The Locality-led community organisers’ programme was commissioned by the incoming UK Coalition government in April 2011. It promised to develop a new home-grown movement of 5,000 community organisers across England building on the experience of existing community organisations and using an approach called Root Solutions – Listening Matters(RSLM). Over four years, the Programme offers a year’s experiential and accredited training to 500 individuals and to help them in turn to recruit 4,500 volunteer organisers who join them in developing local initiatives, based around the priorities of local residents.
Training so far
For each cohort – and there are fourteen planned in all – their training starts with a three and a half day residential. With about 40 in each cohort – from about nine or ten locations – this intense process gives each cohort a distinctive character and identity. It helps to bond the teams together and introduces the key elements of RSLM. I was a part of the first cohort that trained in September 2011 and at the time, I wrote three posts one about each of the three days (below). The residential (and the rest of the training experience) has of course evolved significantly since then:
The residential only forms the first element in an extended range of training and development opportunities that supports the evolving practice of new community organisers. These include monthly online group supervision, onsite visits from the training team, a mid-year cohort-wide face-to-face meeting and the Annual Action Camp. The core of the learning agenda is carried by the seven-module Open College Network (OCN) accredited distance-learning course and the ‘Go Deeper’ options which allow trainees to specialise in a particular aspect of organising in their later months. When nearing the end of my year, I wrote a post about the training:
Since the Programme first started, the key training partner for Locality has been the RE:generate Trust, who hold the copyright on the RSLM materials. The staff of RE:generate have formed the core of the national training team and ensured consistency to the learning journey for all trainees. The Programme has contracted with RE:generate only until April 2014 and so is now embarking on a review and revision of the organiser training for the final months. As a consequence, Locality convened a review conference recently to look at the nature and scope of a new training package to be used for the last three cohorts who will start their year training from April 2014.
In preparation for this review, Locality invited their partner Imagine (an informal group of four experienced community sector consultants) to survey opinion amongst the current community organisers about their training and how it might be changed to better prepare them for organising. The results of the survey were interesting. The trainees divided between those who relished the practical learning focus and felt the course was too ‘theoretical’ and a second group who enjoyed expanding their understanding of organising and wanted to restrict the amount of practical application. This is no surprise with such a broad range of experience and ability in each cohort. However it presented a real challenge to the review conference to take account of both these groups and develop a more coherent and sustainable course.
We opened the review by considering the feedback from the survey and a summary of the main findings from the Imagine report. We spent a couple of hours considering what the core elements of a new foundation course in community organising should cover. We came up with all the elements that we felt fundamental to the learning and clustered them under understanding, knowledge and skills. Each of these headings were then summarised from the many ideas grouped and categorised so that in the report back, each group brought a simple (or not so simple!) schema of the core elements. They fell into three areas fairly clearly: the person, the process and the power.
The organiser needs to learn during the year how to be resilient, reflective and responsive. We identified a range of factors that make for a successful community organiser such as self-awareness, the ability to challenge and work effectively in a team. Secondly we wanted trainees to develop an appreciation of the process of organising moving from developing deeper relationships of trust to building action groups toward a network of people who are committed to changing their community for the better. Thirdly we felt it crucial that organisers were able by the end of the course to analyse power, use it themselves and work in an empowering way with others. These core areas – person, process and power – were the essential ingredients of the training course content.
The survey had indicated that trainees found the accredited element the most stressful, asking them to write several short essays for each of module. We recognised that this gave preference to those who found it easy to express themselves in writing and that people with other learning styles were disadvantaged. The conversation turned to look at how a broader range of learning styles might be engaged by the training using online, multi-media and other mechanisms (such as presentations and interviews) to encourage each organiser to at least ‘have a go’ at two or three new ways of expressing themselves. I expressed the hope this might be done so as to help the organiser use such newly-acquired skills in their community and in turn to pass on the knowledge.
Timing and Accreditation
When we turned to the timeline for the year’s training, two groups of organisers took apart the events of the year and reconstructed them to reflect how they would like to see the training develop. This allowed us to consider how peer support from earlier cohorts might be incorporated, how the fledgling Inspiration Network of graduate organisers might facilitate the creation of regional learning and support networks and the role of a short residential at the mid-point. My group suggested a final day closure session combined with the public graduation session to provide a full stop for everyone.
We concluded with a short session on the OCN accredited materials and what changes or developments were felt necessary and feasible. Given the timeframe, we felt that only a cosmetic adjustment was possible at this stage and that a more substantial reworking of the material could be considered with the OCN at a future stage. We talked throughout the day about the Go Deeper options that are currently taken after about 6 months. We did not reach any consensus but it was clear that some would need to be better integrated in the core offer and others might be part of monthly day events either online or in person.
The review conference was an opportunity to consider how the training might be delivered differently given the experience of nine cohorts. It built on the existing model (and resources) and tried to make the design more coherent and consistent. Moving beyond a dependence on the pure RSLM model (due to copyright restrictions) will allow the training to be more flexible and adventurous in some aspects. There is of course much work to be done – not least to consult much more widely – and that will require a great deal of necessary constraint on ambitious plans. Nonetheless, a redesigned training for UK organisers has begun its life; I hope it fulfils on its potential.