Tag Archives: London Citizens

Training Government Community Organizers in England

1957794_727106530675687_235673834_oLondon  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.

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The Curious Contradictions of Community Organizing and the United Kingdom – Part I

New Ostudent-riots-chrisjohnbeckett-360x270-300x225rleans Another day of rioting in the United Kingdom finds more police on the street, more protestations from conservative Prime Minister David Cameron about “criminality,” and little relief or recognition of the crises stripped bare by the mess and mayhem.  Given the rise of community organizing in the UK and the reported government efforts to enlist “community organizers” as a legitimizing force behind their position in quelling the riots, it is important to understand the backstory that community organizing is playing the UK political and social situation.

Certainly the discussion starts squarely with the growth and ambition of London Citizens, its chief organizer, Neil Jameson, and the strong work and record it has assembled over the last dozen years in London and other cities as it has expanded.  Over the years I have been an admirer of their work and have met and collaborated with Jameson as we have compared our experiences on Living Wage campaigns in the USA and Canada versus their work in London.  (More detail on Citizens UK is included in an essay by Kirk Noden on starting Birmingham Citizens and my discussions with Jameson in the recently published Global Grassroots:  Perspectives on International Organizing available now at www.socialpolicy.org).

Over the last year the national profile of the organization has changed dramatically.  Their ambition to begin a national training institute for organizers drew the major party candidates in the British elections to a large 2500 person gathering solicited a much heralded commitment of support to move forward in this direction from David Cameron, who emerged as the Conservative Party’s Prime Minister and Nick Clegg, who was dealt in as Deputy Prime Minister in making creating the government.

From this point on it becomes very, very tricky to follow, particularly from over here across the pond.

Cameron’s government has driven a major austerity and social services cutback program, part of which is being harvested now in riots in the streets of lower income communities spreading around the UK.  At the same time perhaps shrewdly and contradictorily he trumpeted a so-called “Big Society” program that was claiming to focus on reducing poverty.  In the catch-22 of modern politics it is bizarrely ironic that one can deliberately increase poverty while simultaneously claiming to be committed to programs to reduce poverty.  Fortunately for many of the politicians since they are mainly just screwing the poor there is often little downside payback for the contradiction, which Cameron is no doubt no ruing while whining about “criminality” and the consequences of his government’s actions.

A centerpiece of the “Big Society” and a seeming tribute to the decades of developing relationships and growing love affairs between political figures and Citizens was the announcement that 5000 so-called “community organizers” would  be hired, trained, and dispatched to communities throughout the country so that they would enable more participation in the radically downsizing government and ostensibly more accountability.  The universal assumption was that the huge contract being tendered for bid was being designed and written as a shoo-in for Citizens UK (Guardian, 2.14.11).  Citizens UK was cited in the “request for proposal” as was Saul Alinksy, which continues the ironic and embarrassing bear hug from the right of his work and principles. Despite the obvious philosophical conflicts between the rightwing government and its programs and community organizing’s core commitment to empowerment, Citizens UK continued to rationalize and legitimize this effort as an important step in realizing its vision of a national training institute in the UK.

Meanwhile in the throes of budget cutbacks the “promise” of 5000 “community organizers” was whittled down to a three year program to develop 500 such people.  There were additional curiosities like the problem of sorting through how these “community organizers” would be essentially government employees, yet also be involved in pushing on local governments for accountability.  There was speculation that rather than being about power, accountability, or whatever, these “organizers” were a Cameron stink bomb being planted in local communities as problems for local mayors and officials.

There was remarkably little discussion about what organizations would be built and how they would operate.  Importantly, the entire program seemed a lot like the old Texas Rangers slogan, “one riot, one ranger,” which takes on even more meaning given the events of these days in the United Kingdom.

And, tomorrow in Part II we will discuss that issue and look at the surprising development of this Big Society program when the announcement of the contract winner was made earlier this year.

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