The Curious Contradictions of Community Organizing and the United Kingdom – Part III

Nelondon_citizens_2_3w Orleans Without having read the final paperwork on Locality’s winning proposal to train 500 community organizers and the final contract terms agreed to by the British government, it can be impossible to be sure how far afield the eventual program will evolve from the initial advocacy and intentions of Citizens UK.  It is clear that despite their best intentions the core competency and experience of the partners forming Locality and their primary training design contractor, Re:generate Trust, is not in community organizing, as we would classically understand the concept and methodology, though it is immediately important to state unequivocally that we may be witnessing and forcing to recognize a evolutionary development of community organizing along a branch moving in a different and perhaps troubling direction.

Re:generate Trust has focused on developing “community activists” according to its literature, rather than community organizers.  Their methodology correctly takes “listening” as a foundational part of the organizing process, which I agree is fundamental and often not sufficiently credited (see my NPR piece on this website), but then it veers away from developing organization and engaging in building power at least in any way that I can discern.  To the degree that Prime Minister Cameron’s Big Society centerpiece now focuses on training and developing 4500 volunteer “organizers” as the outcome of this contract it is a certainty that we are really only talking about identifying gatekeepers and channeling activists.

For all of the talk about these community insertions, particularly in the wake of the ongoing riots, it seems that we should really translate the language of “building social capital” into “achieving social control.”  Those that might have ascribed an agenda to Cameron and his government of creating burrs in the saddle of local governments and bureaucracies in the current austerity slimming have misunderstood their intentions completely.  This is about tamping down trouble, creating pressure values for hopelessness, rage, and malaise, and effective use of soft power to achieve great social control in poor localities.  Community organizing is at risk of undergoing a total perversion of program and purpose in the way this worm has now turned, regardless of what might have been the best intentions of Citizens UK and Locality, particularly given the current crisis in British society.  Given the evolution of this type of organizing methodology in Britain, perhaps this evolutionary aberration was inevitable and intentional.

The “lessons” being drawn by the powers that be in Britain from the current unrest are profoundly disturbing.  The role of the police and second guessing of its tactics in dealing with British unrest recall nothing so much as the same debate in Cairo in the wake of the street protests there and whether or not police are an instrument of public safety or the hard fist of political power.   Cameron might be vying for a place in the dock with Mubarak in his widely reported call now to shut down social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, curtail use of smartphones, and generally eliminate civil liberties in a new British Raj imposed on poor neighborhoods in London, Birmingham, and other cities.

As George Lakoff or Drew Westen might argue, part of this is a desperate governmental effort at strategic reframing.  Cameron wants to limit all debate and conversation to the issue of vandalism and “criminality” wrenched from any other context.

The context that British society with the help until very recently of most of the press and world media is most interested in fleeing has to do not just with poverty, but as importantly with race and the huge divisions that are masked over in denial in British culture and politics.  The riots were ignited after all in Detroit like fashion with the injury to a black man, yet the usual “narrative” stumbled when so many of the rioters seemed to be the young whites typecast as soccer hooligans in Brit-speak.  The tragic killing of three South Asians acting somewhere on the fault line in Birmingham between vigilantes and community “police,” through vehicular homicide with an Afro-Caribbean driver underscores this divide as well as recalling the fierce violence in the UK’s second largest city a couple of years ago between black citizens and south Asian cities.

There seem to be acknowledged institutions that respond to the rigid class divide in British society though like the unions and the Labour Party they are weakening and diluted, which may be part of the problem here as well.  There do not yet seem to be such recognized institutions that are part of the practice and byplay of power in the UK.  Given the different though critical importance and recognition of the role of race in the last 60 years of American political life, it is past debate that gatekeepers, activists, mediators, animators, and others are all nice, but irrelevant to making progress around race and its tensions.  Dialogue and debate in the absence of real political, institutional, and economic power is a fake conversation from the first words to the last.   We are witnessing powerlessness feeding on itself not on some kind of text messaging, flash mob phenomena and then erupting in violence and rage.  Race matters in Britain, too, and they need to read the memo, not just note that they saw it on streets and in the news.  This is a call for radical surgery and not Band-Aids.  People have to find a place and a voice now or there is nothing but the fire next time, especially for the disposed among the poor and racial minorities.

A government now even more committed to command-and-control, cutbacks, and conservativism does not get that, but community organizations and organizers need to fully embrace both the challenge and opportunity.  The curious contradiction at the heart of the United Kingdom debate over the role of organizers speaks to a growing, unacknowledged divide in our work as well.  Even while we all continue to speak the language of power building, the role of organizers in this process is being distorted.  They are being placed at the head of class, not at the back.  They are being separated from their role as organization builders and twisted into a role as mediators, translators, reconcilers, and advocates, which may all be valid parts of the job description but have no meaning when uprooted outside of specific organizational service and context.

Though it is controversial in the United States, it is ridiculous for organizers to pretend that we are not agitators, since our business is creating change and building power.  Somehow in the United Kingdom, and perhaps elsewhere, community organizers are being confused with collaborators, confidants, networkers, process technicians, organizational theorists, and relationship experts, which can easily lead to misunderstandings about whether we are instruments of social control or organizational empowerment.  There is hardly anything more strange than imagining community organizers as insiders (there reasons that Barack Obama was not a good community organizer and had to find a way to make a living elsewhere after all!) rather than outsiders.  We are not the handmaidens of power, but the working tools of the powerless.

The riots in the United Kingdom against the backdrop of the potential distortion of community organizing as part of Cameron’s Conservative Party Big Society are a wakeup call for organizers and organizations to get back to basics and the fundamentals of our work.  The traditional culture of community organizing emerged from the riots in the United States that centered the debate about poverty and race.  The contemporary culture that puts a necktie and a prayer on the deep demand for power and change needs to remember and return to a recognition that power is not build without struggle, demand, and, even conflict.  The United Kingdom now needs great community organizers to help build powerful community organizations to work fight right at the crossroads of these issues now.  The advertisements are not for training programs with the “kickstarters” in September, but right now in the headlines of the daily papers and the film footage of burning stores and cars.   The organizations and organizers that step into the streets of London and Birmingham and elsewhere now can create the change that matters.

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The Curious Contradictions of Community Organizing and the United Kingdom – Part II

New Oriots-standoff_1967586crleans 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.

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When Hope is not Enough, Riots Eventually Follow

Ne0_63_040109_protest18w Orleans Headlines blaring that Britain’s leaders were “caught unprepared” at the outbreak of riots throughout metropolitan London and now spreading to Birmingham were surprising to me.  Persistent, structural unemployment, marginalized housing and living conditions, no prospects for the future, severe and draconian austerity cutbacks in social services and family support, are all coming together in a confluence on London’s streets, so why would these riots have not been virtually inevitable?  These were calculated government policies that lit long fuses that smoldered for years, perhaps so long those policy makers forgot there was dynamite at the other end.

The New York Times had a bizarre quote about the story:

“With huge fires burning into the night in several of the neighborhoods overrun by the rioters, Home Secretary Theresa May said she had issued instructions that officers do everything possible to restore order and arrest the principal culprits in the disorder. Striking a note that was common among community organizers in the neighborhoods where rioting has occurred, Ms. May said that social deprivation was no defense. ‘There is no excuse for violence, no excuse for looting, no excuse for thuggery, and those who are responsible must know that they will be brought to justice,’ she said. ‘I think this is about sheer criminality.’”

“Community organizers,” I doubt that seriously.  These are street and community workers perhaps whose job is to advocate, adjust, ameliorate, and generally “keep the peace” usually on the public payroll.  No doubt they are good and sincere folks, but they have to make a living too and with no tools to work with certainly they join the chorus for calm and ending violence, but….these are not community organizers.  Community organizers understand that the point of organizing is to build power, and the rioters fully know they have no voice for their grievances and no vehicle to create change.

The rioters catalyzing the turmoil in London are dangerous because they are not operating solely from anger and rage, but from a more calculating plan.  They are communicating shrewdly with text messages, twitter, and blackberries and are expressly targeting different areas and shops.  These are not disappointed hockey fans in Vancouver, but stealth strike forces with ski masks and scarves over their faces.  The calls on my twitter feed to help identify them with Twitter are hilariously off the mark.  The Home Secretary has a problem.  Naming something as criminal and deploring violence is easy enough.  We can all join in those sentiments.  Understanding the violence and doing something about the root causes are a much, much harder problem indeed.

Let’s not pretend about America.  The deepening recession reveals the stark fault lines in cities in the USA that are identical to the conditions in London:  high and persistent unemployment, no future prospects, deplorable living conditions, and continuing cutbacks in social services.  The fuse is burning here, too, and there is dynamite at the end of the wire. Unless something serious is done, it’s just a matter of time before “the fire” next time is the fire this time.

This is a problem for Obama and the country as well.  When you run on “hope” and then either refuse to deliver or can’t deliver on that visceral demand and desire for change, there are consequences that are more profound than political shifts and seasons.  Those of us who have organized in these areas can recognize a hardening of the malaise, a resignation and acceptance of mean, brutish life as a definition of normal there no matter the rest of the country and the world, and alienation outside of usual experience and common expectation.  That condition of powerlessness will find expression, either in movements and demands for change or in outbreaks of rage, violence, and riot.  It will not simply sit there and smolder forever, quietly and invisibly.

Unless people are allowed some legitimate power and there is real change at the least there should be no stupid and patronizing expressions of surprise at the inevitable consequences of inaction and avoidance.

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