Understanding Power Pt 1

When I first put the word power into Flickr, up came loads of pictures of the power grid and turbines, jet engines and pylons. When I tried other related terms in Google, I got loads of pages about the power of words, music or landscapes. These are not the uses of power I want to explore over the next few weeks. My subject is a critical quality of human interactions which embraces everything from a mother’s caress of her new-born to the decisions of the UN Security Council, from the life of a reading group to building regulation. I want in the next few posts to explore how power impacts on the work of organisers often working in neighbourhoods, towns and villages. I want to critically reflect with my readers on the ways we can use a better understanding of power to shape our practice and to become more adept at tackling power imbalances in community life, ‘shifting power intelligently’.

Uffizi statue: Niccolo Machiavelli by Elan Ruskin CC FlickrSocial Power

This post is about the meaning of social power and how we might use that understanding to challenge our own and other people’s thinking about power and empowerment. Whilst the word today is used lightly, the subject of power has remained enduringly fascinating to writers over the centuries from Aristotle and Machiavelli, to George Orwell and Pierre Bourdieu. Power has been studied in many cultures and disciplines leading to an extraordinary range of approaches embedding differences in values, ideologies and language. And the reality of power is also highly complex, working at different levels and exposing different features and styles. (In the next post I will look at some models and frameworks to help with this complexity.)

The reality is also that power is ubiquitous and pervasive. We encounter power in our inner life, in our households and neighbourhoods. We see power at work in our institutions, organisations and businesses. We recognise power play in the media, in politics, in our nation and on international and global stages. Our relationship to others is often part of an automatic and unconscious power dynamic that informs what we can and can’t do and what seems right and proper behaviour. Power shifts and morphs as people , groups, cultures and nations change and develop, giving it a slippery quality and making discussion of power always only partial and contextual.

Accelerate Collaborating for Sustainability Conference 2013 (Guelph, ON) by The Natural Step Canada CC FlickrPower and Love

Dr Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anaemic.‘ In his book Power and Love – A Theory and Practice of Social Change, Adam Kahane – who has been instrumental in tackling some of the toughest, most complex and vital challenges in the world – suggests that power can be both generative and degenerative. He argues that power is the desire to achieve your purpose and that the difference between the two sides of power is the presence or absence of love. He says love in this context is the urge to unite with others and that success in tackling challenges in life lies in finding a balance between power and love, neither relying on force and determination nor depending on negotiation and compromise.

Avoiding the Traps

In discussing power, there are three pitfalls to avoid. First, power in itself is neutral, neither good or bad. Despite its reputation, power is not necessarily repressive, prohibitive, negative or exclusionary (although it can be all of these things): it is also positive:

Michel Foucault, painted portrait DDC_7449 by thierry ehrmann CC FlickrWe must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. (Foucault: Discipline and Punish p. 194)

Power – understood as ‘the will to achieve’ – is ours to use for good or ill.

Secondly, power is not merely owned by some and denied others; it’s more complex than that! Power is contextual and dynamic. It’s different characteristics can mean that the same person can be both powerless as an employee yet powerful as a father. Individuals from particular groups in society do not necessarily show the signs of their group’s power position; they may be much more or much less powerful than the norm.

Thirdly, power is not a zero sum game. In other words, one side does not have to lose power for the other to gain power. Whilst it is often the reality that privileged interests see themselves threatened by claims for increased power, power shifts can draw from different sources of power. For example,  a family in which the two partners are living with an imbalance of power between them may be able (with some help perhaps) to rebalance the relationship and become a stronger unit as a result.

Murky Water by Lisa Brewster CC FlickrMaking Use of Power

Getting a handle on power is not easy. Often as soon as you make a start, the ideas slip from your grasp and all becomes murky again. I hope that feeling your way toward clarity about power for yourself will give you a useful set of questions to ask of yourself and others. Here are a few that strike me as valuable:

  • Where do I encounter power play most obviously in my life? At home? In my work?
  • Who appear to be the main players? Who is using power to their advantage?
  • What is the result of the power play at the moment? How might the result be different?
  • Where do I get my assumptions about power from? Parents? Reading? Friends?
  • When do I fall into the traps above? How can I avoid them in future?

Working in neighbourhoods calls on organisers to be very aware of the power at work in their area. It is easy to become part of the problem – recruited by powerful interests and unconsciously fighting their battles for them – rather than contributing to the solution. Making headway in such situations means becoming more aware of how you use your personal power, what power others draw on and where community members can become more powerful themselves.


Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller (2008) A New Weave of Power, People and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation Practical Action Publishing http://www.justassociates.org/ActionGuide.htm

BOOK REVIEW – Power and Love: A Theory and practice of social change, by Adam KahaneAdam Kahane (2010) Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change Berrett Keohler

Jennifer Chapman and Antonella Mancini (2005) Critical Webs of Power and Change:Resource Pack for Planning, Reflection and Learning in People-Centred Advocacy ActionAid This spiral bound volume comes with a CD resource pack considering how to develop an approach to collective action that is both people-centred and that takes power seriously. It is packed with great reflections on experience and practical ideas.

The Power Cube http://www.powercube.net/from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. This website brings together thinking and research into power over three decades at IDS into a simple but powerful summary. The resources to make use of the concepts and approach in participative ways are diverse, rich and practical.

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Become a Changemaker

Invitations come in several varieties. Some are simple to ignore. They are expressed in a flat monotone to everyone in general. They are often widely distributed, often arrive by email or on paper and are called publicity. Another type is the one that comes in person from your friend or neighbour and sounds quite intriguing. It’s often presented as a solution to a problem but still feels optional. A third type is the one – and there are few of these in life – where you have to act. The passion and conviction of the inviter is palpable, the issue is pressing and immediate and there is no way you are going to be left out! To make change the invitation and the inviter to that change process has to be exceptional.

Invitation by Theis Kofoed Hjorth CC FlickrToday I am going to explore the qualities needed to be an effective inviter, a good organiser. Over recent weeks, I’ve written about the way change moves through a community, how it tackles deep hopes, how environmental factors can be critical, the need to design in stickiness and last week, how the uncertainty around change can be handled. In this last post in the series, I will look at the people at the heart of all this – the leader and the organiser. Who do they need to be? What are the qualities that make for a good inviter, an effective changemaker?

Passion and conviction

There is no substitute for strength of belief. When you meet someone who really believes in their cause, you can feel it in their every word. But powerful convictions do not need to be expressed every few minutes; they need to be held centrally to your being and when they pervade your actions, then others will ‘get’ your passion. In a society often blighted with cynicism and negativity, communities need leaders who believe in the ability of their community to do amazing things. Quiet individuals as well as the spectacular loud ones can sustain an inner passion as great as any. They can all be led by conviction in their action.

Gatekeepers are vital

The social standing of the inviter is a really important factor. If the leader or organiser has little respect in the community, then gaining access through a gatekeeper is the only way to gain social status. There are people in every community who are already well-connected, who ‘get’ what you are about and who are willing to support you publically. These gatekeepers may be part of the local power institutions but as allies they are both trusted by decision-makers and other grassroots leaders. These folk offer you social standing in the community by association. We would all rather be invited by someone we respect and who clearly is appreciated by others we know and respect than by someone outside our network.

Creating connection

Inviters who are known and trusted as far better than those who seem to parachute in from outside. This is one of the problems with social care today as the caseload held by any single worker is so large that they are unable to develop the trusting relationships that allow for care to work. The organiser (and the leaders with who they are working) are building networks of support for change, linking people with similar life experiences or common goals together. The local mums and toddlers, youth group, parents group or cycling group all offer settings where invitations to change can arrive from respected others.

Birds of a feather

We are much more likely to follow another’s example if they are similar to us than if they are dissimilar. That is another good reason to make your organising leadership as diverse as possible. Inviters who are similar in gender, age and background to the person they are inviting to act can be sure they will be more successful than otherwise. So when your leaders are acting as inviters, they need to bring out the things that make them similar to their listeners. Choose your teams to reflect a broad cross-section of the community and you are more likely to be influential on a wide mix of people.


People resist when they feel they are being manipulated or pressurised. When politicians talk to voters, they often give away their position on the issue early on and voters feel pressure to agree. So people don’t feel free to express their full opinion. A leader needs to be able to suspend their own view and enter into the invitation with empathy and curiosity about the view of the other person. Listening open-mindedly to the other person gives them the power to guide things; it respects their independence and judgements.

But change is all about moving in a direction. How does a leader combine this neutrality with  a purposeful focus? It’s about using open-ended questions to shape and direct things. An invitation comes only as part of a conversation. The leader will also talk about what they are doing rather than what the other person should do. To show balance later on, the leader can acknowledge other views as part of presenting their own. The key thing is to make clear you have no power over the other person and that you avoid telling them what they should do.

Fireworks by bayasaa CC FlickrBelieve in people

“Start with a rock-solid belief in everyday people,” say Castelloe and Watson. “I have to believe that people can make change. I have to be real clear, and say, “I believe that your ideas can happen. I believe that we can do it.” I try to give examples where other people have created similar change. These conversations are the beginning of the seeds that will grow into future community action.”

Only if we are optimistic, encouraging and positive, will community members begin to believe it themselves. In a world in which most interactions are cynical and negative, leaders and organisers must leave those attitudes at the door. The oppressive powers around give low-income communities messages about their abilities all the time and the consequence is people with low esteem and cramped self-belief. Organising is about releasing the capacity of communities to fly, to fulfil their dreams and to take on the forces ranged against them. Your belief in that potential is fundamental to enabling change to happen.


Les Robinson (2012) Changeology: How to Enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before Greenbooks An excellent introduction to social marketing, tackling some of the key issues head on and offering evidence-rich strategies to improve your organising.

Paul Castelloe and Thomas Watson (2000) How to Enter a Community as an Organizer Center for Participatory Change Available from http://www.uic.edu

Fred Ross (1989) Axioms for Organizers Farm Workers Movement Available at http://goo.gl/Ukd0xQ

Western Organisation of Resource Councils (2009) How to Understand the Role of a Community Organizer Available at http://www.worc.org/userfiles/file/Howto-Understand-Role-of-Community-Organizer.pdf

Si Khan (1991) Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders NASW Press

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Making change safe and sure

Much of what stands for reluctance or resistance to change in each one of us is the result of fear. It’s difficult to acknowledge that we need to be certain and to be safe in taking new steps before we can really commit ourselves to change. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at different ways in which organisers can make the journey to change easier and more attractive for community members. We’ve looked at creating a network of buzz around the change, offering real hope for success, reshaping the setting for the change that can ease it’s path and last week we explored how the change itself needs to be re-designed for each stage of the change process. This week I want to see how its possible to broaden the community’s ability to cope with the honest fear and uncertainty that surrounds any change.

Free Falling by LaertesCTB CC FlickrChallenge the fear

We all need to be confident that we are able to make the change with dignity and our self-esteem intact. Fear of change is often more about the potential for our inner world to be damaged than that we will cut a knee or break a leg. Any organiser seeking to support a community through change needs to acknowledge that change can sometimes be humiliating, making community members feel uncertain and risk their positive view of themselves. Our job is to help expand their comfort zone so that change becomes possible. Many people in oppressed communities live with small gaps in their belief in their own ability to make successful change and so live with a crippling helplessness. Below I want to offer three ways to help people believe in their own self-efficacy and take a leap into uncertainty with confidence.

First time uncertainties

One of the most debilitating causes of our reluctance to change is unfamiliarity. When we have seen someone like ourselves successfully complete the task or fulfil the role and be rewarded for it, we can recognise a model for our own actions. Modelling is one key way to learn that the change is not so fearsome and indeed we use it in many contexts with children and young people. This fits easily with so many aspects of organising work such as house groups, stalls and listening events. Just allowing people to see the role being played or the activity done, ideally by someone similar to themselves and receiving praise, enjoyment or another reward as a result of success and bingo, you have offered a model to be followed.

Planning Nonviolent Direct Action by AAUP CC FlickrAnother key way to break down unfamiliarity is ‘touch and feel’. If you are seeking to change attitudes and behaviour, the most powerful way is to get community members physically involved. If the leaders are going to be negotiating for change, then get them role playing the encounter. If you want them well versed in the issues then give them the tools to get researching and taking action themselves. Run a workshop on taking direct action rather than handing out leaflets or offering advice alone. In the end, physical involvement will give people a real sense of how it feels to make the change.

Imaging success

Unfamiliarity is also experienced at the level of the imagination. Capturing people’s imagination with a well-told story that gives a blow-by-blow account of the actions taken by someone similar and how they found success and reward can really open up their imagination. If you are regularly recommending a specific change, it’s well worth creating a forceful and clearly structured story that you can routinely tell community members about how it worked elsewhere. Helping people imagine themselves doing the new thing can often give them enough confidence in their self-efficacy to take on the change.

Offering autonomy

A second area for organiser help in overcoming fear of change is in offering self-control or autonomy. No one likes it when the stakes are high and you find yourself at the whim of another. Organisers are past masters at shared decision-making and giving others a real stake in their own hard-won successes. Indeed the Gold Rule of organising is ‘never do for others what they can do for themselves.’ It’s pretty obvious that community members who are in control of their actions will feel a stronger motivation and higher self-esteem. In a collective environment such as organising, the atmosphere must enhance a sense of autonomy for action rather than a one-size-fits-all autocracy.

Occupy Wall Street Group Discussion 2011 Shankbone by David Shankbone CC FlickrSharing the decision

A third key to facing down our terror of change is discussion with peers. Participation in open and positive discussion about the change gives adults the opportunity to integrate the proposed change into their prior experience and to identify how the change will address real problems in their lives and offer a practical solution. Widely used in community education, such debates, brainstorms or deliberations need a facilitator and some effective ground rules around trust and mutual respect but everyone needs to feel free to speak their mind and the group needs to be able to make an autonomous decision. Again this is the everyday work of organising but plays a critical part in countering the natural tendency to caution when we are faced with change.

Reshaping expectations of change

Change is difficult for everyone. We all want to know that it’s going to be fun and succeed and we will gain friends and influence people. We want to be sure that our dignity will remain in tact and will we enhanced by looking good to our neighbours and friends. Sadly the reality is that change sometimes does not deliver these goods. And we have all learnt to be cautious with change as a result. Staying with the old methods will of course only deliver the same results but the risk of trying a new way is just too great. Whole communities have been told that their way of doing things is wrong, inadequate or damaging, so no surprise when a large proportion of these communities have learnt to stay put, to keep out of the way and not try anything new for fear of condemnation and ridicule. Organisers work to reshape those expectations, often in small ways at first but offering a new path to self-efficacy and greater self-esteem. And such a change in direction can be truly transformative.

Next time: In the end, change happens because we are invited to join in. Who makes the invitation is critical and can make or break the chance for change.


Les Robinson (2012) Changeology: How to Enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before Greenbooks An excellent introduction to social marketing, tackling some of the key issues head on and offering evidence-rich strategies to improve your organising.

Albert Bandura (1977)  “Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change” in Psychological Review Vol. 84, No. 2, 191-215 Available from http://www.ou.edu/cls/online/LSPS5133/pdfs/bandura.pdf

Smith, M. K. (2001) ‘Kurt Lewin, groups, experiential learning and action research’, the encyclopedia of informal education, http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-lewin.htm

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Stickiness and Reinvention

Some changes in community are just sticky. I don’t mean they are physically gooey and tacky leaving a residue on the hands that takes days to remove. Rather some changes find that sweet spot where they are genuinely at people’s service, recognising their frustrations and deliver solutions to their real problems. When community solutions are sticky*, they motivate people to adopt them and sustain them in the long term. And community organisers can help leaders to design change in ways that have these sticky qualities…with a little thought and care.

English pound coins by Images-of-Money CC FlickrUber-wants

Some believe that the price will make people want the change. There is plenty of evidence that in fact cheapness is not much of an influence on the decision of community members to adopt your change. It’s important when it comes to cheese but when our fragile lifestyles need to change it’s far down the list of motives. Rather three key factors routinely motivate community members to change. These three motivate everyone so we can’t get enough of them. For any one of these three, we will willingly shell out hard earned cash. And if you threaten even one of them, resistance will be widespread. The three are control, time and self-esteem.

In the driving seat

In the end, we all want to have more freedom of action and to reduce uncertainty in our communities. There is a profound human need to feel in control of our lives and that explains why we prefer cars to trains, mobiles to landlines and owning to renting. A sense of control has a dramatic effect on our health and is at the root of our love of democracy. It also leads to some negative results such as gated communities, SUVs and neo-conservatives. If you are looking at designing a change, make sure that it gives community members more certainty about the results and reduces the levels of disruption, delay, danger, doubt and uncertainty.

London: Cycle Life by motorblog CC FlickrReducing the hassle

We all know that space-time bends round objects of huge mass such as black holes (don’t we?) but in our everyday lives, time is non-stretchy, non-bending and very finite. British urban culture has become increasingly pressurised – as employees (and carers and parents and many others) are expected to do the work of several people each – and so many community members are on the look out for behaviours that require less time. Often however it seems to take a fixed time for activities such as cycling to work, volunteering or mulching the garden. More people will adopt positive behaviours if we can reduce the hassle rate, those annoying disruptions and obstacles that prevent smooth operation. The less time we actually take, the more likely it is that people will adopt your solution.

Change that offers story potential

As every community organiser knows, people need relationships. Citizens can only find happiness and fulfilment when they give and receive positive messages in community. We are all constantly on the look out for ways to enhance the way others see us. If the change you are promoting offers to make community members more interesting, more successful, gives them higher social status or by any means helps them present their best selves, it will succeed. We shop to buy useful things and to have pleasure but we most emphatically shop for the social value of buzzing about them with friends, family or other community members. And experiences have more social value than goods; they provide more ‘story potential’. So if you are designing your community change for stickiness, aim to offer citizens ways to enhance their social standing.

Superman warns everyone to stay away from his iMac by Stuart Bryant CC FlickrAvoid Heroic Solutions

There is a bias in every man, woman or child. We see the world through our eyes alone and so overestimate the effect of our own work. Teachers overestimate the effect of knowledge and doctors the effect of treatments. For organisers, we all overestimate the effect of organising and under-estimate the power of community members’ motivation and the situational forces that affect them. We are biased to think that the change is good, that it needs spreading, has no disadvantages and rejection is wilful and stupid. Such an attitude that ‘we know best’ has no place in organising but is close to all our hearts from birth. Many ‘solutions’ do not in fact deserve to succeed; they are naive or counter-productive and by pushing them on the community as right, just and better, we fail to listen attentively and involve citizens themselves in continually reinventing the solution to their own issues.

Diffusion of Innovations

When a solution is ready, it needs to be field tested. You have to watch people doing it or using it; have a go yourself and see what you learn. Of course, working on the change with community members will throw up loads of evidence about what works and how it might work better. There is a huge diversity in every community and involving a good mix in the testing will give you a more nuanced understanding of the factors that work for each group of people. I wrote here about the bell curve of innovation adoption. Each segment of the bell curve represents a different personality from visionary, imaginative innovators (about 2.5%) who are the first to pick up on any change to those laggards (about 16%) who are more cautious and risk averse, hanging back even when the majority have made the change. Most people are in the majority most of the time, only moving to the extremes when particular issues or changes hit home.

Abbey Road by Allison Harger CC FlickrSlices with different characteristics

Let us say that you are seeking involvement in a campaign for a local road crossing. The folk who will be first to sign the petition, join the mailing list or turn out to meetings will  be innovators. Designing the campaign only around their characteristics will risk not drawing in the next group of early adopters (13.5%) who need some convincing before willingly taking action. The early and late majorities (68%) will need to gain a strong impression of a successful campaign underway before feeling able to fully support it. So each step will require you to present the case for the crossing in a distinctive way, which takes into account the stage you have reached in ‘diffusing the change’. You need to reinvent the ‘story’ of the campaign constantly, listening to those not yet involved and adapting the design and message to their characteristics.

In the end, its very difficult to change people. We are as we are for good reasons – background, culture, context, commitments – and fighting people’s hopes, needs and motivation is often a fools task. The way change is most often successful is when it morphs and shape-changes to become simpler, quicker, smaller, hipper, more powerful and yes, cheaper. Think of the mobile phone or the recycling bin – both have transformed over decades, redesigned many times to deliver the effect whilst becoming more useful and easier to use. If it increases people’s control over their lives, saves them time or at least hassle and gives them something to brag about to their peers, you will have a avalanche of change on your hands!

Next time: People only change when they know that the result will not make them look stupid or cack-handed. The envelope of their comfort has to be stretched – we’ll talk about how you can carry fearful people into battle!

*  I have adopted the term ‘sticky’ from Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. (For both see below.) But I have followed Len Robinson in Changeology  in broadening the term to include not just the wording but the whole design.


Les Robinson (2012) Changeology: How to Enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before Greenbooks An excellent introduction to social marketing, tackling some of the key issues head on and offering evidence-rich strategies to improve your organising.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath (2008) Made to Stick – Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck Arrow – great read about how to make your communications more effective

Malcolm Gladwell (2001) The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference Abacus This is an oldie but an absolute classic. It is the pinnacle of Gladwell’s writing and explores how information travels and ideas take root.

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Its the System Stupid!

When thinking about change for communities, it’s easy to place the blame for lack of interest, energy or will at the feet of the community members themselves. As we explored last week, it can seem to boil down to a lack of hope. The community just needs to recognise its need for the change you are pushing so hard and the resistance will just melt away. The other party often blamed for lack of progress, direction or purpose is the organiser themselves. If only I had done things quicker / harder / better, the community would have seen the light and taken on board change with enthusiasm and persistence. However today I want to explore a third player in the mix – the environment!

Common Sense in the Household by joshandlucinda CC FlickrLooking beyond the immediate

Whatever change you are working toward, however community-led and bottom-up the direction, the setting for the change is a critical factor. There are many factors that make a community ready to take the plunge and many that make it quite impossible for citizens to move one finger in the ‘right’ direction. Paying attention to the environment is a critical part of every change exercise but many organisers forget more than the most obvious barriers to change.

Most powerful of all factors is of course ‘common sense’. When organisers explore real change-making – change that threatens interests and shifts power – we always come up against ‘the way things are done round here’ or ‘what makes sense’. Technically called hegemony, this is the world of legitimised attitudes and norms serving the elite’s agenda and holding the rest of us subordinate and powerless. When hegemony is working, whole communities consent freely to their own exclusion and oppression, believing the ‘truths’ presented by the mainstream media, the state and the financial-commercial world.

Twister! What a Game! by absolut xman CC FlickrCountering hegemony in groups

Of course a key role for any community organiser is to build the hope of their group that change is possible and the status quo can be overcome. If you act together, it is natural to feel les fear than if you are acting alone. People take courage and understanding from each other creating a ‘counter-hegemony’. People are essentially social and our whole social reality is made up of active groups, teams, organisations, gangs, associations and parties. One of the great hegemonic lies is that we are customers and consumers alone; in fact any significant change is brought into being by groups of active citizens acting in concert.

Participation creates joy. And confidence. And commitment. And accountability. And optimism. Working together in groups increases people’s resilience, their ability to bounce back from the challenges and set backs that litter the road to community empowerment. The ‘buffering effect of groups’ means that faced with similar problems individuals who are part of a group have a more positive outlook on their performance than others with out such support to their ego. With half decent leadership, group members can feel respected, safe and cared for – and deliver change much more effectively.

Recycle - get this by practicalowl CC FlickrMaking it Fit

But the environment can also make change easier in other ways. Some change is hard going, inconvenient and tiresome – like recycling used to be. But by making the change simple, undemanding and most important a good fit with your lifestyle, you are more likely to make the change and sustain it long-term. By accepting mixed recycling, offering weekly pick-ups and delivering large bins to every door, recycling has become significantly easier. Fewer steps and less decision-making leads to easier adoption of any change. As organisers, we learn the detail of community members’ lives and so can help to shape change that fits the rhythms and routines of these specific lives, rather than some general overall system.

Some changes are desirable on many fronts but just too expensive for most people (the early and late majorities) to adopt. And expense can be in terms of money yes but also in time, effort or levels of control. Reducing the cost can make a tangible difference when the support of the majority is at stake rather than just the early adopters. Thinking through the real costs to a young family or an elderly carer of adopting your change will help you to see where the costs are weighted and how you might reinvent it to make its adoption less costly.

Make it harder not to adopt

The opposite is also the case. In some sense, making the ‘negative’ behaviour more expensive or more complex, more humiliating or more time-consuming lowers the cost of the ‘positive’ behaviour in a different way. The ‘price elasticity of demand’ is well studied in economics but essentially all human behaviour is open to being decreased if it costs more. However human action is also always seeking to defend our freedoms to choose and hence resistance occurs when costs rise inordinately.

CCTV camera by Mike_fleming CC FlickrIn London, there are generally assumed to be over 500,000 CCTV cameras installed in public places. This level of surveillance has a significant impact on every human being but especially on those who aim to act illegally and those who are acting legally against the elite who control many London CCTV cameras. Such efforts at widespread citizen monitoring seek to thwart ‘bad’ behaviour, making it more difficult to commit crime or express dissent. In a similar way, handing out vouchers to asylum seekers only redeemable for food at certain shops meant that resistance to the scheme was much intensified as it left innocent and vulnerable people humiliated and even further controlled.

Testing your ideas about change

Much effort is put into changing people’s behaviour and often we focus on the effort put in or the reception in the community. I have tried to show here that the context of the change is at least as important as the way the change is framed and the readiness of the audience. In thinking through the way in which the environment can be adjusted to help the change to be adopted more easily or to resist the negative alternatives, we have begun to touch on the need for what is grandly called a ‘Theory of Change’. Such a theory is a hypothesis that links together the steps or actions into a chain of related ‘if-then’s’. It lays out in simple terms how the group believes it can bring about the change it aims to achieve, and allows each step on the road to be scrutinised and later tested.

Livestock and Fish value chain outcomes in a theory of change group product by ILRI CC FlickrIf we are not clear ourselves about the route we are on, then we can so easily take a wrong path and end up somewhere other than we intended. Thinking through how you expect things to go and how each action you take will lead to the next stage is hard work but worthwhile for any process of change. Taking into account the wider context as well as your own efforts and those of your friends and enemies all means you are better prepared for challenge on the way. And when things work out differently, you can return to your theory of change to amend it for the next time.

Next time: Reinventing the change allows it to become better for different audiences in your community. Sticky solutions need you to be ever reinventing!


Les Robinson (2012) Changeology: How to Enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before Greenbooks An excellent introduction to social marketing, tackling some of the key issues head on and offering evidence-rich strategies to improve your organising.

Margaret Ledwith (2011) Community development: a critical approach (2nd edition) Policy Press This foundational text book offers an excellent introduction to Gramsci’s work and especially his concept of hegemony in Chapter 6: The Power of Ideas

Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organize for Power in your Community (2007) is a practical guide to organising built on the
author’s experience in New York

Roman Krznaric (2007) How Change Happens: Interdisciplinary Perspectives for Human Development Oxfam Download from Oxfam Policy and Practice – fascinating account of the theories of change in different fields of human enquiry – highly recommended

Catherine Crystal Foster and Justin Louie (2010) Evaluating Community Organizing Centre for Evaluation Innovation Download from http://www.innonet.org/client_docs/File/center_pubs/evaluating_community_organizing.pdf

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Hope – the highway to change

Our work in most communities starts from a deep sense of disaffection, disconnection and apathy. Many blame the decline of our community life on the loss of spirit in the interaction of neighbours and look back to a time when communities were more coherent, had a sense of common purpose and lived ‘in and out of each other’s houses’. Too many in low-income households have lived under the yoke of state bureaucracy in their housing, education, employment, health, transport, benefits and pensions to ever have a sense of their own agency, their own ability to take action. Community organisers are all about challenging this sense of alienation and learnt helplessness that is the result of life’s experiences in marginal communities. As I said in my last post, it’s about creating a buzz about change. It’s also about firing up the engine of dissent and resistance.

Frustration fires up change

Many people in such communities find themselves frustrated by bureaucrats and the demands of modern life. Everyone naturally yearns to improve their relationships, their health, their bank balance but we all also face the reality that our dreams are often thwarted. The elite create escape routes in celebrity and consumerism that are only dead-ends. We experience fundamental levels of disappointment and frustration – and this is fertile ground for change. The feeling of frustration is in fact the driver of motivation. Frustration energises and predisposes people to make personal and collective change but to do so, they need to meet Hope.

Hope is an optimistic act of imagination. It allows people to positively visualise themselves in a better future. Community organisers are purveyors of hope. Against a background of collective cynicism and widespread scepticism, organisers work to build a realistic and grounded sense of community agency – ‘Together We Can!’ It’s not about persuading, manipulating, rewarding or threatening community members but about helping each to discover their own sense of inner hope. Unique to each of us, and precious as diamonds, our inner hopes are the key to our motivation and to trouncing the blocks to our transformation.

Hope and the self

Hope addresses the key factor in change: the individual’s inner life. People are amazingly diverse in their inner worlds but share three key characteristics which are vital in trying to gain their positive contribution. First each of us is vainglorious. Our brains show us a world in which we are invincible, invulnerable and omnipotent. We live constantly with a positive delusion about our abilities and character. As a direct result, we live longer, are more healthy and achieve more than we would with a true understanding of ourselves. Such vanity has to be supported and sustained by any appeal to participate in community life.

Second, our selves are fragile. We are constantly at work to defend our inflated view of ourselves and so reach for impressive defence mechanisms: denial and resistance. These defences are unconscious, automatic, instantaneous and powerful. If you challenge someone’s delusional self-image, the threatened self can become a behavioural nightmare. That’s because of our third characteristic: we are made up of emotions. All the evidence of psychology and neuroscience points to our brains being emotion creators, not the centres of logic and reason we imagine. Fear, anger, disgust, anger and pleasure give our behaviours their potency and such passions fundamentally influence our social actions.

So our vain, vulnerable and passionate selves are always seeking ways to be confirmed as a person who is more healthy, considerate, responsible, sociable, kind and generous; in fact to conform to our self belief. So an organiser is seeking a believable vision of a dignified life that is consistent with what people dream of for themselves. Each community member wants to feel good and great! And the organiser needs to identify how to convey such a hopeful future for each one.

Deep and hot hopes

Hope comes in many flavours. Some hopes will motivate people to die to achieve them; others are passing daydreams. Like the electrons around an atom, hopes can be understood to be more shallow or deeper, some more closely bound to the core of people’s identity- perhaps their dignity – as ends in themselves such as autonomy, security, health, competence and respect. Others are more superficial offering means to achieve deeper hopes such as the latest gadget, overseas holidays, good schools and ideology. These are often directly met (and frustrated) by the market and can motivate to short-term, immediate action. But its touching on deeper hopes that will allow people to do the difficult or inconvenient, like becoming politically active or leading community change.

When deep hopes remain frustrated, they rise in temperature. Hot hopes are things about which people are passionate and will work tirelessly to achieve. When your home is under threat of demolition or your children’s education is intolerably failing, you will spend time, effort and indeed money on changing the circumstances you face. You will rearrange your whole life to tackle them! Cool hopes are merely passing whims. Any organiser needs to be looking out to meet the hottest, deepest hope they can possibly address. Ask what is causing the greatest guilt, humiliation, frustration and misery in this community – and go after that!

No need to change people

When people suggest that community members need to get motivated, they’ve got it all wrong. Rather we need to discover what motivates this group of people – and how those hot hopes are being frustrated at present. We need to find those deep hopes that nearly everyone wants to have met like having a sense of control, being able to make a contribution or better provide for your family. Building our community-level change around such hopes will ensure it comes from the midst of people’s own energy and commitment. And such hopeful conversations will bring out powerful motivations capable of overcoming the greatest barriers.

Next time: Shaping change is not just about the organiser and the community. It also happens in the environment for change and that context needs to be part of our change effort.


Les Robinson (2012) Changeology: How to Enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before Greenbooks An excellent introduction to social marketing, tackling some of the key issues head on and offering evidence-rich strategies to improve your organising.

Michael Jacoby Brown (2006) Building Powerful Community Organizations: A Personal Guide to Creating Groups that can Solve Problems and Change the World Long Haul Press

Mary Beth Rogers (1990) Cold Anger – A Story of Faith and Power Politics UNT Press

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Creating a Buzz

Over recent weeks, I’ve been delving into thinking about how change happens in communities. The role of community organiser is all about stimulating change, even revolution and understanding the factors that support and sustain change seem to me as important as tackling those factors that prevent social change. This week, I want to explore the importance of conversations and their key role in opening up groups and communities to change.

Albany Medical College - Orientation by michaelcardusPeople change together

All the evidence points to the need for individuals to have confirmation of their planned action from peers. Again and again, communities only act en mass when individuals can see that the action required is supported by others around. And how do they find our what others are doing or saying about the move? By conversation of course!

We all like to imagine ourselves as free agents, acting on the basis of conscious and rational considerations. Again the evidence is clear; we are deeply influenced (but not determined) by the networks in which we exist. Our friends, our family, our advisors affirm the change or bring it into question. This is how recommendations on consumer sites work. People, perhaps from across the globe, offer their thoughts on the product or service. We see this as confirmation (or otherwise) of our choice.

So in community, asking individuals to act alone in a new way or to take on new behaviour may last a while but it requires significantly more effort and determination than asking the same person to act with others. We need to act in a group context for the change to last.

Early adopters

Everyone is not built the same when it comes to change. Some individuals are made to adopt change more quickly. They may have a higher tolerance for risk or be better informed about a particular opportunity. The discipline called Diffusion of Innovation has long studied the way in which groups respond to change and the bell curve has become an icon of such study. What it tells us is that most people are not ready to take on the challenge of untried change; they wait for the early adopters to iron out the kinks, to do the trials and to ensure the quality of the results.

But early on, innovation was discovered to rely on two bell curves, not one. The first is based on the salesman’s words, on the website’s assertions and the newsletter’s promotion. Some people – the early adopters – take up new thinking and action directly from such sources, the later adopters – pragmatists and conservatives – need not just the information but make decisions based on conversations with their peers. Marketing spreads knowledge whilst conversation is key to changed behaviour.

So ‘diffusion of innovation’ teaches community organisers that you must create a buzz about the change. You might hand out endless leaflets, email or post hundreds of newsletters and create the best Facebook page but real community-wide action will only take root when people start chatting about the initiative. You can hold many group discussions but until the people who hear about your work are exploring the ideas in turn with their neighbours and friends, you will not have mass behaviour change on your hands.

Buzz agents

Once again, not all members of the community are the same. We’ve all met the individual who has a finger in every pie, the person with loads of friends and acquaintances, whose knowledge of community affairs is comprehensive. Just as there are individuals who can tell you everything about the newest car in production or the latest news of great supermarket deals, these folk are the reference point for many community interests. To steal a term from the Jewish tradition, they are the ‘mavens’ of community, the go-to people with outstanding knowledge and understanding of this patch and who are consulted by others who need advice or signposting.

These mavens are key people to identify in any community work. They are the opinion leaders for the community, the people with a wide network with whom they often buzz about the most recent incident. They are the buzz agents who can enable your work to become mainstream rather than peripheral, influencing the majority rather than just the enthusiastic early adopters. Organisers need to focus on finding them and building strong

Recipe for a buzz

[The photo shows a recent action at the bottom of a Bristol tower block. The organisers constructed two washing machines from cardboard and a washing line of clean card tee-shirts. Residents were asked to share their dirty washing (their concerns) and to write on a tee-shirt their solutions. Well done Rebecca and Steve – this was a great recipe for a buzz!]

When looking to create a contagious impact, there are a couple of elements that make it much more likely to ‘go viral’. The first is to make the conversation surprising (or more technically ‘salient’). Our elementary neural wiring – the amygdala – makes us ever alert to the surprise in our environment. We attend to the extraordinary or unexpected in a way we just pass by the normal and average. It’s the power of confounding our expectations that make great stunts or campaign protests so memorable and grabs our attention.

The second is the emotional quality of the message. Once again, our deepest reality is dominated by emotions of disgust, desire, fear, wonder, dread or delight. Every memory, word or even colour we know is tagged with an emotional quality and hence we need to find the right way to trigger the emotion at the root of everyone’s motivation. Tying emotion into your hopeful story is fundamental to motivating residents to take action, to stand up for what they believe.

And of course as we know, human beings are born storytellers. We tell stories to ourselves that reinforce our positive view of our efforts. We tell stories to family members about our history, origins and identity. We tell stories to our friends and neighbours about what matters to us and how things are. And the role of the community organiser is to change the community stories to support transformation!


Les Robinson (2012) Changeology: How to Enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before Greenbooks An excellent introduction to social marketing, tackling some of the key issues head on and offering evidence-rich strategies to improve your organising.

Malcolm Gladwell (2001) The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference Abacus This is an oldie but an absolute classic. It is the pinnacle of Gladwell’s writing and explores how information travels and ideas take root.

Valdis Krebs and June Holley (2006) Building Smart Communities through
Network Weaving
Available from www.orgnet.com/BuildingNetworks.pdf In
this seminal work, Krebs and Holley explore what makes networks effective and
how network weaving can enhance their functioning. Much else on the orgnet site
is also worth exploring.

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London – Power and Powerlessness

This week I have been struck by two recent findings. First was the percentage of MPs who are millionaires – some 78% – held up against the national population percentage of millionaires – 0.7%. True or not, the focus of our national life in Westminster is clearly dominated by the wealthy and financially comfortable. This fact struck home to me in a week when a blitzkrieg of cuts and taxes hit the most vulnerable in our society square-on.  I listened to a podcast (Trends with Benefits) this week too from This American Life (recommended) about the incredible rise there in claims for US federal disability payments. An investigation found that incapacity was the label given to those who now had no place in the economy, nowhere to work. Jobs designed for their experience and qualifications have just disappeared from small town America.

A new model of class

The other finding came from a study published in April’s Sociology called A New Model of Social Class which examines the findings from the BBC Lab UK’s Great British Class Survey. The survey’s findings were widely reported as they offered a more nuanced picture of class distinctions in today’s society. Based on 161,400 web respondents’ data, the investigators – from LSE, Universities of Manchester and York amongst others – discovered a new seven class model. The experiment examined the characteristics of respondents in three fields of capital: economic, social and cultural. They suggest that dependence on the 1970s Nuffield Class Schema with its near exclusive focus on occupation as a definition of ones class was insufficient and the broader characteristics of social and cultural capital gives a better current picture of class in the UK.

The seven classes are fascinating in themselves but I was particularly struck by the figures attached to the elite (7%) and the ‘precariat’ (15%) at either end of the model. The elite are those who have the highest level of all three types of capital. Their mean household income, average house price and average savings set them clearly aside from the other six classes. The academics note “their residences are all over-represented in the south east of England, and especially in areas close to London in the affluent Home counties.”

The ‘precariat’ – a combination of precarious and proletariat – are the poorest social class. With a household income of only £8,000 pa, negligible savings and likely to rent rather than own their home, these folk have few contacts and hardly engage in any cultural activities. The model distinguishes them from other classes such as the traditional working class as facing more extreme exclusion. The authors write that “they are located in old industrial areas, but often away from the large urban areas…London and the South East tends to score low [meaning there are few ‘precariat’ households in London and the South East.]”

Power by JAS_photo CC FlickrOrganising in trying times

Everyone is aware of the growing gulf between those in the ‘precariat’ and the elite. For decades in the last century, the distinctions between rich and poor were becoming less jarring and we felt a more equal nation. Today the direction of travel is most clearly in the opposite direction. The poor can hardly get more destitute without widespread starvation whilst the rich continue to concentrate wealth, influence and fine living in a few hands. Of course in the midst of such analysis there are always anomalies but the 7% elite certainly contains a immense range of circumstances within its own ranks. Those who by luck of birth scrape into the elite are significantly less privileged than those with multimillion pound bank portfolios. The 0.7% millionaires exercise extraordinary influence over our national life; their numbers alone must make them the 1% in London.

Which brings me back to London and to our parliamentary representatives. Wealth is clearly an important characteristic of the ruling class and has always been so. The concentration of the elite in London and the South East, the focus here of the parliamentary and state machine, the media empires and the financial oligarchy provides a lesson in power dynamics. Recently, the network of powerful families has been strikingly exposed through the Leveson Inquiry, opening up the close and in some cases intimate relations between police, media chiefs and senior politicians. Whilst it played out on a national stage, Leveson was more about London’s elite than any other single group.

Guildhall, London by Derek.Allsopp CC FlickrFor me, the elite is most clearly at work in three strands of our city’s life: the City of London, the Palace of Westminster and Whitehall and the array of global media interests such as the Murdoch empire. London’s life is held in a stranglehold by a few very powerful people in major institutions; they are mostly unelected and unresponsive to public opinion. This small group of major players remain shadowy but closely knit, sharing a broadly common vision for the city and able through their contacts, money and power to determine the life of its citizens. That our democratic structures have been colonised by the elite is shameful but points to the continuing importance of legislation and regulation in offering some kind of legitimacy to corporate actions.

London diverse (59)v by Julie70 CC FlickrValuing each other

My heart is not with the elite, however well they dress up their notions of celebrity and consumption. As an organiser in London, my heart is with the ‘precariat’, that 15% of our population – mostly outside London and other major cities – who have not been offered any stake in this society. Even so, in London, we see many struggling to bring up their children on the meagre offerings of state benefits. We see people incapacitated by the economy and thrown away by their fellow citizens as not worth the effort.  The unemployed, van drivers, cleaners, carpenters, care workers, cashiers and postal workers (all occupations over-represented in the ‘precariat’) all offer our community valuable assets in their skills, knowledge and experience but they too often live lives that are precarious and full of anxiety.

London is a rich and varied city. It is justly proud of creating a hugely successful powerhouse of growth and creativity whilst remaining open to people and influences from across the globe. However, a city that is riven by social divisions and class-based hatreds is one that is all too easy to conceive London becoming. As citizens together of this complex and ever shifting capital, we need to recognise how much we owe to the hundreds of thousands of cleaners and serving staff who provide us with their work each day. But we need too to analyse how current policies serve the elite at the expense of the ‘precariat’ and how the concentration of London’s power in a few hands can be challenged and reversed. It is only through our collective effort that the power of the few can become the potential of the many.


Lindsey Green and Jon Rees (2012) A People’s History of London Verso

David Kynaston; David Milner (ed) (2012) City of London: The History Vintage

David Priestland (2012) Merchant, Soldier, Sagfe – A New History of Power Allen Lane

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The Good and Bad in Gentrification

The area in which I am organising sits astride the Camberwell Road. But only a few yards north the Camberwell Road becomes the Walworth Road, a busy thoroughfare (A215) that has served the shopping needs of this traditionally working class community for decades, if not centuries. Walworth was one of the sites of riot / protest in the summer of 2010 but today shows few of the scars of that day. As a long single shopping street, it has its own way of dividing out the different sorts of shops and customers.

To the north lies Elephant and Castle currently undergoing a massive redevelopment of its own. The Elephant acts as a major transport hub for this part of Southwark providing both Northern and Bakerloo tube lines as well as mainline railway services linking to most of South London. The bus service that runs south down the Walworth Road distributes visitors from Elephant to a huge area and gathers them again to fill the trains into central London. To the south of the Walworth Road, Camberwell Road continues in an unbroken line to run parallel to the mainline railway and once through the area in which I work, Camberwell Green forms a natural centre of lively entertainment and east-west travel.

Dragon Castle, Walworth Road, London SE17 by Kake Pugh CC FlickrRunning down from the Elephant

Whilst the Walworth Road runs mostly straight, it also includes some shimmys to one side and the other. Up near Elephant, it runs past the huge decaying emptiness that is the Heygate estate today. At this northern end, there is the Cuming Museum and the Newington Library. New Oriental supermarkets have recently joined the famous Cantonese restaurant The Dragon’s Castle and new build student accommodation alongside the Walworth Health Centre provides an institutional feel to the street fronts. Beyond this first phase, the road has a number of key businesses such as Baldwins that has remained serving positive health remedies since 1844. The first cross route also brings the first signs of corporate commercial interest: MacDonald’s opposite the large local GP practice and surgery on the corner of Manor Place. Cheap clothes shops, charity shops and many locally owned shops front a narrowing road preparing for the next main attraction.

East Street Market is a controversial centrepiece for the Walworth Road. Whilst it is a long standing daily open-air market (except Mondays), the nature of the stalls and the shops has changed out of all recognition in the last ten years. Many long term residents feel it has been stolen from them and taken over by the West African – and increasingly by the West Asian (Kurdish, Afghani, etc.) – communities who are the largest group of local incomers. But the shops alongside the stalls have often remained and continue to offer an unrivalled range and diversity of inexpensive merchandise. With one of two exceptions the several pubs that used to be part of Walworth Road life have closed and been converted into more commercial spaces. The majority of the national chains that have a presence on the Walworth Road are clustered just south of the end of East Street: M&S, Foot Locker, KFC, etc. The largest local supermarket Morrisons finds its home here near the largest off street parking area together with Barclays and Nat West.

A busy street scene by John.P. CC FlickrBeyond the Market

A stretch of the Walworth Road now provides several cafes and restaurants for different sorts of food. Up by East Street is the only South Asian restaurant but here south of East Street, the West African cuisine comes into its own. Dotted through the shops are more nail bars, pound shops and pawn brokers than absolutely necessary and the cash loan and gold exchange shops are also flourishing. Barclays and Nat West have stayed put. The Anglican parish church St Peters and its church-sponsored primary school is set back in Georgian splendour from the bustle of the Walworth Road up Liverpool Grove. Opposite is Iceland and just beyond sit Santander, Peacocks, Argos and Superdrug together with another betting shop (Betfred). A recent addition of a Tesco Express has added further pressure to the complex mix of grocery outlets.

Down here the divide of East Walworth from West Walworth is more marked. Walworth Road acts as no-man’s land between on the East side the old Church Commissioners’ estate and the Aylesbury estate and on the other the rather more fashionable Victorian terraces on the West. The Road becomes wider again and Coral and the Money Shop face off against William Hill. Carpet Right and CostCutter stand opposite the best bakers in the area, the Mixed Blessings Bakery. The Red Lion keeps pub culture alive round here and we pass by the greatest institution of the Walworth Road: Arments the pie, mash and eel shop on Westmoreland Road. The last few yards before the bend that leads to Burgess Park and down to Camberwell is a mix of tatty shops, a great Turkish grocery shop and Mary’s, a fantastic cafe / greasy spoon. The final view before the end of the Walworth Road is the Walworth Methodist Church, the largest Methodist congregation in the country at 350 each Sunday.

Walworth Methodist Church by Scotticus_ CC FlcikrWhere next?

So the Walworth Road is a vibrant mix of many different facets of the local community. It’s vast array of shopping options draws people from all across South London but also appals many old and new residents. The settled white working class residents no longer recognise the shopping street and market of their childhood. The more affluent incomers with professional incomes and middle-class values find it all rather overwhelming and yearn for a good cappuccino! When you ask people what they want to see happen to the Walworth Road, everyone seems to be convinced that too many betting shops and nail bars are making the shopping experience less enjoyable. Most seem to want to see a culture of small local shopkeepers being maintained and enhanced yet most also agree they see the chains moving in and small business people going to the wall.

The Council is set on a path of encouraging gentrification. They are selling off any street-level properties that come vacant to the highest bidder. Their plans for the Heygate and no doubt the Aylesbury in due course focus on creating a new army of leaseholders who will bring with them fresh demands and new expectations. Such upwardly mobile prices as these new flats will no doubt achieve will only fuel the price inflation that is increasingly denying young people any hope of buying their own home in their own area. And of course this will also impact on the nature of the Walworth Road.

I’ve had several discussions with local residents over a couple of months that have focused on the future of the shared shopping area of Walworth Road. People take a range of positions that in the end will be at the behest of economic factors dressed up as commercial and social ones. The shops on the Walworth Road reflect a community in transition. The change is hardly over and may be only just beginning. My hope and the hope of many I have spoken to is that however the change comes there remain many more spaces where bridges can be built, where communities potentially at loggerheads can meet and feel comfortable with each other. Shopping is promoted as the great leisure activity of the moneyed classes; round here there are just too many people without much in their pocket and their place in the future of the Walworth Road is under threat.


How do you sustain a strong local commercial economy under the dual pressures of the internet and the muscle of the big chains?

What hope does a ‘town plan’ have in shaping the area’s future, given the larger economic factors?

What role does housing tenure play in determining the mix of shops on the high street? Does disposable income play a larger part?


Mark Baxter and Darren Lock (2011) Walworth through Time Amberley Publishing

Mark Baxter and Darren Lock (2012) Walworth through Time – a Second Selection Amberley Publishing

Portas Pilots: Improving High Streets and Town Centres – current Coalition programme to pilot Town Teams in 27 locations across England

Mary Portas (2011) The Portas Review – government sponsored review of high streets with 28 recommendations

new economics foundation (nef) Reimagining your High Street – following their work on Clone Towns, nef delivers resources to help create a vibrant local economy

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Offering the Challenge

In organising, we all face the need to ask for someone’s action. It may be listening to someone at the door when you’ve got to the point of challenge and commitment. You might be in a one-to-one with a leader and recognise they have the capacity to take a new step for the community. Today I want to explore how we ‘make the ask’, the dynamics at play in moving individuals to action. Whilst this comes as part of the role of organiser, this is also a human act that we can practice with our friends and family just as much as in organising .

For organisers, challenging to action is the result of forming a relationship with the other person (I have written about the importance of relationships here and here) . It may have lasted only a few minutes or may have developed all the maturity that comes from many shared actions. But the relationship is a fundamental basis for inviting the other to take a fresh step. You need to understand the other person’s self-interest – what’s in it for them and their family – as well as their values and norms. You can only achieve a successful move to action if you have each developed real tangible trust and have an insight into each other’s motivation. It can be an intensely exposing moment of truth-telling. And may just put everything at risk!

Challenging each other proves a sensitive goal. Some aspects worth thinking about include:

  • Planning for the right moment
  • Getting the ask just right for the individual
  • Making it a collective action
  • Being inspiring and stoic
  • Confirming the gains
  • Shaping the next steps
  • Keeping the door open

Conversation on Teaching: Deep Learning by Vandy CFT CC FlickrMake the transition

Often the moment for a challenge does not come unplanned. The organiser is on the outlook for the right moment to switch tack and to deepen the conversation a further notch. The conversation will have moved through routine matters and a moment comes when the chance arises to make the transition to something more fundamental. I have found that I sometimes lower my voice in tone and volume when this moment comes. My vocabulary changes and I find that I often speak with more emphasis and directly. This is a key moment to speak with clarity and power. All this indicates that the point of the conversation has been reached.

Be bold, confident and challenging

Some people find it difficult to know what to ask for. We all know that if we ask for too much, the person may baulk at the challenge. If we ask for too little, an opportunity to stretch the other’s vision and capacity has been missed. In the earlier conversation or previous contact with the person, you will have learnt much about this individual, their background and attitudes, their past commitments and their current life. Your challenge to action needs to be made in light of all these factors but it has to be made boldly, with confidence and to move the person out from their comfort zone. If you are clear and concise in ‘making the ask’, the other will be able to take in your challenge and consider it; if you wander all over the place, they will get lost with you! Small challenges create little change for the individual and for their community. Audacious challenges really ask that person to consider how much they value the community’s well-being.

Rome visit June 2008 - 57 by Ed YourdonAsk on the community’s behalf

The challenge can often seem to be a personal one – ‘Will you do this for me?’ But the reality is that for the organiser, you are asking for the action on behalf of the wider community. You are inviting the person to act not because they value your opinion or to please you but because the community at large needs their contribution. Often now once I have someone’s commitment to taking an action I will stop them and remind them that the action is not for me but for the improvement of their local area or street. Other people than me will be relying on them to act and how their role in the wider fabric of the area needs to be built on being true to their word and trustworthy.

Expect Yes, Accept the No

Your approach to ‘making the ask’ will be deeply affected by your assumptions about the outcome. If you head into the challenge expecting the other person to accept your challenge, your body language, tone of voice and choice of words will all inspire belief in the capacity of the other person to take it on. If you expect a No, then that’s what you are more likely to get. At least half of the part you play in the challenge is by inspiring hope and belief in new possibilities. That said, the reality in my experience is that you get a fair number of declined challenges and reflection will help you learn how better to make that challenge next time. At this point, it’s easy to start negotiating but the key challenge has been made – you were clear and they were clear about it. Don’t confuse or muddy the waters by slipping sideways or changing your ground. Disappointment comes with asking and it is important to learn how to accept a negative result in a way that keeps the door open for future contact. You may long for their participation but acknowledge their free choice to stay where they are.

Conversation on Teaching: Deep Learning by Vandy CFT CC FlickrFocus on the benefit and next steps

When someone has accepted your challenge, the reality is that they have often only just come on balance to accept this course of action. You need to take some time to reinforce and support the person in their decision to move further out of their comfort zone. That support is often about discussing the benefits of the next steps, how the person themselves, their family and friends, their neighbours and the network more generally will gain from their new contribution. This is time well spent. I have too often hurried away when a positive decision has been voiced only to find a few days later that the person is no longer able to take that action.

You might also find that exploring what needs to change for the person to take the action is worthwhile. Most people are busy with many different aspects of their lives and thinking through how they might need to rearrange their lives to permit this new commitment is worth some time as well. It may be that they will need to drop another role, watch their favourite TV programme on catch-up rather than live or find a babysitter for the right time. When you are aware of the impact of the commitment on their lives, you are better able to help it become a settled part of their lives.

Another key step is to articulate for yourself and the other person who will now do what by when. Get dates in a diary, agree deadlines, shape the immediate future so that you both know what to expect as the other person starts out on this new action.

Thanks and closure

Whenever you issue a challenge, accepted or not, you have put the relationship in some degree of jeopardy. As we said earlier on, if your suggestion proves a monstrous affront to the other person, you may lose the relationship completely. But such mistakes are infrequent and become less so as you become more skilled in making good judgements about the scale and direction of your challenges. But the end of the conversation is a great place to reaffirm the relationship and to express your thanks and appreciation of the other person’s role. If they have accepted the challenge, you can thank them again for taking it up; if they have declined, then thank them for considering it and express hope for a different choice in future. Always (metaphorically) leave the door open when you leave! Make sure the other person knows that whatever the outcome of your challenge the relationship will continue. There will be new challenges to bring to their heart in future; this is but one of many to come!


Edward T. Chambers (2009) The Power of Relational Action Acta Publications

A Guide to Root Solution Listening Matters – an introduction to the Re:generate Trust approach to community animation

Michael Gecan (2004) Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action Anchor Books

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