Going to Action Camp 2014 with England’s Community Organisers Programme

ACORN International Community Organizing International Organizing

IMG_1494-1Stafford    From the outset let us state clearly that any time more than 400 people gather in the name and claim of community organizing it is categorically a great thing by definition, and a wonder to behold.

This particular gathering, Action Camp 2014, organized by Locality, the overall coordinator and a UK nonprofit, has been pretty much an annual affair bringing together participants from the various “cohorts” of organizers in the more than three years of the program’s existence.  The event this year is in a conference center nested between rural scenes and a housing development construction in the West Midlands less than an hour and a half train ride from London.  It’s a combination of solidarity, fellowship, workshops, plenaries, and the like, mixed in with what I can only imagine might have been memories of some of their youth in summer camps, where we do everything except morning calisthenics and a camp song to break the day.   I’m here to run several workshops on ACORN’s organizing methodology and track record, sit on a panel, and recruit organizers in their transition out of the program to help build ACORN England along with Louie Herbert and Nick Ballard, two of our ACORN Bristol organizers who themselves are veterans here.

The Community Organisers Programme (yes, organizers are spelled with an “s” and program has two “m’s” and an “e” at the tail end, and this is the way we roll in the England, so how about that!) was a product of Prime Minister David Cameron and his conservative government.  The aim was to develop 500 or so community organizers in 4 years and some 4500 “volunteers” of sorts who might miraculously be able to carry on the work once the funding ends.  Cynics would say this was the soft side of a hard edged austerity program meant to apply neo-liberal sugar in heaping portions of “do-it-yourself” now to drastic cutbacks in public services and support.  Nonetheless, like the USA’s domestic VISTA program and international Peace Corps, no matter the government’s intention, participants in the main would have joined in good faith hoping to make a difference, find work that matched their idealism, and hopefully gain skills to keep the banner high in similar work in the future.  We need not support the war in order to love and honor the soldiers.

From reading the Locality literature, the program has been enthusiastic and well intentioned, but a mixed bag in terms of production.  The case studies were heavy on small, but beautiful, community projects engaging a few people, and light on those trying to make change or stir the pot.  None of this is surprising given that the training design is limited in time and scope, the organizers are placed with hosts unexpected to offer direction, and there is little agenda or overarching purpose other than what seems to be largely a “let a thousand flowers bloom” strategy as an accommodation to trying to make the very most of the program as it runs its course.  There’s talk of an organizing model, but little evidence of it from what I can gather.  At the same time to the program’s immense credit, organizers have tremendous discretion and autonomy, especially in the second year for those able to assemble the support, which is then matched by the government.  I’m constantly struck in talking to the organizers at the immense potential of their work, had they the energy and vision, to really organize given the steady support of Locality to allow them to either sink or swim to their best or inevitable level.

The program now can see the end more clearly than the beginning.  The last cohort, or organizer training group, pretty mush finishes next spring.  There are huddled conversations and long walks around the grounds as various organizers, sponsors, and groups try to figure out if there is a future for something similar or support for some of those still trying to maintain the work.  Hopefully more of that will be clear before I leave as I try to puzzle out the pieces myself.

In the meantime the conversations are serious and exciting.  The response to ACORN is invigorating and challenging.  A panel scheduled on mobilization and community organizing’s role in making it happen is exciting to contemplate and should be an education for me, as an outsider here in this great English experiment, to see where they had hoped to go and how they had hoped to get there.