Organising ourselves

Anne-Marie O’Reilly presents a roundtable discussion of grassroots community organisers

September 13, 2011
10 min read

Why talk about this now?

There has been a massive upsurge in community organising since the coalition government started dismantling public services, welfare and secure housing. Hundreds of new groups have formed to defend the resources their communities rely on. But community organising is at risk of being hijacked as a concept. In February, the government awarded a £15 million contract for community organisers to ‘play a major role in delivering the Big Society’.

Described by David Cameron in the run-up to the election as an ‘army’, we wait to see what the onslaught of these government-sponsored ‘community organisers’ will involve. Jess Steele, the programme director of Locality, the organisation that won the bid, regularly criticises local spending cuts on her blog while passionately proclaiming that the ‘big society’ is not Tory or Labour but ours. Embarrassing, then, that Locality had to admit it approached Iain Duncan Smith’s think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, as a partner in the bid, although it declined to be involved. Since Jess Steele tells us that community organising starts with listening, would they have organised around Duncan Smith’s mandatory labour for welfare claimants? This seems unlikely given that the same government that is dismantling the welfare system is paying for these organisers to be trained.

Many communities are experiencing the big society as a synonym for replacing vital public services with unpaid and less accountable workers. It is hard to see how government-sponsored organisers would be in any position to build communities’ power to challenge this. While Jess Steele may hope to redefine the big society, it seems far more likely that the government’s agenda will define what Locality can achieve – especially if it hopes to get more funding in future.

As David Milner from Islington Poverty Action Group commented about Locality’s community organisers: ‘Is it to ensure that communities actually remain disorganised and present no threat to government plans? They will organise compliance not resistance. They will do this by diverting any enthusiasm into “good works”, such as conservation and helping the infirm. Their message will be “We can help you, you cannot help yourselves.”’

How we can help ourselves

By contrast, the roundtable discussion was held to find out what community organising means to independent groups organising against the government’s spending cuts. Jim Cranshaw from Oxford Save Our Services described how local campaigning has led to ‘the big society idea being ridiculed in Oxford in the press’. After a diverse campaign in Oxfordshire, involving members of all major political parties, there has been a substantial u-turn on the closure of 20 libraries. All will be saved, though a few will not remain publicly owned. The money will come from central government: ‘They just happened to find it as Cameron was put under a lot of public pressure in the national newspapers.’

Initially ‘some of the groups were very keen on big society solutions. They came from rich areas and could get rich donors to fund a voluntary-run library.’ But effective links were made and at one area meeting (part of the local council’s democracy, now abolished), all groups repudiated taking private money to run their libraries, telling the council they wanted them to remain public. ‘That is going to be more effective at maintaining funding in the future: take the hit now, show solidarity and then try to preserve public services.’

Hackney Housing Group finds that collectively challenging the council’s housing decisions gets results. ‘We’ve seen lots of people who joined our group when they were homeless who now have permanent council housing,’ said Ellie Schling. The group has developed a direct action approach to challenge the routine failure of the local housing office to offer emergency accommodation and make homeless decisions within the legal time limit. ‘We offer each other advice from our own experiences and go down to the housing office in small groups and stick up for each other, which is really effective.’

The sister group, Haringey Housing Action, has achieved similar success. Jane Laporte described one action inside the housing office: ‘[We were] trying to get a woman housed before the bailiffs were due to come round. We came inside with a banner and refused to leave until we got to speak to the person who could make the decision. She got housed that day, even though we had been told categorically that wasn’t going to happen.’

Organising, not controlling

Jim Cranshaw attributed the success of Oxford Save our Services to ‘not being controlling in the way we organise and being very open and participatory . . . We try to find out how people want to campaign and what they want to campaign on and then support and empower them to do that.’ While this may limit strategic focus, the trade off is that the campaign has much more capacity to take on a range of issues.

This is something Lani Parker of Islington Disabled People Against Cuts (IDPAC) also identified as important. If groups embed an approach that genuinely values everyone’s voice and contribution, then new people are welcomed without putting them in the spotlight in an embarrassing way. ‘I always feel inspired if I go to a meeting where that happens,’ she said.

Many of the groups present at the roundtable were influenced by consensus decision-making practice, which means working towards all voices being heard in order to reach decisions that everyone can accept. However, the groups shared a pragmatic approach rather than a blind commitment to a set of hand signals or processes. Staying flexible and trying to work in a way that information, tasks and power are shared is important. Meetings work better where ‘go rounds’ (a chance to hear everyone in the room speak without interruption) are used, facilitation (or chairing) and other roles are rotated, and working groups allow people to contribute to what they’re interested in. Regular skill shares and trainings enable participation and the movement to grow.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) is adept at finding creative ways to involve people in decisions. Linda Burnip commented: ‘A lot of disabled people are isolated and confined because they haven’t got the right support to get out from their homes, so we very much use social networking. If we want to know what people think we message all our Facebook members and put something on our website and they all send back messages. Then we work from the responses we get.’

Southall Black Sisters, an advice and campaigning organisation, ‘set up support groups which are casual, more about discussing issues at a pace that is much slower and more accessible than in policy meetings when you are getting on with decisions,’ according to Pragna Patel. ‘So there are two types of forums and one feeds the other and hopefully leads the other but the pace needs to be different.’

The methods may vary, but the emphasis is clear: everyone can contribute and everyone is valued. There may be a tension between speed of action and involving people in decisions, but experience shows that actions are more effective when more people understand why they are taking place and are involved in making them happen. Where professional community organisers often import a methodology from the US that focuses on finding or creating ‘community leaders’, with these groups ‘every single one is a leader’, as Pragna Patel put it.

There is a trust that in giving up the desire to control what happens, more and better things will be able to flourish. Another good example came from Oxford: ‘What we’ve done at the moment is train a lot of young people in youth centres that are getting closed down and now they are out there doing direct actions, doing media stunts, we just support them in doing that. We are not trying to do everything ourselves but trying to increase the overall size of the movement.’

Nothing about us without us

In trying to build a movement that challenges imbalances of power internally as well as externally, it remains important to organise as groups experiencing particular oppressions or structural inequalities. In Linda Burnip words: ‘For us, part of setting up DPAC was that we would be campaigning as disabled people for ourselves and not being spoken for by other organisations. Particularly we have problems with a number of the charities who actually make a lot of money out of disabled people and more or less treat us as commodities.’ Helen Lowe from Women Against Fundamentalism argues, ‘It is so important there is a voice that can speak out clearly on behalf of women, even when it engages with other issues which affect men and women.’

If you are committed to making sure voices of people who experience structural inequality are included, how does that influence which groups you make alliances with? Everyone who has organised in their community has at some stage or another encountered challenges in building alliances, whether due to differences of personality, politics or organising approaches. Given this, it was refreshing that no single blueprint and no hard and fast maxims of ‘Stay away from that group’ or ‘Never work with them’ emerged.

Pragna Patel said: ‘Alliances in the abstract do not make sense. It’s got to be in terms of what you are doing, what are the objectives – you’ve come into the alliance to fight what? Inevitably there are going to be times when all the groups coincide. That’s okay because it is very short-lived and they are not monopolising the whole of the agenda.’

Nevertheless, it is important to think about whether working with some groups will exclude others’ involvement. Helen Lowe pointed out that if, for example, a religious group want to join a coalition ‘they are welcome to do so but there are ground rules about mutual respect, so you don’t have a situation where [gay] people feel threatened by people when they are supposed to be working together in an alliance with them.’

Organising without experts

Thousands of people are now organising in their communities without the aid of Cameron’s army and while avoiding being co-opted into his big society. They are building support and campaigning networks that do not lay the groundwork for replacing public services, instead strengthening our assertion of our rights to decent housing, welfare and services. By sharing information and experience, we can build our power to challenge the cuts and fight for more resources.

As Hackney Housing Group has seen, you don’t need experts to organise you. ‘Hackney Housing Group members have gone to the housing office without anyone who speaks good English and won housing,’ said Ellie Schling. ‘We knew what to do because we’ve gone to apply there ourselves. We don’t need to be legal experts. The importance of people organising around their own situations is going to grow . . . I can’t see what people are going to be able to do apart from fight.’

None of the groups involved in the roundtable discussion had pretensions to steer or control what others are doing. All had a genuine and inspiring commitment to share what has worked for them and learn from others.

While each group’s particular focus may seem limited when the cuts are so wide-ranging, Harry McGill from Welfare Action Hackney argued that ‘I see our group doing more . . . focusing on our particular area and [when we are ready] we will back up and be part of a larger movement that will have the force to move things on in the future.’ n

Anne-Marie O’Reilly is a member of the London Coalition Against Poverty, a coalition of mutual support groups that organises to defend and extend our rights to decent housing, wages and benefits. Read the full discussion at

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