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

Community Organizing International

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.