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April 18, 2012

The home of community organizing

Back when Big Society was still a credible policy, one of its big ideas was to build a grassroots army of 5000 community organisers. The contract was awarded to Locality (sister organisation of DTAS) and over the past 18 months they have been working with host organisations across England to make this happen.  Programme Director, Jess Steele, has just returned from a study tour of those US cities where the principles of community organising were first founded. Her blog is worth a look.


The last two days of my trip (18/19th Nov) involved even more rushing around, but thankfully more of it on the brilliant El trains/subway rather than Shanks’ pony. 

First up, Phil Nyden at the Centre for Urban Research & Learning at Loyola University, one of those academics that makes you acutely grateful for education, for allowing people like him to be working collaboratively with communities like those I’ve glimpsed in Chicago. He’s even done some work back here I discovered – for our own Locality member, Birmingham Settlement, which was founded in 1899 in partnership with Chicago’s Association House

So we got talking and here are a few of my notes:

Why is the Government resourcing the Community Organisers programme? I try out Toby Blume’s theory that it’s to promote “creative disruption” to local vested interests, especially local authorities. Phil says Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s was a federal intervention aimed to deal with city political systems that were “ossified at best, more often corrupt”. Of course the cities didn’t like it and they closed it down. Those community organisers became heads of non-profits. There was a demographic shift as cities became majority black and a political shift as they elected their first black mayors. The economy was doing well but the cities were starved of resources. Federal government intervention and $$$ have made a difference. But the credibility of elected officials is now at its lowest ebb ever.

One of the important aspects of ABCD (asset based community development) is its focus on land, buildings and money (the things that power is made of). For as long as the community sector spends all its energies on direct service provision, on social support, and on mitigating the impacts of decisions about land, buildings and money, it will never have any power in the proceedings. The sector often does have ‘skin in the game’ but it always plays by someone else’s rules. For me, community organising is a way to make that ‘skin’ real – to bring the mandate to life through mobilising.

We talked about the common ground and differences between development trusts and community development corporations. This has come up over and over during the visit, although because I was focusing on community organising I didn’t explore it properly on the ground. From what I can tell, CDCs have a chequered history with highs and lows a bit too closely attached to mainstream politics and economics for my liking. I think that in general (and it’s a big generalisation) DTs are more independent, agile, community rooted, innovative, less able to rely on aldermen’s handouts or a widespread public programme. The common ground might be the focus on rebuilding the physical neighbourhood and making real gains in facilities and amenities, as part of a commitment to social and environmental justice.

But Phil says CDCs were riding high but never super-strong and many have collapsed. They were focused on affordable housing and understood how to do it in a rising market. What to do with no resources? In El Salvador “NGOs are doing stuff with virtually no resources, stretching super-minimal budgets”. How to tame gentrification? Set up the asset lock when the neighbourhood is down, then buy and build – not housing for the poor but housing people will want to stay in. CURL works on diverse, stable neighbourhoods. Phil says the lock-in has to be founded in organising as well as legal. How do you get the community organising to feel good enough that people will do it over and over – “every generation has to win it again. ”

What about settlement houses? Gentrification is an issue for them too. Should they stay in an area once the low-income people who need them most have been displaced? Provide mixed income services? Or sell and move to where the poor have gone? Association House moved, so did Hull-House. Others stay put and serve a wider catchment of low-income people throughout satellite services.

Just like everybody I met in the States, Phil gave me loads of contacts and resources – only his were sociology books and I feared I may be overweight! But the best thing he gave me was just two words – “grounded theory”. This is apparently a legitimate sociological approach in which “you go in as a trained sociologist [or a trained organiser] with no hypothesis, just a sense of what’s going on, and set out to discover.” All day that resonated. It seemed to fit with the wilful unpredictability of organising, the refusal to bring messages, the rejection of specified outcomes. We need to make this case to our foundations – the grounded theory of grant-making!

Other blogs from Jess Steele on the same trip :  Oodles of Inspiration   All kinds of walking   Generations of organizers  Last day in Chicago