By Neil Grant
What did you get up to in the summer? The inevitable question we all get asked at some point. Where did you go? Who did you see? What did you do?
Well, I know my answer so far. For the month of July, I occupied myself by having coffee with total strangers.
This was not without reason, I hasten to add! I spent the month of July doing an internship in St. Mary’s Church, Walthamstow. This was run by an outfit called the Centre for Theology and Community. And I was here to learn about the slow, respectful work of organising.
Organising is a hard concept to pin down. It resists being defined neatly, pinned down in mere words. In that sense, it’s quite like faith. It’s deeply experiential – it must be lived to be understood. Having experienced only four weeks of organising, I know I have a lot more to learn. But here are two things that I’ve taken away from the internship.
The world of organising has a very clear vocabulary. At first this seems exclusive and ‘clique-y’. But the vocabulary has been chosen intentionally and carefully. It’s incredibly important – because the language we use shapes the world we can create.
In organising – we talk about the tension between ‘the world as it is’ and ‘the world as it should be’. And as humans, we exist in tension between these spaces.
And it is vital for our humanity that we do this. If we focus only on the world as it is, we will become despondent. We refuse to acknowledge the possibility of change, and risk becoming cynics.
Yet if we focus only on the world as it should be, we risk adopting a fragile and naïve idealism that will fracture on first contact with the gritty reality around us.
The reality is that change is possible. As a Christian, I believe that God is ‘making all things new’. Hope is not irrational!
But that world will emerge when we engage with the world as it is. The organiser can only live and work within their context. They must therefore live in a tension between these two worlds, in a creative, hopeful, pragmatism.
Reflection is essential to organising. During my internship, I was involved in a power analysis of the borough of Waltham Forest. I began to tease out the relationships between individuals and institutions that determines the balance of power in Walthamstow.
Now much of that information is relational, and so can only be gathered from a meeting with a person. The internet can only get you so far! And so, I found myself having coffees with total strangers for a month. These conversations resulted in a vast amount of lived experience being shared. Lived experience that demands reflection.
On days when I did give time to digest these conversations, I was able to convert them from a stream of ‘happenings’ to an ‘experience’, to borrow American organiser Saul Alinsky’s phrasing. Then I achieved some measure of clarity, and was better able to see ‘the world as it is’.
On days when I failed to do this, I was left with an unprocessed mass of happenings. Unwieldy and confusing – I felt bogged down and the true picture of my context was clouded.
Reflection. Rest. Slowing down. All these actions, that I am so tempted to write off as passive, are crucial to effective action.
These are just two things I took away from my month in Walthamstow. My journey with organising is certainly not over. Wherever my life takes me, I will seek to apply the principles of community organising to help my Church transform its community. I’m deeply grateful to St Mary’s, Citizens UK and the Centre for Theology and Community for providing me with this opportunity.
Neil Grant is studying for an MPhil in Environmental Policy at the University of Cambridge. He was an intern on the Summer Internship scheme run by the Centre for Theology and Community. For more detail see http://www.theology-centre.org.uk/projects/training/internship/