In the run up to the 2010 general election, David Cameron pledged to build an army of 5000 trained community organisers to tackle poverty and social breakdown. In February, Locality won the contract to deliver the programme and the recruitment process started earlier this month.
At this early stage, it seems that the numbers of people with strong views on the government’s support for community organising, vastly exceed the numbers of people with a clear idea of community organising actually is. With this in mind, I went to ask Locality’s head of innovation, Jess Steele, what the programme’s all about.
To begin with, why is this programme necessary? If people want to do organise in their communities, why aren’t they just doing it already?
“Some people are just doing it to some extent but every kind of funding and resource support for the last 20 years has mitigated against people just doing it – building trust, respect, relationships and collaborative grassroots work. Everything has been about: ‘you’ve got to develop your project’, ‘you’ve got to write it up and write up all the outputs and outcomes of that project’ and then you take that project to a funder. Then you establish the governance and you have to do a whole lot of hoop-jumping before you get anywhere.
What’s so special about this programme is that it says that actually trust, respect, relationships, mutual listening and systematic engagement of people on their own terms is in itself worthwhile and is a pre-requisite for people having freedom and the mutual capacity to take action on their own behalf.”
There’s going to be 500 paid organisers. What specifically are they going to be doing?
“500 organisers will be hosted by local community organisations in a variety of places around the country. It’s basically a twelve-month bursary-funded process of learning. So, during that year, these people are trainee organisers but they’re also very much active in local communities themselves.
What they do during the first six months – which is the intensive training period – is a parallel process of guided action in their local community plus reflection as a group of organisers from all over the country. So mutual reflecting together on how that guided action is going and what lessons they might have for themselves and each other.
At its core that process about one to one listening on the basis of the idea that people are motivated by things that make them emotional – either things they love about their local area or things that make them sad, angry, frustrated, worried. And it’s only worth really talking to people about those things – in the broadest sense – because those are the things that will motivate people to act.
You do not ignite the impulse to act by showing people a load of statistics – we know that through the experience of neighbourhood renewal. Neighbourhood renewal showed us a whole load of statistics: you die younger, you’re more likely to be burgled, you’re more likely to get pregnant before 16, you’re more likely to fail your exams but – despite being fairly horrifying – those statistics didn’t ignite the impulse to act. Where we’ve seen grassroots action it’s because groups of people come together and they love something and they want to make the best of it or they find something really makes them angry and they want to do something about it.
So the programme is about that systematic listening process, first one-to-one then moving into small groups and cascading that out. The organisers themselves will be seeking what’s known in the programme language as ‘mid-level community organisers’ – what we think of as activist organisers – people who are not paid and trained but who are recruited by the organisers themselves.
These are people who will be recruited because they care and what they particularly want to do is do some more listening and spread that listening out, because through listening what you’re building is powerful, mobilisable networks of people who trust each other because they’ve listened to each other and they’ve heard each other. Now, out of that comes action because when you’re listening to people you start with what they love and what they’re concerned by and then you talk to them about their bigger picture dream, vision and about their project ideas – specific things that they want to work on. That then leads into taking action.
From our point of view the action can range from everything from action to change the powerful, if that’s what’s required, to action that is very much DIY – working together collaboratively to take a specific action which could be about clearing up or building a new project, whatever it might be.”
In terms of the programme as it moves forward, how is it going to be sustainable. Is the idea that organisers will generate income to pay for their roles?
“The idea is that we will support the host organisations to try to make those roles sustainable. So, the government is only paying for this training year for each individual. What Locality will do is try to help the host and the organisers themselves to think about how – in their unique circumstances, in their unique part of the country – they might make this work sustainable.
At the same time we will be seeking – and I’ve already begun this – to seek different approaches where funders, whether they’re charitable foundations or private or public, might be able to make funding available without adding strings. The challenge is to make the work sustainable but to make it sustainable without strings.
I think what will happen is that where local communities value the organiser who’s worked with them for a year – and where they really see that this is beginning to lead to some interesting and fantastic opportunities – it will be those local people’s role to convince funders.
What Locality will try to do is on the one hand to help the organisers to be entrepreneurial and the host to be entrepreneurial but, on the other hand, we’ll try to help funders work out how they can directly listen to communities where organisers have been working to hear if those communities would like to see that continue.
So, we’re looking at new approaches to communities challenging funders to fund things that don’t necessarily have specific outcomes. That’s hard but there’s a huge move in that direction from funders. There’s a huge interest in ‘how can we listen to communities more directly’ rather than just taking funding applications from community groups and those groups that are good at writing funding applications get funded. How do we listen to those communities that don’t sit down and write the funding applications? There’s a huge interest in that and if we can help to make that happen then it could be quite transformational for ordinary funding streams as well as government programmes.”
Are you thinking that this funding will come mainly from charitable grant funders or could it also potentially come from councils?
“Certainly but it’s about getting the model right. The no strings bit is very hard with local funders particularly so what we’re trying to do is begin to explore how that might work with larger funders who have quite broad aims – like the Big Lottery.
Once we get a model that works we can see whether councils would like to do something similar – to listen to communities who say ‘actually, this is really good for us, this organiser’. The other thing is that there is some evidence that organised, networked mobilised communities end up creating cashable savings because they end up doing so much more for themselves. That means that in theory at least that it might be helpful for councils to fund ongoing mobilisation, networking, organised communities but only if we can find a way that they’d do that without strings. That is extremely challenging at local level but it’s certainly something that we continue to explore.”
What happens in areas where it doesn’t work?
“It’s very much a learning programme so if it doesn’t work in particular areas we absolutely need to understand why it doesn’t work. We will learn at least as much from failures as we learn from successes, so we need to squeeze them dry for lessons.
(In some cases) it might be that it was successful but very self-contained and actually. Or it might be that it was so successful that it kicked off some major challenges and conflicts. So, it might be successful but in lots of different ways.
The idea, though, is that this is a one-off opportunity to create a new movement in community organising at scale, homegrown, across different types of places in England from dense inner cities to rural areas via every other type of place – so scale and diversity and national networking are the really crucial things about this programme.
The important thing we need to do is to make sure that there is some national stability and sustainability for the programme. In the government’s tender documents they talked about an Institute for Community Organising. It may well not have that name but we will certainly seek to create a legacy body for the programme that is owned by organisers themselves and that continues to promote the recruitment, training, support and ongoing accreditation of community organisers.
And that body will work with other organisations because while we’re working on a particular model there are other approaches and we want to learn from and collaborate with them.”
You mentioned the different approaches – from your tender bid your approach seems to be somewhere inbetween a more consensual approach or a more confrontational approach to organising, perhaps I’m slightly simplifying that. Is there a sense in which the organisers won’t look to get too focused on challenging government?
“There’s a range of axis on a spectrum, I suppose, but the one we specifically talk about in the bid is between Freire and Alinsky. It’s not fair to characterise Freire as consensual and Alinsky as challenging, though, because Freire is incredibly challenging but what he’s challenging is consciousness. (For him) it’s not just about haves and have nots, it’s raising critical consciousness, critical awareness – so that is actually fairly challenging in its own right, it’s just a different focus to the challenge.
So, I think we see ourselves as combining really important parts of both of those thinkers, along with another thinker called Santos De Morais. He was imprisoned with Paolo Freire. He takes this consciousness another stage to talk about entrepreneurial consciousness and economic literacy because in the end Freire was all about ‘the poor will become empowered through literacy which is based on consciousness’, Santos De Morais says the poor will become empowered through jobs and wealth – which they create themselves on the back of critical consciousness.
So, it’s about what you can create yourself, in an empowered way, not because some Business Link adviser tells you to but because you have become collaboratively conscious of the other people in your community who want to solve something together – you can solve it together.
And whether that is about building something, creating together, or whether it’s about marching on the town hall to change the powerful, the crucial thing is to do that effectively, to not waste people’s time in campaigns or business development that is going to be ineffective.”
End of Part One.
Questions in part two include: ‘Creating the programme was one of the government’s flagship Big Society promises, do you think that’s a help or a hindrance?’