London Hackney is one of those classic neighborhood names that invariably calls to mind London, so it was a treat to get to walk around the neighborhood a little bit, sit in the CLR James Library, which turned out to be a story in itself, and then to meet with fifty members and activists that make up Hackney Unites, an effective and somewhat unique community organization in the city.
It started out simply enough. Visiting with Jane Holgate and John Page on an earlier trip and hearing about their work with Hackney Unites, I asked if I might be able to meet with some people organizing in London. They couldn’t have been more accommodating. We put it on the calendar, and several weeks go by and Bob Fisher, a careful and astute observer of the community organizing scene on the academic side forwards me an email he had received from a colleague announcing that the “legendary” Wade Rathke is going to be giving a “master class” to those interested at a meeting of Hackney Unites, room is limited, and they had best get their names in the pot asap. Whoa, Nellie! What had we gotten ourselves into here on the last event for this 10-day jornada de morte of a trip!
Of course it turned out that it was a great event and undoubtedly I got the best part of the trade because of the unique way the meeting was organized and the questions and conversations that followed from it. Meeting in the Trinity Centre complex abutting a social housing complex, the tables were organized sort of likes the stripes on a chevron allowing people to see both each other and the speaker at the front of the room. Each table had a piece of paper saying Hackney or Non-Hackney, since Jane, John, and the other leaders wanted to segregate people in helping build Hackney Unites in the conversations. The tables were jumbled up, so it wasn’t a matter of Hackney Unites on one side and other folks coming to hear, wander, and wonder on the other. I was wondering how this would work.
After some remarks about Hackney Unites campaigns and internal affairs, as well as my remarks and a shout out to Lee Baker and Jonny Butcher from ACORN London who were there helping as well, they then had the groups discuss and come to some consensus on a single question for me in sort of a freewheeling “stump the stars” format, which was actually fun for all of us, and fascinating for me because rather than the usual random Q&A, invariably dominated by a small handful, this was different. There were actually written guides at every table for how to make the process work, which might be anathema to most community organizers as too academic but in this very mixed crowd seemed to work reasonably well and be appreciated. The format allowed everyone to be part of “participating” in the question and I would bet money it substantially raised the quality of the questions. The answers of course would be a different matter, but you would have had to have been there.
John had told me that that they had tried this format before, so I’m not sure if it’s part of their usual meeting routine or another pilot project, but on my continued quest to see how we can improve and refresh our work, you can bet I’ll not only be taking my better understanding of this community’s concerns about tactics, coordination, and gentrification with me on one hand and on the other a different notion of how to organize these kinds of interactive meetings.