In the UK, community organising has become best known through the work of Citizens UK. Drawing inspiration from the US Industrial Areas Foundation, Neil Jameson founded The East London Community Organisation (TELCO) in 1997 and has led the development of three further chapters of London Citizens since then. South, West and last year North London Citizens now bring together a wide alliance of community-led institutions focused on creating change in those things that really matter to their members. Best known amongst their successful campaigns is the Living Wage which has raised the standard of living for thousands of low-paid workers especially in the cleaning and catering industries. Citizens UK has now begun chapters in several cities across England and Wales, including Milton Keynes, Nottingham and Birmingham.
Powered by People
Alongside Citizens UK, several other independent expressions of organising have become established in England and Wales since the 1990s. Birmingham Citizens, Thrive Manchester, Thrive Teesside and Trefnu Cymunedol Cymru (Wales Community Organising), or Together Creating Communities (TCC) in Wrexham have formed an alliance in November 2012 called Powered by People UK. Whilst their inspiration comes from a range of different organising traditions, these four have formed the alliance to help each other and develop more effective training for their members. In both Manchester and Teesside, Church Action on Poverty have been supporting the creation of new initiatives whilst the US Gamaliel Foundation have been working with groups in North England to support their development.
Locality / Re:generate Organising
Most recently created is the Locality-led organising network supported by the Re:generate Trust. Starting in 2011, this training programme is developing ten cohorts of organisers over four years – a total of 500 qualified organisers and 4,500 volunteers – and seeking to develop demand for community organising across England’s public and voluntary sectors. The inspiration for the Locality approach comes from Re:generate Trust’s Root Solutions Listening Matters which offers a route map to animating community activity and stimulating community-led change. The spread of locations across all regions of England, both rural and urban is exemplary and built on existing community-led initiatives. The plan is to pass the network on in 2015 to a professional body that will provide continuing development, create and develop UK organising standards and represent the profession at a national level.
The impact of organising is often felt most keenly at neighbourhood level. However as we know, many of the key concerns of low-income folk are actually determined well away from the locality in which they live. The ability of local authorities to tackle many of the most enduring problems is very limited and many politicians at county, district and borough level feel their hands tied to make tangible headway on key constituent issues. The pressure to devolve power away from Westminster and Whitehall has lessened in recent years as austerity policies have been pursued with increasing vigour. Most commentators acknowledge that the UK political culture is highly centralised and gives enormous power to the executive even over Parliament. Organising at local level is the absolute bedrock of creating a change in this culture but will not succeed as it might without purchase on the national levers of power.
State and City Authorities
In the US, the situation is in some ways similar and yet in many ways different. Organising has grown up in a land where a fierce defence of individual freedoms and of democratic accountability has been waged for centuries. Whilst the power of the federal Presidency has no doubt increased significantly, the ability of state and city authorities to act independently has remained a widely cherished right of US citizenship. State-wide legislation and tax raising powers mean that governors have a framework to have influence on many aspects of community life whilst city mayors command resources that provide many of the fundamental aspects of daily urban life. For organisers, whilst the state and city may be huge targets, they are politically accessible in a way that the UK political elite is not. The sheer scale of US population, land mass and political organisation means having an impact on federal issues requires organising at a gargantuan level.
So organising across a whole nation is a real challenge. Yet it can be done. In the US, one national organising effort managed to achieve the almost impossible and succeeded in challenging power at federal level: ACORN. The importance of organising nationally (and internationally) as well as locally was always part of the vision of ACORN and they achieved their goal very effectively. Whilst retaining an absolute commitment to their local membership, ACORN managed to wage very significant campaigns on critical issues at federal level and made powerful inroads for those on low- and middle-incomes across the US.
Peter Dreier – an American professor of politics and a regular commentator on community organising – comments on the fragmentation of community organising in the US. In his chapter in The People Shall Rule, he points to the inability of the different networks – such as People in Communities Organised (PICO), National People’s Action, Direct Action Research and Training (DART), the Gamaliel Foundation, the Center for Community Change and of course the Industrial Areas Foundation – to campaign simultaneously at the neighbourhood, local, state and federal levels. ACORN achieved this to an unprecedented degree. As a result, their individual chapter members “are always “in motion” on a variety of issues, and …local chapters can link up with their counterparts around the country to change national policy on key issues that can’t be solved at the neighbourhood, municipal, regional or state level.” (p13)
Whilst recognising the different political and social contexts, is it possible to achieve this sort of federal structure in the UK? The big decisions for low- and middle-income families in the UK are centralised and held firmly at Westminster and Whitehall. That is why Citizens UK has made such strenuous efforts to gain traction with the main political parties and to change the way UK politics is done. At the last UK election, three days before the election itself, all three party leaders addressed a packed Westminster Central Hall filled by Citizens UK and tackled the issues democratically chosen by the membership. All three promised to return to the People’s Assembly to be held accountable for their words during the lifetime of the Parliament. Perhaps this was the beginning of real and lasting impact on national politics for UK community organising. But will it be just for one network, one expression of organising or will it be possible to develop an effective federation that challenges for power at all levels of UK politics and becomes a game changer?
Powered by People UK Toolkit Available from http://www.tcc-wales.org.uk/images/Powered-By-People-Toolkit.pdf
Robert Fisher (ed) (2009) The People Shall Rule: ACORN, Community Organizing and the Struggle for Economic Justice Vanderbolt