New forms of collective action are emerging in the UK. With growing frequency people are taking to the streets to defend the rights of citizens against outside forces; this trend is unfolding alongside an increasing and often jarring rhetoric of devolution and localism. People’s lived experience see that most citizen campaigns are concentrated in looking outside their communities for solutions, or fending off external problems, while agencies and organisations, often quite remote from community life, are telling local residents they will now have to solve their own problems. As a consequence, all too often, local people are left to try to deal with on-going social and political issues such as poverty by ensuring some external cavalry saves them (an outside in strategy), either by getting an unwilling agency to change, or by getting a benevolent agency to fund a predefined programme that has been externally constructed.
Programmes are artificial constructs that enable the dance between funders and agencies. Programmes do not change lives, people do, and for that change to endure it must come grassroots up and be community-driven. How can we possibly encourage low-income communities to believe they are the primary inventors of a better future, and that the role of the public sector is to support their invention, not demean or replace it, when what they actually experience from external agencies is top-down pre-defined outcomes and interventions?
The major challenge facing communities across the UK is social fragmentation, at the heart of this challenge at a local level is the question: “how can we build inclusive local communities that in turn mobilise the people and assets towards vibrant community life, while also holding external forces to account?” At national level the question is how can we transition from a Government-centric democracy towards a more citizen centred one?
In short in campaign language we might say, as well as occupying Wall Street, we must occupy our street.
The struggle towards an equal society then is a two-fisted fight. On the one hand we need to ensure that external actors do not harm our communities. On the other hand, we (local residents) need to ensure we discover, connect and mobilise our internal resources to improve our lives with our neighbours. To paraphrase John McKnight, to do one without the other is like fighting with one arm tied behind your back. These ideas come from what we have learnt from thousands of citizens and hundreds of Community Organisers and Community Builders in England and Wales.
Over the last five years in the UK we have noticed a distinct trend emerging in the practice of savvy Community Organisers and Community Builders. A ‘blended practice’ is emerging: theories of people such as Paulo Friere, Saul Alinsky, John McKnight, and Jody Kretzmann are being interchanged to fit the given situation and local context; and the techniques of each one of them are present daily in community life. It feels as if practitioners are using all these theories and approaches to support the local residents they serve to define their own priorities, and then figure out and implement the solutions that fit for those local residents.
We believe that the reason for this is that community organising and community building practitioners are operating out of a set of values and beliefs, summed up in the following five shared principles:
- That they are primarily accountable to local residents, and that that matters more than a commitment to one approach/model or another.
- Those citizens must be the ones leading the change. Paid practitioners are there to support citizen-led invention not replace it.
- That the work of practitioners will continue to be unpredictable, non-linear, and all the richer precisely because of its emergent nature.
- That when looking for a solution, context is key. There is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ solution.
- Those in learning and participatory relationships with active citizens, and those who have been pushed to the margins, can trust their instincts and choose which approaches works best in any given situation.
We have also noticed that an increasing number of practitioners have veered away from an exclusive focus on what’s wrong in communities as their starting point. While never ignoring difficulties, they are clearly working with communities to help them figure out how they can use what is strong and unique to their communities, to address what is wrong, what is known as ABCD – Asset-Based Community Development.
We are delighted to announce that both these movements (community organising and ABCD community building) will be exploring various ways of collaborating, including the potential of a joint Community Organising & Community Building Accredited Training offer.
In Part Two we’ll be exploring why we believe that, unless community organising and ABCD community building are supported at a grassroots level, all the rhetoric of localism, co-production, and ‘Communities First’ will fall flat on its face …and poverty and inequality will increase.
Follow these links for great examples of citizen-led action, that reflects what happens when we make visible all the invisible assets that are already present in local communities – community organising and ABCD community building