For the last few weeks, I have been exploring here some of the key concepts in community organising. The work in North Camberwell has of course continued and this week’s post updates readers on development in our work there.
Building the local picture
I last wrote in December about the work in the area immediately around Cambridge House. This year, the five Southwark-based organisers have been contracted by Cambridge House to start organising work in this new area in which none of us had previous experience. We did some desk-top research in October and circulated a short report in November. In December we ran a ‘Festive Celebration’ to which about eighty people came. We provided food, entertainment and some opportunities to discuss the area’s life. Since then and after a break over Christmas and New Year, we have been following up the contacts made on that day and making fresh beginnings too.
Following up people who came to the party took a lot of time in January. Some were easy to link up with but others took longer to set up opportunities to meet. The conversations varied between people who had no interest in doing more than they already did for their community to others who were intrigued and interested enough to invite their friends around for tea and a chat with me. The mix of folk who came along to the party gave me a fair feel for the sheer diversity in the patch but I still recognised that many people were left out from our work.
Weather, ill health and failed walks
In January, the bitter weather made door-to-door visiting less inviting than normal! Nonetheless, my colleagues and I took every opportunity to meet people at their door and try to bring them out into the public realm. When the snow was on the ground or the rain was lashing down, it was hard to drag ourselves out to talk to strangers about their opinion of the community. In February, I developed first a stomach bug and then a heavy cold / cough that laid me up in total for almost three weeks. I found the cold particularly debilitating and tried to work through it but kept needing to stop and lie down! We also tried to start up a monthly Winter Walk About, inviting people to come out together for an hour and see their area from new angles. We hoped people would be intrigued to see things and learn things they had never paid attention to before. The reality was that the first walk had exactly no takers and we shelved the idea for warmer times!
In November, we met with the local priest-in-charge for the parish that covers most of North Camberwell and received a warm welcome from her. Liz’ congregation St Michael’s is currently worshipping in a temporary building awaiting the building of a new parish church during 2013. On an average Sunday, the church numbers about 40 people of all ages and with a mostly West African background. Liz was interested in our work because she recognises that the church has little contact with the rest of the neighbourhood and wants to take the opportunity later in the year of taking on the new building to open their doors to others. The idea of a listening campaign first within and then outside the church clearly fitted well with her ambition. As a result, Liz led the carol singing at the Festive Celebration with about six of the congregation.
I attended Sunday Mass at St Michael’s twice in January and stood up to speak at the first Sunday in February. This was a chance to talk about the links between the gospel stories of ‘loving your neighbour’ and the need for us to turn that into practice. I retold the story of the Good Samaritan in modern garb (mugged for his mobile phone, passed by a vicar and a lawyer) and focused on the message that the outcast was the person whom Jesus affirmed for his compassion and actions. There were lots of people interested in meeting to talk about the area with me and I came away with a long list of contacts. Sadly, my ill health prevented me from following up more than a couple until March.
I went with my colleague Ahmed to see the Methodist minister in January and we agreed to explore how his church might also develop a listening campaign. Walworth Methodist Church has the largest congregation of any Methodist church in England at 350. With a membership of 600 and substantial buildings, the church is a major local institution and offers significant ways of influencing the prospects for the area. In late February, I went along to the Church Council and made a presentation about community organising, opening up the ways in which the church might start forming stronger relationships within and then how the church might reach out into its community and become a better neighbour.
Collaboration with the TRA?
I’ve always had neutral and negative experience of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations (see here for my most recent encounter). I managed to get to the committee meeting of the Grosvenor Estate TRA in early January and met several key people in the community as a result. Each has now given me the time to get to know them better and to help to see how the TRA might play a part in my work and I in their development too. Whilst I do not expect to develop organising in partnership with the TRA, nonetheless in this case a newly reformed and active TRA has a significant presence on the estate and may just offer a springboard for some of my organising.
I have also had two house meetings where individuals have agreed to invite their friends and neighbours to meet me and to talk together about their views of the area. One proved more difficult than the other. One had a lack of energy and acceptance of the status quo whilst the other was full of professional ideas and expectation of change. The first was mostly made up of older African women whilst the second brought together six local white professional mums. Each had its insights into the community but the contrasts made me pause and think about the life experience that lay behind those differences.
Lots of my time is spent with following up people who I have either met at the doorstep or who have given me their details. Devising and then maintaining an effective means to keep track of my follow ups has been essential to this quarter and I feel I’ve got a reasonable approach in place. Email, text, phone and visits all play a part in getting to meet up with people and then making sure they know what is going on. A few disappointments have come my way – house meetings that never happened, people who were once enthusiastic becoming too busy to meet – but this is part of the discovery about how a particular community works. It’s a dynamic process and one that requires careful and regular reflection to be sure of spending time for the very best. Set backs there will be but the progress has been tangible and exciting.