It’s not enough to be right, you have to be powerful
Tom Chigbo is a Community Organiser with Leeds Citizens. He was also the first black president of Cambridge University Students’ Union. I interviewed him a few years back and realised I’d never published the interview. So here it is, along with a short profile video of him.
I should give proper credit for the title of this post. It’s a quote from Jess Steele OBE, a brilliant community organiser and long time friend of Year Here. To me, it’s the underpinning principle of community organising and it’s the foundation of Tom’s story too.
With accolades like being named Rare Recruitment’s Number 1 Black Student, why did you choose to do something that was fairly under the radar and not particularly prestigious or glamorous?
When I was [Students’ Union] president at Cambridge I developed a love for politics and I was learning a lot about how you make deals and negotiate. I also experienced a lot of unsuccessful campaigning. I was president at the time the Browne Review [of Higher Education funding] was reporting, so we did a lot of work to encourage politicians not to increase tuition fees.
How can you have 50,000 people — the biggest student demonstration in a generation — happen and then nothing change? How can you have people that literally spent two years convincing their friends to care about something and to take possibly their first ever public action and then see that result in nothing? That was tough to swallow.
We got Nick Clegg to sign that bleeding pledge. I was disappointed and angry.
I was thinking a lot about why we lost and I was looking for something more effective.
And you found community organising?
Yes, at the same time as we were doing those campaigns and losing I was watching London Citizens UK take action on the living wage. They seemed to be of much more modest means and it wasn’t an old national political network like the NUS, which I was part of. It was something much more humble. It was, as far as I could tell, a bunch of churches and mosques. They handled themselves completely differently — and they were winning.
I remember going to an assembly in 2009. It was with Boris Johnson and was about a citizens’ response to the economic crisis. I was shocked at what I saw: the room was packed, there were 2,500 people there. I had been organising political meetings where getting people to come was like pulling teeth! The room was also really diverse, people from all faiths, all backgrounds, all colours. There were young people in the audience, I thought that was weird! Boris gave a great speech and turned to leave the stage. But the chairwoman wouldn’t let him. She said ‘I want you to tell us really clearly when exactly we are going to see progress on this issue’. I was expecting Boris to just storm off. I was thinking you don’t treat someone with power like that and get away with it! But Boris just said ‘OK, this is what I’m going to do.’ He complied with what they asked for and said he really enjoyed his relationship with them and congratulated them on their work.
At the same time, I knew other people that were going into more traditional political work for parties or think tanks and their jobs were basically writing things. They spend hardly any time talking to people. It just seemed divorced from people’s actual experiences.
Community organising seemed to offer something a bit different.
Is there anything in your background that could have predicted you would achieve so much by the age of 26?
My family is Nigerian; my father was a broadcaster and eventually a state politician. So as a kid politics was important and it was on the telly.
I knew far too much when I was very young — I remember when I was five or six we were being shown photographs of public figures in class. It got to Margaret Thatcher and I remember thinking it was really obvious that it was Margaret Thatcher, and thinking it was really weird that no one else knew that! I now look back on that and think: that was not quite right.
Education was a big part of our family culture. The reason my Dad got access to those sorts of jobs in Nigeria was because someone had paid for him to come to Scotland to get a diploma in drama. My mother was able to come here to study at Kent University. They felt like they owed everything to education and that you were blessed to be born in this country where you can have a free education and therefore you use it and work hard.
When I was 11, my father died and that was a big shock to my family. It was very difficult for my mum and she became quite ill. She struggled to look after me and my younger brother and sister. We were living in council housing, she was out of work a lot and we were living on benefits. Statistically with all of that I ought not to have done that well.
When things were really difficult for our family financially, church, school and community wrapped themselves around us and shepherded us through those difficult 7–8 years. There were people that would make sure that I had an after-school club to go to every night. One day, we went to church by bus and came back by car because some people had raised some money to give my Mum a car. It meant that by the time I was 18 I was still in school, doing really well and enjoying it.
Were you conscious of unfairness or inequality growing up?
There were a couple of incidents as a teenager that taught me about justice, the one that really springs to mind is when we got flooded. The house we lived in was on an estate where the housing wasn’t maintained that well. One winter the area overflowed, water came into our living room. It gradually got worse and the carpet would stink and there was mould on the walls. Eventually I went with my Mum to Camden Council to talk about it and I remember thinking ‘Right, this is where they will sort it out. They are going to bring a man over who will fix it’. We got there and, at first, had to wait for ages. My Mum told them what happened and then no one came to fix it. She had to justify herself and explain that it wasn’t her fault and that she was managing the property. I thought ‘Wow, this is weird’.
We went back home and nothing happened, we just kept putting newspaper on the carpet. Eventually it got ridiculous so the council moved us into temporary accommodation in Palmers Green. That was really disruptive and really annoying but at least we had somewhere to stay. We moved back in in the spring but then it happened again the following year. The same problem! They obviously hadn’t fixed the drain. We got packed up and moved out to Enfield. It was my GCSE year and I remember it made me really unhappy for quite a long time.
What a horrendous experience. That must have made you pretty angry.
I remember thinking my Mum had been in the right and that she was polite and had followed all the rules but still two years in a row we get carted off to temporary accommodation and the council don’t respond in the way they ought to. Being right or being good isn’t enough to get justice. That has encouraged me to be curious about what the best methods for getting justice are. If you are supposed to go to the council office to report your housing needs and that doesn’t work, there must be another way that you can do it.
Ultimately it is about respect. The council didn’t respect my mum and take what she was saying seriously. It’s not to say they were horrible people but something about the way they were run meant that they would rather wait until our house properly got flooded and pay for us to be moved across London than take it seriously at the beginning. That shaped a lot of my beliefs and a lot of my politics.
It also feeds into community organising, because we are training people and organisations to be able to gather enough power to change what they want. That sometimes requires bending the rules or not just resting on being right.