New Orleans Colleagues from the University of Glasgow were visiting New Orleans from Scotland, so we couldn’t miss the opportunity to have them over for a Fair Grinds Dialogue on community development, community organizing, and, what the heck, the coming vote on independence in Scotland. Dave Beck, is a lecturer in community development at the University, and Rod Purcell is director of the community engagement program there, so these were folks that knew their way around the community issues. I knew them originally from their visits with ACORN operations in Delhi and Mumbai, which found their way into an interesting book published last year, International Community Organising: Taking Power, Making Change, as well as their having me as a guest lecturer for a standing room only crowd in Glasgow earlier in the year.
They covered a host of fascinating topics and those in attendance largely used the session to try to get a handle on what was really happening in the United Kingdom on everything from the austerity program to welfare benefits. There were two fascinating observations they offered though that provoked a lot of questioning and that surprised those in attendance. One was about doorknocking and the other about leadership development, although both were really about the lack thereof.
Dave and Rod told a number of amusing stories along the lines of “what are you crazy,” that would greet any suggestion that they had made in the UK to community workers or labor unions about whether or not they might be more effective in making direct contact by doorknocking. Nothing unusual really about any of that, since it’s the first reaction of almost everyone everywhere in virtually every country and city in the world, until they see how effective and skilled the practice and methodology really is. Most of the resistance was of the kneejerk kind, “Oh, no one wants you to come to their home,” and so forth.
More surprising was their observation that leadership development, a foundational emphasis in most United States community organizing, and certainly ACORN’s, is virtually nonexistent in the United Kingdom. Beck and Purcell argued that the more normal situation was the existence of countless “community representatives” appointed by various councils and public authorities to speak for the community or the constituency, who in Beck’s words were lucky if they had any base, and “if they had a base, it was hardly 1% of the community.” Certainly this kind of tokenism and top-down structure of participation was common in the US as well until the movement and organizational upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s forced different requirements around participation in many communities to establish more genuine leadership rather than simply anointed and appointed gatekeepers.
Beck and Purcell believed that this void largely came from a deep seated political and cultural perspective that positioned the local council and the state in general as the source of services and goods where the public had expectations that were a matter of entitlement and rights, rather than something triggered by participation, much less pressure and collective action. They gave a number of examples in housing organizing in the council flats where when facing public cutbacks it took years for residents to recognize that there was desertion by public officials and authorities, and that they were going to be forced to organize to take over the flats in various schemes and abandon expectations of improvements. Having no tradition of leadership development and similar grassroots engagement at the base, these transitions are lengthy and difficult in the UK according to Beck and Purcell.
We were all fascinated, even if somewhat shocked, but also convinced we might be able to make a contribution in filling this void in the UK as well from ACORN’s decades of experience in leadership development.