The relationship between organising and political education has slipped off the agenda in recent years, especially in the trade union movement, which has moved increasingly to skills-based courses. It is in reaction to this that the Ella Baker School of Transformative Organising came into being. The very name raises a number of questions pertinent to anyone concerned with social justice organising: what is ‘transformative organising’, who is Ella Baker and why should we be interested in her, and why do we need a school of organising?
The school itself has no buildings, no paid staff, and very little finance, but it marked its first anniversary this summer with an 80-strong conference on working-class political education, supported by Unite the union and co-hosted with the Critical Labour Studies organisation. It is named after the long-time African-American civil rights activist Ella Jo Baker, who died in 1986.
The idea of a school of transformative organising evolved out of a number of discussions between educators and activists in the trade union and wider social justice movements. These included people who had worked on Hope Not Hate’s post-industrial communities strategy, trying to stop the rise of the authoritarian right, and were shocked at the disconnect between ‘the left’ and those working-class communities. It also involved trade union officials and educators frustrated at the loss of strategic capacity in the movement as much trade union education became ever more narrow. And as community organisers ourselves, we listened to other community organisers frustrated at the apolitical approach of some social justice organisations, which they felt effectively reinforced, rather than challenged, the existing distribution of power within communities.
The coming together of these like-minded thinkers led to the idea of a school of transformative organising where we could produce and share materials for political education that link to current organising activity in the labour and social justice movements. We held a conference in July to bring people together and share ideas as the culmination of our first 12 months of work. This had included two retreats at the RMT’s national education centre, where activists from very different cultures within the movement came together to explore what we had in common, and to begin a process of small-group work developing training materials.
We had a shared concern at the failed ‘cut and paste’ attempts to replicate a US model of organising, taking inspiration from the Obama, Bernie Sanders and living wage campaigns. We felt these had left no space for creativity and allowed no consideration of the different and evolving contexts.
As such, we decided to explore successful historical examples of organising in the UK and use these as the starting point of conversations about how we organise to win today. The first training modules looked at Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes; the election of Shapurji Saklatvala, an Asian communist, as the MP for Battersea North in 1922; and the iconic Bristol bus boycott in 1963, which effectively challenged the racist employment practices of the Bristol Omnibus Company and helped pave the way for the UK’s first Race Relations Act.
We found that successful campaigns rarely, if ever, follow a regimented ‘organising model’. While organising theory can help us plan campaigns, it is the extent of strategic capacity within campaign groups that determines their ability to overcome what often appear to be insurmountable odds.
The Sylvia Pankhurst module was our contribution to this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations, and over 40 groups and individuals asked to use the materials. Some of these sessions were run in people’s homes, others were in university women’s groups and trade union branches. One was at Hackney Museum and another at the Unitarian church at Newington Green, dubbed the birthplace of feminism because of its links with Mary Wollstonecraft.
This summer’s conference began by considering ‘how we got here’, looking at the economic, legal and cultural changes that created the environment in which the post-war successes of our movement began to be rolled back. It then explored the responses to these changes in both the trade union movement and local communities and asked whether the way we responded contributed to some of the defeats.
The conference went on to look at historical precedents for radical political education, touching on subjects as diverse as the Plebs’ League and women’s consciousness-raising groups. A quick-fire session saw a range of speakers introducing their educational work among activists today using the Pecha Kucha method, in which presenters have to speak using 20 slides that advance automatically every 20 seconds – let’s just say it focuses the presentation and avoids any waffle!
In this wide-ranging review, speakers looked at the UCU strike, the Independent Working Class Education Network, health campaigning, doing anti-fascism differently, podcasts and political education, and how change is happening today and how we can get better at it.
One of the most thought-provoking sessions looked at the issue of equalities in organising with a discussion on ‘Intersectionality: putting class back in’. One workshop looked at the lack of dialogue between some ‘Marxists’ and some ‘intersectionalists’. It proved challenging and contentious as people from different traditions tried to view their approaches in the context of alternative narratives, but it offered a productive start to a longer discussion on how we take the best from both traditions and enrich our understanding of both class and oppression.
The conference also looked at how we teach (and how we learn) with grassroots campaigners speaking about linking learning and action, where every action has a reflection and every training ends in an action. An exploration of economic literacy for the movement addressed how we can communicate about the way the economy works.
It is clear that there is a huge amount of work being done to develop our strategic capacity through education. However, much of this is happening in isolation and there is massive potential for cross-fertilisation of ideas. While different traditions tend to use different language, we broadly mean the same thing, have the same problems and the same opponents. It’s time that we find ways to learn together and to listen more carefully – especially when we disagree.
We are developing training materials based on UK examples of successful organising, using them as a starting point for a discussion about ‘what do we do now?’ We are looking for partners to run day schools, where we explore these issues further, and also to run events during Black History Month to explore the previously-mentioned historical examples of the Bristol bus boycott and election of Shapurji Saklatvala, among other issues.