sector’s criminal malpractice by drastically reducing living standards.

    And they have the gall to claim that the ‘represent the community’ Pigs can fly.

    • Mark Parker says:

      I know that many Locality members continue to serve their communities effectively but struggle to see their part in challenging the corrosive global agenda. Their efforts would be much more than the parts were the movement to be more attentive to the realities of community life. Organisational life can muffle the cries of those in the greatest need and for a national network like Locality silence the very core constituency the membership exist to serve.

  2. Really useful piece, Mark – thank you for taking the time to write it. Your concluding remarks reminded me of a Laura Ingalls Wilder quote which I’m sure you’re aware of already:

    ““The trouble with organising a thing is that pretty soon folks get to paying more attention to the organisation than to what they’re organised for.”

    • Mark Parker says:

      We all need to be repeatedly reminded of the purpose of all our activism. The raw emotions of people experiencing poverty and discrimination are an important corrective to the attempt at organisational rationality. Too easily, we ‘plan’ our way away from the very people we need most to hear from. I admire for example Church Action on Poverty and ATD Fourth World who always include those experiencing poverty directly in their work. It prevents this organising mentality!

  3. Mark – thanks for this strong and clear headed observation about the disfunction between the horizontal social system where most people live out their personal lives from cradle to grave and everything in between, and the vertical organised world of work and institutions which dances to its own loud tune and heavy drumbeat drowning out the music from the life system. – Until maybe it is too late and the life system music turns into an overwhelming shriek of pain drowning out everything in the vertical.

  4. Andy Gregg says:

    A really good piece Mark and it raises all of my concerns about the role that the voluntary (and shockingly parts of the “community” sector) are playing in allowing the Government to use them as a fig leaf to disband and destroy the best of our public services and the welfare state. We have got to get more ideological about this development and start fighting for the people we claim to represent rather than putting ourselves forward as a willing provider ready to help undermine local services that poorer people rely on. We are in the process of selling our souls for a mess of pottage

    • Mark Parker says:

      Contracting for public services has always been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can free the provider to experiment and to learn from the service users without a heavy-handed control which used to come with grants. This prospect was sadly strangled at birth by the Labour Party’s insistence on monitoring every widget and pin, even when the expertise lay undisputedly with the provider! On the other hand, contracting reduces public goods to traded entities and strips out their collective value in favour of monetizing everything. At community level – as in the NHS – services that offered community benefit as well as service provision lose their intangible social side and become eviserated shells that fulfil the service function without the deeper purpose they were founded to pursue.

  5. Thoughtful analysis presenting a balanced view of the dangers inherent in over-organising one particular layer of community organisation. I have lost count of the number of meetings and conferences I have attended over the years where the only paid people are the ones doing the leading, chairing and research whilst the rest of us queue up to have our words recorded on flip charts and other people’s project outcome summaries. Having been guilty as charged of being one of that crew in the past, I now feel finanicially poorer but spiritually, morally and ethically much richer for being one of the unemployed activists trying to make a difference with like minded friends and neighbours in our own little patch of not-so-merry England. Any thoughts, Mark, on how to avoid these heffalump traps on the path to sustainable development?

    • Mark Parker says:

      One key way is to ensure a participative structure so that alternative voices can be heard. Allowing debate and exchange about key questions, both in plenary and break outs, allows difference to be acknowledged and articulated.

      Another is to give emphasis to supporting diversity in recruitment. Schemes to subsidise places for volunteers, young people, service users, trustees and other non-professionals to attend major events allow greater range of people to attend. I remember a bassac conference in Bristol when the hotel staff asked if it was an international gathering because of the sheer range of participants.

      Thirdly, you can always ensure that the main programme reflects a range of perspectives, including those that are uncomfortable and perhaps unwelcome. The speakers need to reflect our communities in age, class, gender, ability and background just like the delegates. The way sessions are written up need to give space for dissent, posing questions rather than just answering pre-existing assumptions.

      Lastly, we need a deeper analysis that goes beyond the immediate necessity of keeping on the right side of the government. We need to offer hope that an alternative is possible and that it is based on sound judgements and values. The UK voluntary sector has real potential to be a source of clarity and decisiveness in shaking the current model of consensus.

  6. Kathleen Cassidy says:

    I am surfing this wave Mark! My favourite blog piece of yours yet: clear, strong and no beating around the bush!

    And your replies are wonderfully considered and constructive.

    I too agree that it is high time we became more progressive in the processes we use to engage each other at the conventions. Fewer panels and muted audiences and more time for open floor conversations and agreed action plans please!

    I was at a conference recently were people were encouraged to not only ask each other ‘ What do you do?’ but to discuss of ‘ What can WE DO TOGETHER?’.

    It is such a simple and powerful question and yet so infrequently used. Let’s change that.

  7. John Farrar says:

    A really interesting piece and one that cuts right ot the heart of where a lot of us currently find ourselves , having built organisations under New Labour and become a part of the system , what do these organisations do now?
    For me as a manager ( now called a Director) in a YMCA the much more serious point is how do we stay true to our identiy and build a sustainable future that is of benefit to the young people that we support in these troubled times , they need to remain at the heart of everything and sadly that is not always the case , pressures on one hand to survive as an organisation and on the other hand to take an ideological position of protest .
    In my view we need a new coalition of people to develop, in my City we have had many probelms with the statutory sector and still do as they destroy communities in the name of renewal and this in the predominatly ” old labour ” City of Stoke -on-Trent
    Maybe some of you are warching the programme , if not its worth looking at.
    I am currently trying ( slowly ) to complete an MA dissertation to see if a Community Organisaing Approach in a place like Stoke might in time empower people to bring some change and would be really interested in sharing experiences with those of you involved in this work

  8. Matt Scott says:

    Well observed as always; community organising should be a threat to those in power, instead the locality franchise appears to be more about contract raising, rather than consciousness raising. The failure of Locality to either understand or fess up to the fact that they are peddling the same ideology of big cuts to wider society as Osborne and co is disturbing but not surprising since Steve Wyler has never hidden his visceral hatred of (municipal) socialism – ideologues of a feather flock together. The sad thing is that for any kind of deeper social change to occur there would have to be massive collective effort at the local level, whereby organisations cooperate horizontally c.f. compete hierarchically. And yet the programme operates in complete isolation to existing infrastructure – winner takes all followed by going it alone, resulting is culpable failure, in all probability being ignored by highly partial evaluation sometime in 2015, by which time our welfare state has shrunken to a level smaller than America, if UK Uncut are to be believed. As Freire wrote, to side with the oppressor against the oppressed is not to be neutral but to also become part of the self same oppression.

  9. Thanks Mark.
    It’s been really helpful to read this, both to be reminded of the reality that community organisers and others face in dialogue each day, and to consider you reflections on the Locality convention. The comments others have made are also very thought-provoking. I was at day 2 of the Locality event and experienced a couple of things which worried me deep down inside. I came away concerned that there was either little understanding or little care about structural discrimination. So glad to hear that you are working in ways which look at power and the root causes of what is going on all around us. Thanks for sharing, and constantly challenging.

  10. Tony Herrmann says:

    Powerful and pertinent reflections Mark. Whilst I share the frustration that large national voluntary organisations fail to provide any explicit analysis or challenge to the economic and political ideology behind the cuts, it is fairly predictable. However, even if that challenge had been forthcoming, it is likely to have had little effect.
    The focus for social change through community organising is clearly at grass roots level, as you have so clearly articulated on many occasions. The contradictions facing community organisers and local host organisations feel very familiar to me and anyone involved in supporting community action and voice over many years: drawing employment and resources from organisations that are in or linked to power whilst working for social change to challenge that power. These contradictions and differing views are also often reflected within public and voluntary organisations.
    The opportunity and challenge for the community organisers and local host bodies (Locality members that are, as you observe, locally rooted mission driven supporters of the neighbourhoods where they are based) is to continue to organise for change at local levels and also to find ways to articulate the collective understanding, analysis and voice that emerges.

  11. >However, even if that challenge had been forthcoming, it is likely to have had little effect.

    Are you suggesting that the national voluntary organisation should just keep their mouths shut, tug the forelock and be grateful for any crumbs that come their way Tony?

    Looks like they agree with you. They might pipe up when crumbs stop coming their way in a couple of years. Don’t know who they are going to turn to for sympathy.

    >The opportunity and challenge for the community organisers and local host bodies is to >continue to organise for change at local levels and also to find ways to articulate the collective >understanding, analysis and voice that emerges.

    Some opportunity and definitely a challenge! Likewise organising to trap rats for food in a gulag.

  12. Serco, G4S , Capita etc are taking over just about everything there is to take over (privatise) meaning there will very soon be no accountability at all. Can’t politicians (those who aren’t amongst the milionaires) see that they may soon be insignificant? Can they survive this corporate takeover? Look at America?

    The Public Sector is being destroyed as private corporations expand – 50% of new jobs in the past 12 months were part time posts, mainly short term non contracted and very poorly paid, yet unemployment is reducing so the mainstream media trumpets it as a success!

    End of the public sector will also make voluntary sector (paid) obsolete – or am I dreaming?

  13. ArmenianJames says:

    What strikes me is the sloppiness of the letter to Government: repeatedly talking about building a ‘sustainable economic future’, which seems to translate as building and spending when perhaps at this juncture we should be mending our ways and changing behaviour towards proper sustainable practices.

    As for Community Organisers I wish them well but find it hard to see how 5,000 of these (500 paid for a ltd time & 4,500 volunteers) constitutes anything other than another well-intentioned short-term community-based initiative…..whilst community development workers in local councils will no doubt be losing their jobs – since CD is an expendable discretionary function.

    I always travel in hope BUT it still feels as though the localist ‘house’ is being built whilst – simultaneously – it is well & truly undermined by cuts, volunteering offered up as a cheap alternative, and larger VCS agencies with an eye to the main chance.

    When push comes to shove centralism is trumping localism.


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