New Orleans Nothing about the Cameron government “Big Society” initiative to insert community organizers into poor areas around the United Kingdom seemed very organic or likely to succeed once the real deal started to crystallize. Going from a 5000 organizer initiative over four years would mean producing an average of only 125 per year. Ostensibly, the program would be a “train-the-trainer” type operation with a key caveat. The newly minted, supposedly “high level” organizers, as the tender called them, would be recruiting and training the other 4500 allegedly “middle level” organizers to perform these organizational miracles for the poor, and they would all be “volunteers.” The program was also designed to be time-stamped and punched out after four years by which time the winning bidder was warranting that the entire operation would be “self-sufficient,” which is admirable, and that the bidder would have “endowed” a permanent organizing training capacity to live on in the future. Success for such an ambitious program would be no mean accomplishment.
Citizens UK as the widely acknowledged inside lane front runner for the contract was embarking on its bid for a first time every government contract. Having been an advocate of organizing, the program was partially a concession to their growing stature. Doubtlessly, Citizens UK would have had reservations about the whole mess given their tradition and commitment to building power in carefully orchestrated formations through painstakingly patient methodology, but nonetheless would have felt compelled to compete rather than surrender the likely hegemony over community organizing that the bid winner would have not only for the four year span of the project, but even more so through the creation of a permanent training capacity for the long term future. Reading and watching the situation, I could not help thinking about the same Hobson’s choice ACORN had felt in establishing CORAP (the Community Organizing, Research and Action Project) in 1978 to seek and then receive one-hundred VISTA volunteers in the opening years of perestroika during the Carter Administration. Almost needless to say, by training the volunteers and putting them directly into ACORN organizing programs, some of which most controversially included advocating for household workers in New Orleans who were then being newly covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the contract was terminated after one-year despite the fact that liberal luminaries at the times like ACTION’s Sam Brown (previously of anti-war moratorium fame) and VISTA’s Marge Tabankin (formerly of the Youth Project), followed later in a prequel to the events 30 years later including Congressional hearings and all manner of mayhem.
But, a funny, though not surprising, thing happened on the way to the bank and the endless future travails of governmental contract administration: Citizens UK did NOT get the contract. The wheels had seemed to have been greased, yet the contract came off the rails.
Why? There are probably too many right answers, since more appropriately from a distance and a US-perspective, I would have wondered how anyone, including Citizens UK, might have thought they could have been awarded such a contract. For it to have happened would have been such a political contradiction that it would have made the award miraculous. By definition conservative, rightwing governments do not invest in power building for the poor. The analogous situation would have seen faith-based community organizations (FBCOs) winning lavish support from President George W. Bush’s initiative to support faith based initiatives with a special office and funds during his terms; that was politics and patronage, not policy and empowerment or allowing ACORN to create a national training center under President Clinton or Gamaliel under the Obama Administration due to their past ties with him. No way is any of that happening! There is simply a fundamental difference in building — and seizing — power by low-and-moderate income families and their communities and any government, especially on the right, giving away power or ceding it through such collaborations.
That’s my cut on why Citizens UK came a cropper. An added problem likely was the fact that they had also been in very public discussions with the out-of-power Labour Party leadership, and even sometimes with the Conservative Party apparatchiks about some form of training program that would modernize their operations. As the Loving Spoonful once sang, “sometimes you have to pick up on one, and leave the other behind,” and I would make a solid bet that the footsy with the parties made a big government contract highly unlikely. It is possible that Citizens UK had also come to that conclusion internally and therefore had assessed the risk and went with one in hand rather than stalking harder the bird still in the bush. A friend reported having run into Arnie Graf, the well respected Baltimore-based IAF organizer over in London in June already doing some consulting with Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, to this end, though of course the outcome of the contract was settled by then.
The winner of the contract was a newly created amalgamation called Locality, formed by a merger of two mainline UK national community development non-profits with long government contracting experience, the Development Trusts Association and the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres (BASSAC). According to Matt Parker, a former BASSAC employee writing on a community organizing listserv based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Locality’s winning bid involved the following:
“Locality committed to deliver a 21st century UK version of community organising training based around the programme of the ReGenerate Trust, a training agency little known in the UK. They have pioneered an organising approach ‘Root Solution -Listening Matters’ based on the work of Paulo Friere and Saul Alinsky. Locality recruited eleven local hosts from their membership to act as KickStarters to get the programme underway in a short timeframe. They will act as the pilot sites with more hosts being recruited through an open process from the autumn / fall.”
Though Parker claims they are little known, ReGenerate Trust boasts of a 20-year history of conciliatory programming on their website with an avowed aim of reducing poverty through mediating collaborations of the poor with police and other local officials. Perhaps more revealing and elucidating is a quote on their home page from Cameron before he became Prime Minister:
”’…the people that run them(social enterprises) are the real entrepreneurs – as dynamic and as forward thinking as the like of Richard Branson and Anita Roddick…. In North Tyneside recently, I met the people who run RE:generate, which creates community activists by going door to door, listening to people’s concerns…. Social enterprises like these are dealing with some of the most intractable problems facing society, family breakdown, chaotic home environments, persistent unemployment, drugs, crime. Just as business entrepreneurs have helped cure the British economic disease, so social entrepreneurs can help cure Britain’s social malaise…. They are vehicles of innovation.’ David Cameron – Leader of the Conservative Party”
According to Parker, Locality attributes its winning the contract over Citizens UK to the fact that it submitted a much cheaper bid and that they were superior in the interview portion of the process. I can only speculate, but perhaps Citizens’ Neil Jameson was frank in continuing to discuss empowerment at that stage of the game? There is certainly nothing quickly visible in their website that would lead anyone to believe that they will create organizations or perhaps even organizers rather than “community animators,” a hybrid term I only know from years of work in Canada which is a cross between advocates, facilitators, and street workers. As close as Re:generate comes to talking about “power” that I could find quickly was in its “outcomes” section, and that only refers to “personal empowerment,” as you can see below:
We foster social inclusion and build the social capital that drives holistic development. We stimulate voluntary action, learning, employment, social enterprise and awareness of citizenship. Our work is about personal empowerment, restoring a sense of the collective, rebuilding networks of trust, and helping communities express their spirit in a way that official structures can relate to them. Statutory agencies who work closely with us can harness community power and boost local democracy. The process we initiate is self-sustaining because it releases creativity, trust and self-confidence, enabling communities to run their own projects rooted in their own agendas, allowing us to eventually withdraw.”
On the whole this contract award looks like a safe, should I say “conservative” bet. Furthermore, the cheaper bid meant a training process involving a three-day session together and then remote supervision while connected to the pilot “kickstarters” within their own apparatus. Locality’s negotiations over how to pay the “community organizers,” were difficult because the rate of pay was gross before taxes and potentially compromised any autonomy for the organizers. The rate was 20,000 pounds or $35,000 USD roughly. This problem has delayed the kickoff of the program but ended up with the organizers as hourly clocked employees of Locality itself.
Tomorrow let’s look at the chances of any of this making much of a difference and the clear and obvious intentions for the program’s future in the United Kingdom and any chance that it will speak to the continuing social unrest that has now erupted tensely throughout the country. In Part III let’s also examine why “race” as one of the issues at the heart of all of this has been so successfully submerged.