English Community Organizing Program Tries to Plot a Path to the Future

ACORN International International Organizing

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 10.26.51 AMStafford     The last cohort of 35 (not the Roman 100) organizers begins in July meaning that the Big Society Community Organising Programme will have started a training cycle on more than 500 organizers in roughly three years fulfilling their charge from Westminster and the Cameron Conservative government.  The last training component ends in March 2015 so naturally questions about the future of the work, the organizers, and in some ways the mission itself are buzzing everywhere around the meeting halls and green fields of Staffordshire.

Such questions were also much on peoples’ minds in the last plenary where I was a member of the panel.  The questions before the group were various, ranging from how community organizations could do more effective mobilization, to how in fact community organizing was “special” or different from something or other, and in a last minute addition how we and the group saw “the future of community organizing over the next five years.”  We all stumbled through as well as we were able, but the questions from the organizers on the floor invariably went to what happened next, including to the projects they had developed, and, pointedly, to themselves.

Years ago when the program had first rolled out, the 51 week organizing position seemed outmatched compared to the government’s claims that these 500 organizers and potentially 4500 “volunteers” or community leaders and activists that would emerge from this small time with much to offset the draconian nature of the government’s austerity cuts.  A subsequent development, that I had missed when it occurred later, was the additional money given the program for a second, “progression” year allowing the organizers to continue to be supported if they met certain conditions.  It seems that Jess Steele who had developed the winning proposal for Locality and then was the program manager in the first two-and-a-half years had gone back to the supervising government office and convinced them that they had to figure out something to have a chance at progress for the projects and the organizers.

A half-a-loaf compromise was won.  If an organizer could raise local support in their community, up to 7500 pounds in cash and up to another 7500 pounds worth of in-kind, then the government would meet them halfway and provide 15000 pounds for their second year of organizing.   Various organizers and others had suggested that perhaps one-third succeeded in doing so, often with the local sponsoring agency picking them up.  Naomi Diamond, one of the current co-managers of the program, told me in an interview for an upcoming “Wade’s World” on KABF/FM, that the number was closer to 50% of the organizers going to a second year.  It can be a hard slough.  There’s often a break in their employment as they try to raise the resources as well, so the process is anything but seamless, as we found with our ACORN Bristol team.

The program’s prospects for the future lie with a new formation called COCO, which seems to stand for Community Organizers Collaboration.  Jess Steele is once again the director and architect of the proposal for future funding from various sources as well as possibly the unexpended reserve from money allocated for progression years but not achieved which might be significant.  There is an elected governing board for COCO including some current and former organizers in the program.  A pivotal showcase is being organized on the last day of the Action Camp when the key government liaison is speaking and program organizers and participants are trying to use the opportunity to set the table for the future.  Another delegation is being chosen to travel later in the summer to Westminster to continue the dialogue about the future of the program.  Everyone seems to be scrambling to make a viable plan to see some pieces of the program emerge in the future, though with the government having already time dated the whole operation, the only certainty seems that the path forward will have a smaller footprint and narrower ambition than the past enjoyed, though perhaps with a different vision, better direction and training, it is possible that the next version of this large scale organizing experiment might be more productive given the lessons learned in the first three years.

For organizers everywhere this is worth watching, and for those with an opportunity in and around England, it’s worth some work.