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April 6, 2011

Paxman pokes fun at Big Society

The organisation with the job of training ‘an army of 5000 community organisers’ in England is Locality (formally DTA and bassac). For an organisation that only came into existence a week ago, pulling this off will be no mean feat. It’s very high profile and the keen media interest only adds to the pressure. Jeremy Paxman probably didn’t help last week with a somewhat facetious piece on Newsnight (starts 18.10 mins). Keep it local and keep it simple seems to be the message from this community organiser

Marie Osborne, Guardian Professional - The truth about being a community organiser

We’ve heard a lot in recent weeks about the “big society” from politicians and commentators, but what is it really like to be a “community organiser” in an ordinary place in middle England? And what sort of support should Locality – just awarded the £15 million big society contract- be giving to the army of 5,000 professional community organisers?

I have been working for the past 11 years as an unpaid community organiser in Wolverton, a small town now part of Milton Keynes. I am not unique – every community has people who do a huge amount of this kind of work unsupported and unpaid. Where I do differ is that, before I had a family, I did much the same work as I do now as a paid job, so I have a pretty good idea of what I am doing. I should start by saying that the lot of a volunteer community organiser is not an easy one.

Once people know you for this, it becomes your brand. You’re viewed as a resource – a free resource, for others who, bizarrely, often think you are paid for what you do. The practicalities of everyday living become complicated. For example, going to the post office has often taken me over an hour because I’ve been answering questions from people who see me as kind of walking Citizens Advice Bureau. The school gate can be a minefield of questions and queries. Everything going on in the area feels like it leads back to you. And this is where it gets tricky, because when you start to take responsibility and lead on projects it starts to take over your life and you begin to wonder why.

There actually isn’t a natural support network to draw upon. You can end up feeling a bit used-up and isolated. Much of what you do as an organiser is emotionally draining. After a while, you can feel jaded about things that before felt tolerable: local councillors for not taking on issues which you have identified as important; local authority officers who assume you will do all the “community consultation” elements of a project; paid community development workers who seem to do a lot less than you.

It can, if you’re not careful, burn you out very quickly. So how can it be made better? And will the Coalition’s efforts to support us actually work? Under the planned model of community organising, professional community organisers will be trained with the skills they need to identify local community leaders, bring communities together, helping people in neighbourhoods take control and tackle their problems.

While I feel I will know much of what might be shared in such “training”, having a support mechanism can’t help but be useful. To be invested in will be recognition of sorts. Indeed, I am privately hoping that the skills and expertise of people like me – who have been doing award-winning community work for years – will be put to use to help others learn. Who knows, I might even get paid! In my own case, I couldn’t personally wait for the Government to come along to help me. For the past year I have attended the School for Social Entrepreneurs Action Learning programme.

Through the programme I have been able to see the value in what I do, and to consider how I turn myself from simply a community organiser into a social entrepreneur. What’s the difference? In short, a social entrepreneur goes beyond merely pulling the community together to get things done.

They also do things off their own back, working alone if necessary, against the grain if that’s what’s required. They can and do work with others, but they are also creative, visionary and ambitious, even when those around them aren’t. That, in my view, is how we need to view community organisers – not just as ‘good eggs’ and ‘uniters’ within their localities, but social entrepreneurs who are invested in and have small (very small) amounts of financial resource to deploy around them in order to make thing happen.

We need to trust community organisers, give them status and micro-budgets to get things moving. A vision of community organisers based on the village fete is out-dated and irrelevant. We need proactive people who get things done – and can operate whether the community is willing and able or not. What I, and many of the social entrepreneurs I have met in the last year want, is to be believed and trusted as individuals with a passion to make change happen in their neighbourhoods.
It’s not just mass action that matters but individual action too. That is what I hope is to be the legacy of the big society.
Marie Osborne is a community organiser.