London For a fascinating 8 hours 35 community organizers working throughout England in various communities in London, Newcastle, Bristol, Leeds, and elsewhere along with a sprinkling of organizing and trade union activists and organizers put their shoulders to the wheel in a meeting room of the London University Union to learn about the ACORN organizing methodology in an amazing exercise of “organizing as a second language.”
Ok, what in the world am I talking about now?
Several years ago the Conservative government was responsible for one of those “what the heck” moments when in the midst of almost draconian austerity proposals in their own version on “compassionate conservatism” they announced their commitment to create a government funded community organizing program which would train and deploy 500 so-called community organizers over a 4-year period throughout the country. Hard core readers may recall that we discussed the program extensively in a series of blogs at the time, largely because of the role of London Citizens, loosely affiliated with the IAF, and its national offshoots which had widely been expected to train and supervise the organizers. In a surprise the training and supervision contract had gone to others and is now held by two UK nonprofits called ReGenerate and Locality.
Somewhat reminiscent of the old US-based VISTA program, largely young people were recruited for a two-year program. The first year places the person as an “organizer trainee” and then through several certifications, you are deemed a trained organizer. In preparation for my workshop, I read the training materials given to the organizers. Listening is presented as a fundamental tool for the organizers, which is inarguably essential. The model is not a model, but more a process of sorts where by listening to people in the community the organizer will hear interests and issues and will be able to assist in their realization or implementation in some way, shape, or form, though it was never crystal clear in my reading that anything approaching an organization was meant to evolve, though, when all was said and done, there might be some small community teams that would be the legacy of the program. Organizers are assigned to local sponsors, who are in the main, nonprofits and social services agencies, but the lines of supervision are somewhat muddled it seems between Locality, the national overseer, and the local sponsor of sorts. Meanwhile the expectations are modest and involve each organizer visiting through doorknocking or whatever with 500 families in the course of the year.
The reason I have to describe some of my dialogue with this great group of hopeful community organizers as “organizing as a second language” is that so many of the terms, doorknocking, house meetings, listening, models, and even the bandying about of Saul Alinky’s name were similar, though in almost all cases we were having to redefine each other’s understanding of what we really meant and intended by these phrases and concepts. Organizing is about communicating though and the spirits were willing so by the end of the day, we had all made great progress. They ended up with a nodding acquaintance with the ACORN Model and a sense of how community organizers work around the world, and I had a crash course in their local issues, campaigns, and almost palpable frustration at wanting to organize to make change or at least a difference and feeling frustrated, not that they were being instructed by the government to not be successful, but were not being given the skills or direction in order to succeed.
It turns out to almost be impossible to connect the dots for an organizer, when there is really no expectation that their work will in fact produce an organization as a vehicle for peoples’ action and potential victories. After a long day though all of us hoped we might have actually given this great team enough skills to give people in the community the real help that they might want and need to build organization and even power, leaving the intentions of the government and its contractors a mystery for some other time and place and of no real interest.