Beyond the Founders – A Journey Towards Reorganising an alliance

By Pete Rogers, Citizens UK Organiser in Nottingham 

A few summers ago I started going to my local gym. I’d not long turned 30. My impressively fast metabolism which had until that point in life enabled me to eat whatever the heck I wanted was beginning to slow down,  and for all of my wife’s many qualities, I could see in her eyes that look of judgement as she surveyed my evolving silhouette…I think they call it a muffin-top?

So there was I was, a complete newbie, never stepped inside a gym or touched a dumb-bell in my life. I figured I better look the part and bought me a gym bag, those fancy gloves to wear for lifting weights, one of those strap-on thingys to stick your ipod into. I had all the gear, but no idea. I’d go once or twice a week for an hour or so, run about like a madman, pump some iron, sweat a bucket, and somehow the next day felt like I had more energy than before. I was actually getting fit – and it was great!

For the first few months at least…you see, then winter came, and the thought of heading out in the cold in my shorts suddenly became less appealing. I’d make it along once every couple of weeks, at best. Then in January our first son Jay arrived. I soon stopped going altogether. We’ve now got two wonderful young boys. What before was enjoyable and exhilarating had become somewhat more challenging. How on earth do I keep this going?! To quote my old man’s favourite one-liner – ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going!’ …and tough I was not!

This all-too-brief gym adventure makes me reflect on my work as a community organiser for Nottingham Citizens, the local chapter of Citizens UK. Nottingham was birthed 6 years ago by some a small group of local community leaders who, seeing what had been achieved in other areas of the country through broad-based community organising, set about the task of establishing support for a new alliance in the city. Between 2010-2013, leaders from faith, trade-union and education institutions built relationships across the city and secured enough financial buy-in to employ their first community organiser and launch their own local chapter. It was new, it was real, and it was theirs – they owned their own people-powered organisation, and it was making a difference, bringing together diverse communities and winning social justice change.

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Nottingham Citizens leaders 

Even before they formally founded in 2013 they had turned out over 1000 people at a prospective Police-Crime Commissioner assembly in 2012. It was my first experience of community organising and I remember it vividly, having been dragged along by a friend – “I know you’re naffed off with politics Pete, but this is something a bit different!” He was right. I don’t think anyone even really knew what a Police Crime Commissioner was (and evidently one or two of the candidates didn’t either), but on the night I witnessed local people share stories of injustice, make reasonable proposals for change, and secure meaningful commitments from politicians which were followed through on. Nottingham Citizens was like a fire-work that had gone off in the city, and damn it was exciting! But what do you do when fireworks night is over?

Once the early excitement and energy has died down, how do you sustain and grow an organisation for the long haul? How do you develop and nurture new leaders when the early adopters have moved away, or passed on the leadership batons? How do you create a real sense of ownership among a leadership that is a step or two removed from fireworks night?!

As I reflect on Nottingham Citizen’s evolving leadership I notice two things. Firstly, sometimes those leadership batons had been passed on well, with the original leader taking time to invest in and develop someone in their organisation, creating in them that same sense of ownership, and ensuring they were properly equipped for the task through the local and national training programmes. More often however, and generally for unavoidable reasons, this leadership development had been less-intentional, or even non-existent…people moved away, or had a sudden change in life-circumstances meaning they had to step back quickly. In response, a new person was thrust into leadership without a clear understanding for what they were participating in, or how to do so effectively.

The second thing I notice about our evolving leadership, was that the people who birthed the Nottingham chapter were generally the positional, or primary leader in their organisation. This had two important consequences. Firstly, they were generally the person who signed the cheque! They themselves were key to making the decision to spend their institutions hard-earned dosh on this thing, rather than that other worthwhile venture. They were buying in personally and corporately on behalf of their institution – this inevitably brought with it a deep level of ownership. The second consequence to having primary leaders around the table was that being the top dog in their respective yards undoubtedly made a difference. If your institutional leader is regularly telling you that something is worth you investing your time and energy in, then you listen and act accordingly. Moving forward, we will need to build into how we operate a clearer and more rigorous approach to leader progression, and we will need to have an eye to how we engage with, inform, and draw into our work the positional leaders of our member organisations, even if they are not sat round our table.

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Nottingham Citizens in action

There is so much to be encouraged about. In the past year our schools-base has grown from 2 to 7 schools, bringing energy and vitality to the alliance. We have some amazingly talented local leaders, driving local action, and demonstrating a thirst to learn about the tools needed to be effective in public life – we even had to turn people away from our recent 2 day training! Our current campaigns are making a difference in the areas of low-pay, mental health and opportunities for young people. Member organisations are teaming up in neighbourhoods and using the tools of community organising to connect with neighbours and make change together. Underpinning all of this activity, we have a diverse, 37-institution-strong alliance of committed members who pay in almost £90K in dues annually, demonstrating that we are not a social justice club, but a serious organisation committed to building power for the long-haul.

How we use this platform, whilst negotiating the challenges that exist, will be key in sustaining and growing Nottingham Citizens for the long-haul. Over the past few months our local leadership team have begun this process of looking to the future;

What do we want to win over the next 3-5 years? How much more power (money and people) do we need to build to get there? And how will this team take ownership of the journey and lead the rest of the alliance towards our goals? 

In January we are going away for a morning to put some meat on the bones of these questions. We’ve also invited two wise and experienced ‘external friends’ to come and run a discerning eye over our conversations and add a valuable outside voice. Our current leadership team is made up of committed, skilled, passionate and angry leaders who are committed to working with others to drag as much of the world as it should be into the world as it is. We’ve been moving a few people out of the leadership space and deploying them in helpful roles in order to not lose their valuable input and experience. At the same time, we’ve invited 4 brand new leaders into the group who will join us in the new year. It is precisely this mix of new leaders, and veterans, that enables a powerful alliance to develop. We’re excited to see how this new crop of leaders will challenge us in new ways, add fresh perspective, and take ownership of Nottingham Citizens.

There are undeniable challenges as we look to sustain and grow the alliance, but there is so much good to build upon, and with this evolving leadership team, we have an amazing group of people to go on the journey with. 2020 is the year for the tough to get going!

And you never know, I may even head back to the gym.

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