Guest Article: Building on the foundations of Community Power

Lessons from the Community Organising Pilot with the Warm Welcome Campaign

Martha Mackenzie
Civic Power Fund

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An image of David standing in front of a river and Marzena standing in front of a hedge. Both are smiling and in work clothes.

By Marzena Cichon — Balcerowicz, The Centre for Theology and Community (CTC) Community Organising Lead for the Warm Welcome Campaign and David Barclay, Good Faith Partnership

Background

The Warm Welcome campaign was developed in autumn of 2022 as a response to the cost-of-living crisis and a need for spaces where people can come together with their neighbours and save on their utility bills.

During the pandemic, all across the country we saw the proliferation of the mutual aid groups and many faith institutions and community organisations were at the forefront of the community support.

As the pandemic ended, some groups ceased to exist but the others returned to their original mission or turned into community spaces. The Warm Welcome campaign gave a special boost to more than 4000 of such spaces across the country, bringing people together to keep warm but also to build relationships and a sense of belonging.

In early 2023 five organisations in Bristol, Birmingham, North Wales and North and East London took part in a listening campaign across warm spaces within their networks. This was supported by the Good Faith Partnership and the Civic Power Fund, with funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trust for London.

Together, we worked with Act Build Change, Centre for Theology and Community, Citizens UK, Thrive Together and Together Creating Communities to identify the potential of warm spaces to organise communities and boost democratic engagement, developing people’s agency to act on issues that they or their communities care about.

All five areas operated within different context and with a varied experience and expertise of organising, yet overall the results of the listening process showed a great potential of turning warm spaces into pockets of power which can develop people’s skills and capacity for action and participation in democratic processes.

We captured these lessons here.

A community organising pilot was then developed in East London, with the Centre for Theology and Community as the lead organiser in partnership with Citizens UK.

The main aims of the pilot programme were to test and showcase how community organising can be utilised to:

  • strengthen warm spaces internally and provide a more inclusive and relevant service for their guests;
  • develop local clusters of warm spaces with a common agenda in relation to local authorities and other power holders;
  • engage warm space hosts, volunteers and guests in developing a hyperlocal neighbourhood action;
  • act on systemic issues affecting warm space guests and their hosts and connect with strategic regional or national campaigns to boost collective power and agency;
  • develop leaders and boost democratic engagement through training and mentoring — in East London and in connection with the wider warm welcome network
  • develop relationships with the warm welcome partners that use community organising in their campaigns, including Friends of the Earth, Trussell Trust and the New Economics Foundation.
An image of about ten guests, predominantly South Asian heritage but of all ages, stretching together in a library.
Warm Welcome guests at East Ham Library and Community Centre take part in Red January for a fun exercise session to get everyone moving

Project Highlights

Support from the Good Faith Partnership and strategic funding from the Civic Power Fund and Trust for London have enabled us to:

  • Work across three East London boroughs — Waltham Forest, where we worked directly with 9 warm spaces, Newham where we engaged 2 warm spaces in deep work and built relationships with 7 local warm spaces, and Hackney where we developed deep work in 2 warm spaces and connected with 5 other spaces.
  • Use community organising tools for community building to strengthen relationships within the warm spaces and their immediate neighbourhood. As part of this, we ran storytelling and listening sessions to better understand the needs of space guests.

St Martin’s church in Plaistow — moving from a transactional to a relational space

St Martin’s church is home to 3 congregations — an English speaking one, a Spanish speaking one and a Portuguese speaking one — bringing together Christians from Latin America, Spain and Portugal and Afro-Caribbean countries. It is located in the middle of a very diverse neighbourhood, which is predominantly Muslim.

During the pandemic the church opened a food bank with the support from the local council to serve the needs of the local community. However, after the pandemic despite the ongoing need, the food bank wasn’t able to secure enough donations and the number of people coming for help dwindled.

From October 2023, a Centre for Theology and Community (CTC) community organiser and an intern conducted a series of one-to-one meetings within the church and its neighbours to better understand the needs and expectations of the local community. In December a parish-wide meeting brought together over 30 people who collectively decided to close the food bank and open a warm space with a food pantry.

They recruited a team of volunteers trained in conducting one-to-ones and active listening to run the space. They built a relationship with a warm space from St Barnabas parish to draw on their experience of running a successful food pantry and reached out to other local institutions and organisations to build relationships.

As a result, the church opened a new warm space with a food pantry open to all people with no special referral. Marla, an asylum-seeking single mum from Ecuador who used the food bank in the past, has now become one of the key leaders running the warm space and building relationships with the wider community.

In February an idea to bring local women to celebrate an International Women’s Day was developed and St Martins church invited Newham Muslim Forum who run a warm space at Westfield shopping centre and the Shpresa Programme, an Albanian organisation to join the celebration. Nearly a hundred diverse women, who had never met before, came together to hear each other stories, celebrate their role in the community and build trust. As a result, a team of women are meeting now to engage in conversation with the Newham council over their plans to close a local leisure centre.

  • Develop clusters of active warm spaces in Waltham Forest. 9 spaces met together and developed an agenda they are currently negotiating with their council, including support with more sustainable funding, upskilling of warm space volunteers and a Just Transition campaign to include community spaces in the council retrofit strategy. In Newham, 6 warm spaces are meeting on 22nd May and in Hackney we are planning a meeting in early Summer.
  • Support warm spaces hosts and guests to organise a neighbourhood action on the issue they care about. A warm space in Leytonstone organised a small-scale local action to bring young people and the community together to talk about safety. In Hackney, a team of leaders from three warm spaces built relationships with local businesses to help secure jobs for warm space guests who recently got their refugee status and want to make Hackney their home. They are planning a public action to build more support for local jobs for local refugees. In another part of Hackney, warm space guests are campaigning for accessible toilets in a local park.

Foodshare and warm space guests and volunteers leading on a local safety campaign

Holy Trinity church is Leytonstone is located in the Cathall Ward which belongs to one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in East London. The area has suffered years of institutional and financial neglect and there is a general sense of a lack of opportunity. Yet, for the last few years the small church in between two housing estates has been buzzing with activity.

Rev Polly revived the church’s food bank recruiting new volunteers and engaged them in 121 conversations with people from their community who said they need a safe space to meet and chat with other people. A new food share with a warm space was set up and it now serves over 60 people each week.

One of the local concerns identified during the listening was safety and a lack of adequate lightning to lit the Pavilion building in a local park which stopped young people from attending youth club sessions. The team of church leaders, warm space guests and other local organisations gathered over 500 signatures for a petition to the Leader of the Waltham Forest Council asking for more lights in the area.

Dissatisfied with a lack of positive response from the council the team decided to organise a Christmas 100 Lanterns campaign. Kids from local primary schools, young people and warm space guests made over a hundred colourful paper lanterns. Nearly 60 people from a local neighbourhood gathered together to sing carols and walk with lights and lanterns to highland the areas of South Laytonstone that need more adequate lighting.

As a result, a new light was installed above the Pavilion building and the team continues to secure more lights in other areas.

An image of six guests sitting around a table drinking coffee. The venue is a church and two obvious religious actors are part of the group.
People enjoy the Warm Welcome Space at Holy Trinity Church, Leytonstone
  • Support warm spaces in Waltham Forest to develop a public action in solidarity with hundreds of asylum seekers facing immediate eviction from a local hotel, connecting a local issue to the strategic migration campaign of Citizens UK.

Warm Spaces in solidarity with asylum seekers and challenging accommodation provider

Warm spaces in Waltham Forest became friends and supporters of asylum seekers living in a nearby hotel. Many of the hotel residents used warm spaces at St Barnabas church, Cornerstone church, St Mary’s church and Hornbeam Café to help them with food poverty but most importantly to help them build links with a local community.

Warm spaces offered a safe and welcoming space where asylum seekers could come together to cook meals, learn English and get support for their children through a homework club. Some of the warm space guests became volunteers at warm spaces, kids started thriving at schools and many felt a sense of belonging they lacked for a long time.

Therefore when 400 residents of a local hotel received eviction letters with less than a week’s notice, the local community got organised to support them. Warm spaces were at the forefront of that support. PL84U organisation did a call out for spare luggage people could use to pack their bags. Hornbeam together with local migrant support groups organised legal support to challenge evictions.

Citizens UK together with CTC brought warm space leaders together for an online emergency meeting who collectively decided to run a public action to challenge Clearsprings Ready Homes, the company managing the hotel. Over a hundred people from warm spaces, local primary schools and community organisations came together two days later outside the hotel to show solidarity with asylum seekers and to challenge the accommodation provider. The Warm Welcome campaign helped warm spaces secure coverage on BBC News and ITV and other press and media outlets.

Thanks to these concerted efforts, evictions were delayed giving residents more time to prepare and all people were placed within London and many are still commuting to their warm spaces. Following the action, CUK organisers working with warm spaces developed a toolkit for other areas which may face similar challenges.

Asylum seekers met through warm spaces have been part of the CUK Free Bus Campaign calling on the GLA to scrap bus fares for asylum seekers and Sadiq Khan has recently agreed to meet with a team of campaigners to discuss how this can become a reality.

Waltham Forest action also inspired warm spaces in Newham to build closer relationships with asylum seekers placed in hotels in and around Custom House.

  • Provide training and mentoring for grassroots leaders involved with warm spaces in East London and with the wider Warm Welcome network. In East London, 7 warm space volunteers took part in the Leadership for Effective Change training run by Centre for Theology and Community. 5 people took part in the Listen and Lead training, also run by Centre for Theology and Community, and Citizens UK are planning localized training for warm space volunteers and guests in early July. We also developed 3 online sessions followed with drop-in sessions covering key community organising tools and concepts and included leaders in the design and delivery of the sessions and accompanying handouts. We reached over 100 people through live training and nearly 200 people accessed recorded sessions available on the Warm Welcome website.
  • Develop new grassroots leaders. Warm spaces offer an opportunity to identify new leaders from all socio-economic backgrounds and get them involved in the community organising work and develop new skills including public speaking, planning and chairing meetings, speaking to the media and local politicians.

Nora — a warm space as a place that develops and nurtures new leaders

Nora has been part of St Barnabas church for over twenty years and last year participated in the community organising training which inspired her to think about her leadership role in her church. Through listening sessions at the church Nora identified a need for a warm space, for people to relax, cook food and do homework.

She also conducted key one-to-one conversations to develop deeper relationships and identify new leaders for support with a warm space to build her volunteer base. Nora applied for grant funding to convert an old dilapidated church building into a community centre.

She successfully received the grant and took the project on to coordinate the renovation and opening. Particularly impressive evidence of Nora’s development is the relationships built with other local organisations, such as the Hornbeam community cafe and HEET.

Hornbeam helped Stafford Hall set up a food share and food coop and HEET have run energy bills support sessions for people struggling with their bills. She has also identified who can support her with the running of the warm space, such as Grace, Ronnie and Shafraz who are now running community activity and were at the forefront of asylum action.

This is a strong marker of a leader, someone who can identify and develop other people into positions of leadership. Working within the warm space helped her to grow her confidence to speak about her own experience of being a Filipino migrant and she gave an interview to a local press and BBC radio about her engagement with asylum seekers in Waltham Forest.

  • Develop a learning community of organisers involved with warm spaces. Centre for Theology and Community took on a leading role on the project and the Lead organiser overseeing the project has run monthly meetings for all the organisers involved to provide space for developing and reviewing our strategy, accountability as well as co-design and co-production of training content.

Key lessons from the Pilot Project

  1. Developing a community of care is a prerequisite to developing a community of action: warm spaces offer a safe and welcoming space for people who may not be able or confident to access other places where people come together. In the areas strongly affected by the cost-of-living crisis, this became particularly important as meeting people’s immediate self-interest of staying warm and fed led to new relationships being developed with people sharing similar experiences in a place that was non-judgemental and treated people with dignity and care. A sense of belonging leads to increased confidence and coupled with an organiser input, creates a ripple effect where people want to be part of a team that aims to bring people together around a collective self-interest and can lead to action and increased democratic engagement. This process is slow and requires strategic patience, which weaves together charity expressed by care and justice expressed by action.
  2. Warm spaces are uniquely placed to bring people from different socio-economic backgrounds together and boost democratic engagement: community and faith organisations are intentional about doing deep relational work with guests who show up each week to the warm space. By offering warmth and hospitality in addition to food, advice or other activities, warm spaces offer a neutral space for people to interact together and hear each other stories and learn from one another. The relational rather than transactional nature of warm spaces brings a more equal power dynamic which means that people are more inclined to act in solidarity and exercise their agency to effect change and engagement in democratic processes. As a national network of thousands of these spaces, Warm Welcome has the potential to be a unique platform to test and learn on different approaches to enhancing people power across the UK.
  3. The Warm Welcome Campaign enables movement building: community spaces are run by institutions and organisations of all types and sizes and by bringing different partners together we were able to tap into the Centre for Theology (CTC) and Community and Citizens UK’s (CUK) networks and distinct expertise. CTC works mainly with churches of various denominations and has a wide network of small scale ethnic and community organisations through its Near Neighbours programme. CUK work with their member organisations that pay membership dues to access organiser time and be part of CUK strategic campaigns. Joint work in warm spaces brings fruitful collaboration widening the scope, depth and impact of both organisations. Similar models could be developed with other organising partners in other areas.
  4. The role of existing networks and experienced organisers: This work has been possible thanks to a proven track record of partner organisations creating both hyperlocal and systemic change in East London and beyond. From the outset our strategy was to match our existing networks with the expertise of experienced community organisers who were intentional about developing slow and patient work within warm spaces and are able to connect the hyper-local work with the bigger picture. We hope that as our work develops, we will be able to bring more leaders with lived experience into system change campaigns on a regional and national level.
  5. Warm spaces and the Warm Welcome Campaign can become a vehicle for developing welcoming communities for newcomers: warm spaces share values of connection, hospitality and fairness and the example of work developed in Waltham Forest around asylum seekers showed us that warm spaces play a key role in extending their welcome beyond their walls. People who host, volunteers and guests at warm spaces not only ‘do the welcome’ but also create a welcoming counter-narrative to the hostile and unwelcoming rhetoric of some politicians and media outlets. The role of warm spaces to welcome new arrivals to the UK and help individuals and families settle can be expanded and linked with strategic campaigns related to migration, jobs for refugees and housing.
  6. The importance of ‘people before programme’ maxim leading to action: organising within warm spaces creates a unique opportunity to bring the voices and develop agency of people who are affected by the cost-of-living crisis and other issues. While the relational and caring nature of warm spaces offer a big value in itself, community organising offers additional value helping people to tackle some of the root causes of issues they are facing. A lack of action coupled with a lack of resources in some warm spaces may in time lead to a greater sense of frustration and powerlessness among people who have already been marginalised. On the other hand, asking people to join existing programmes and campaigns without connecting to their personal and often very local experience brings risks of ‘plugging people in’. Warm spaces working in clusters together and in connection with the wider Warm Welcome campaign means that systemic change can happen on different levels.
  7. Hyper-local organising in warm spaces builds community resilience and strengthens organised alliances: organising in warm spaces can lead to action within and beyond a warm space or local neighbourhood and the expertise brought by an experienced community organiser and the wider alliance can inspire people to join organising efforts. In equal measure, bringing warm spaces into existing networks and alliances increases their outreach within the most impacted communities and as a result strengthens their credibility and impact.
  8. Organising within warm spaces is not seasonal: the importance of creating communities of care is reflected in the fact that most community spaces originally set up as warm spaces continue to operate beyond winter season. With the Warm Welcome Campaign shifting its focus from the seasonal nature of the campaign to a call for more sustainable, thriving and inclusive community spaces chimes well with the deep and consistent work of hyperlocal organising.

Moving forwrd

After two successful winter campaigns, Warm Welcome has undergone a process of strategic review, leading to the publication in early June 2024 of a new 5 year strategy.

This strategy will seek to build on the extraordinary success of the campaign to date, broadening out the scope and vision of the work beyond an exclusive seasonal approach and with an overarching aim to give everyone in the UK easy access to thriving, sustainable and inclusive community spaces (currently 62% of the UK population are within a 30-min walk of a warm space).

Our ambition is for community organising to be at the heart of this new strategy. We’re clear of the enormous potential of this work and with the funding for this pilot almost at an end, we are now seeking to embed core funding for community organising into the Warm Welcome Campaign.

This would not only enable us to build on the deep work already underway, it would also allow us to expand this pilot into other carefully selected areas.

We aim to focus our efforts on:

  • Strengthening collaboration between ‘warm spaces clusters’ and supporting their efforts to develop and act on a common agenda
  • Developing more localised and bespoke training for warm space guests and volunteers
  • Strengthening and connecting work supporting asylum seekers and refugees and developing welcoming communities
  • Continuing to listen to identify issues for hyperlocal neighbourhood actions and where possible connect them with regional and national campaigns of partners organisations including Citizens, Trussell Trust and others
  • Continuing to explore the potential for Warm Welcome Spaces to support and boost democratic engagement
  • Strengthening our relationship with organising groups across the country, providing mutual learning and support to make this nationwide.
An image of two children, one about 7 and one about 4. The four year old is wrapped around the seven year old and holding toys. Both are smiling.
Children enjoy the Warm Welcome Space which is a safe haven fo refugees and asylum seekers across Gateshead

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Martha Mackenzie
Civic Power Fund

Martha Mackenzie is the Executive Director of the Civic Power Fund, a new pooled donor fund investing in community organising.