Framework sections highlighted: Organise, Power, Strategy

People’s Assemblies are spicing up local democracy in Luton

Community Organisers’ Social Action Hub Marsh Farm Outreach are shaking up local democracy in Luton with the development of ‘People’s Assemblies’, harnessing the creative energy and talent of the Marsh Farm estate community to create a collective decision-making space that people will actually enjoy being part of.

Glenn Jenkins, Marsh Farm Outreach community organiser, explained the rationale behind the People’s Assemblies:
“The whole idea of the Community Organisers programme is to enable a shift away from dependency on old politics with service providers and boring meetings – the old non-engaged model – towards one where residents, people who live in communities, have agency to act because they’re organised effectively, and so are able to engage in the democratic process effectively. People’s Assemblies are a mechanism through which this shift can take place.”

Marsh Farm Outreach are planning to hold People’s Assemblies quarterly, with the first one in April 2020. The Assemblies are intended to be a space where people from the local community will come together to make decisions on the allocation of grant funding for the area, provide a forum to scrutinise local service providers such as the police, and enjoy and participate in arts and cultural activities as an integral part of the democratic experience.

The development of the People’s Assemblies is being steered by two overlapping groups. One is a core team of community organisers, who are recruiting and training ‘street mobilisers’ – local people who are responsible for encouraging their neighbours to attend the Assemblies. So far, 18 local people from 9 different streets on the Marsh Farm estate have taken part in the Introduction to Community Organising one day training course which has provided them with the initial skills needed to carry out this role.

The other group is a team of ‘artivists’, headed by Luton’s Arts Council funded Creative People and Places project, Revoluton Arts, and consisting of a range of different groups and individuals who are using their talents in performance, music, visual art, and more to add some ‘spice’ to local democracy. The team includes a diverse mix of around 45 creatives and performers including rappers Life and Phi, who have previously performed on the Brit Awards, and X Factor contestants Voices With Soul, as well as a wealth of up and coming talent from the local community of young people.

Important decisions affecting our community, our children, our schools, the services we use and our quality of life generally shouldn’t just be left to be made by officials who don’t know what it’s like to actually live here.

Though many of the team are no strangers to the competitive nature of the entertainment business, the artivists’ process for planning the People’s Assemblies favours a more co-operative approach, where the budget is shared and managed collectively.

“It’s definitely got a buzz going,” Rob Goodwin, a community organiser with Marsh Farm Outreach, explained. “And they’re not doing it just to promote their music or because they want to have a party, they’re doing it because they understand why it’s important to have that cultural element in this process.”

The first People’s Assembly event is scheduled for March 2020, and the aim is to turn following Assembly, in July, into a community festival. Organisers from Marsh Farm Outreach expect that their strategic combination of community organising techniques and creativity will serve to create a space where people can exercise power collectively in a way that feels vibrant and enjoyable, as Glenn explains:

“It’s gonna be something where you don’t want to miss it, rather than something you wouldn’t dream of going to.”

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