Community organising suddenly came into vogue last summer with the ringing endorsement of the new government, announcing their backing for a programme of 5,000 community organisers.
But what is ‘community organising’? The intellectual heritage of the concept is complex – the US tradition of Saul Alinksy, more confrontational and disruptive, drawing on the power of citizens to pressurise those in power to change, is often contrasted with the thinking of Brazilian Paulo Freire, drawing on the latent strengths within communities.
A more contemporary framework is offered by Jim Diers, a seasoned and well-respected community organiser from Seattle who has worked outside and inside the local state, as a grass roots organiser and as director of neighbourhood services for the Seattle city administration.
Jim came to the Young Foundation last week and spoke inspiringly about what he has seen achieved in Seattle. He talked of the dual role he saw for the community organiser: to agitate for change against external institutions; and at the same time to work with communities to help them develop their assets and capabilities to develop confidence, capacity and their own solutions.
Jim Diers talks engagingly about an experience in a different country, a different political tradition, nearly 5,000 miles across the Atlantic. The question is how can this translate to the UK, against the backdrop of a drastic reduction in funding for community empowerment and involvement work and where, local areas up and down the country, people are becoming increasingly agitated and angry about the impact of public sector cuts on their communities and local services?
The UK experience of the last decade and more is of substantial government spending on different initiatives to involve, engage and empower communities, supporting local groups and local people to have a voice. But – critics say – sometimes it’s made little difference on the ground. The biggest dataset collected on the impact of empowerment was through the New Deal for Communities programme and Ipsos Mori analysts struggled to find significant quantifiable impact for this work.
As the formal institutional UK community sector disintegrates under the pressure of state disinvestment, and government tries to engage people through the Big Society vision, what is the relevance of community organising? Is the tradition of supporting citizens’ voices to campaign against abuses of power, while recognising the assets and resources of local communities, a better fit for harsher times? Especially when contrasted with the more consensual aims of the empowerment work of the last decade, where the local state, agencies and communities aimed to work together to resolve long standing problems.
On paper this would seem to work, the challenge is how, in practice and in more antagonistic times – working with a population often alienated from mainstream politics – a new tradition of activism can grow.
The Young Foundation, supported by the Big Lottery Fund, has begun a new two-year programme of work: Building Local Activism. We will work to support communities to develop their capability to instigate and sustain local activism in order to gain power and influence over the decisions that affect them.
Working in six areas across England, we will support individuals to come together and create lasting improvements in their communities by pressurising institutions, businesses and governments to act. Our work will develop new digital tools to help communities campaign and make their voice heard, and support three organisations working with a community organising model to grow and expand. We intend to report regularly on our progress.