Five Fantastic Lesson from Citizens UK’s Community Organiser Training

I don’t like training courses. And I like 6-day training courses even less.

You know how it goes. Icebreakers; people who talk too much; people who say nothing; worst-case scenario David Brent-style speakers.

Thankfully, Citizens UK had none of this. Perhaps I was lucky, but absolutely everyone — at least everyone in the 50 per cent of participants on the ‘track’ I ended up in — was brilliant. Because of this, and because of the calm, personal, insightful approach of the three organiser-trainers who stewarded us through our 6 days, I loved it. Here are five lessons I learned:

  1. It’s all about power.

Those of us who’re in the business of change know this, but at the centre of the Citizens methodology is power. In sweltering heat, on the opening evening of day one, our cohort tackled Thucydides’ Athenian-Melian dialogue — a history lesson in power politics.

For people committed to social justice, it comes as a shock to discover that our Melian behaviour means we often lose — with honour, perhaps, but we lose all the same because we don’t think enough about how to build power.

So rather than setting out to campaign for or against something, the opening proposition of the training is that we must build power first. And to build power, it’s important to understand self interest, which in most cases will mean the interests of organisations or institutions critical to change.

Self interest was the contentious bit. Our track spent some considerable time discussing and getting used to the concept. But to avoid annihilation or enslavement, the Melians needed to understand the self-interest of the Athenians and the Spartans and of other islands.

2. To build power we have to build relationships.

The central tool of the Citizens approach is the one-to-one meeting. Rather than focusing on the ‘what’ of change — the issues and the policies — the one-to-one focuses on the who and the why.

Citizens’ simple conceit — really the heart of what organisers do — is that to build power we need to get to know people and win their trust. So all of these one-to-one meetings begin with story-telling; the who and the why.

For instance, organisers will arrange one-to-one meetings with key people from institutions that are needed in an area or in relation to a campaign in order to build a relationship. In a transactional world, this building of relational power across institutions has a simple appeal. But it also works. It’s always worked; think Kipling’s Ballad of East and West.

3. Institutions matter. A lot.

We’re living in a political epoch that is defined by the decline of civic institutions. Unions, institutions of faith, community organisations and other organisations that helped people challenge power are, in many cases, isolated and in decline.

But the institutions of state — parliament, government departments, local authorities — are also scandalised and in decline, with the power of the market dominant.

This is dangerous. The Grenfell tragedy is a failure of state and community power, with regulations ignored or inadequate and people stigmatised and marginalised.

Building relationships across civic institutions to hold the power of the state and market to account isn’t new and it’s not the only way to win change, but it is an approach that will also build power over the longer term and not further denude often already beleaguered institutions.

4. Although challenges are large scale, we must start where people are

Another cornerstone of the Citizens methodology is listening in order to surface the issues that matter most to people.

To someone that’s spent the past 12 years working on campaigns related to climate change, this is challenging; large-scale problems demand large-scale solutions.

Extemporising slightly on the course itself, this is a false dichotomy. The focus of community organisers is necessarily at the grassroots; where people are. And the value of bringing people into the process of change is — as anyone who’s followed fracking campaigns in Lancashire will have seen — that it creates powerful advocates for change at scale as well as local change.

Structural inequality and environmental crisis are problems that demand a scale response, but unless we engage people in challenging power and winning change, we will either fail to win or fail to win sustainably.

There is no intrinsic reason why people’s experiences of these issue — writ small — should not form a fundamental and profound part of our response. And if we want governments and markets to change then our intelligence and the force of our arguments will not be enough. We will also need the power of people and, to win that, we have first to listen.

5. Creating leaders to carry change forward

I consider myself privileged to have spent a week in the company of my cohort of trainees. Every one was a leader in their own right and will take their experiences back to their institutions to help them build and grow and to become more effective.

By investing in forming and sustaining relationships with people in important, civic institutions, the Citizens model offers them an opportunity to develop their talents as a leader. This results in powerful outcomes.

On the Wednesday evening, we took part in a Nottingham Citizens event focussing on hate crime in the City — on the rise in the past year. More than one hundred people from dozens of mosques and churches, community groups and organisations took part and many brought powerful, personal stories of their own experience of hatred and violence.

It was no coincidence they felt able to share their stories; they’d been working with organisers for months beforehand. But their ability to do so lucidly and with purpose had a visible impact on those in power who were present — the deputy chief constable of Nottinghamshire, the Police and Crime Commissioner and the City Council — and leveraged their support for a more effective approach to stopping and punishing hate crime.

Community organising isn’t everything. And Citizens UK’s approach is not the only game in town. But it’s hard to fault it as a response to the over-bearing power of the market and the failure of the state.

That’s not to say it replaces either. But in the shadow of four decades of neo-liberalism and in the knowledge that government rarely acts benignly in the interests of people without power, building relationships for change across civic institutions and promoting empowered leadership is a cornerstone of change.

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