Estates Organising -‘the wild west of community organising’

By Froilan Legaspi – Community Organiser in Hackney

Introduction
Citizens UK is best known for developing UK-based Broad-Based Organising, recruiting local religious and secular institutions such as schools, faith groups, non-profit organisations, etc. In 2012, Citizens UK experimented with alternative forms of community organising in council estates in London, an effort which I got volunteered in and led me on a journey to a career in community organising. I have encountered multiple terms in describing this form of community organising which seeks to recruit residents directly in a localised area, i.e. institution-building, micro-organising, neighbourhood organising, estates organising, etc. For the purposes of this article, I shall use the term “estates organising”.

I am not writing this as a definitive guide on how to deploy community organising in neighbourhoods. This is just a shared personal reflection on lessons that have worked for me in the context of working in council estates in London, in the hopes it may help others looking to organise in a similar context.

Some of these reflections may seem harsh. But they are honest and will assume you understand the importance of ‘power’, ‘turnout’ and ‘leadership’ in the community organising vernacular.

On why we must organise in neighbourhoods

Looking at estates organising is important now more than ever. Questions have been raised about the maintenance and regeneration of council estates across the United Kingdom. This has come under a backdrop of council estate regeneration schemes which seem to rarely benefit existing residents, and the horrific fire in June 2017 which caused multiple deaths at Grenfell Tower, in a North Kensington council estate in London. The heart of such questions lies at how residents voices and their needs be placed at the heart of regeneration or maintenance of a council estate.

Alongside this, Brexit has exposed the divisions in our society. David Goodhart, in his book “The Road to Somewhere”, described a spectrum between “Anywhere” people (nominally Remain voters) and “Somewhere” people (nominally Leave voters). Certainly, in the inner London council estates I’ve worked in, you certainly see this — especially with the recent influx of mobile, young, affluent professionals moving to council estates to rent in former Right To Buy homes now alongside families with four generations living in the same council estate. I believe learning how to bring these groups of people together can provide insight in how we bring our country together to build a new post-Brexit social contract and settlement.

Although there are multiple approaches to tackling these questions, after organising in multiple council estates (including my own), winning victories ranging from £30,000 to £3 million worth of change, I’ve seen how community organising can be one effective way that residents voices are heard and their needs are met. However, estates organising is the wild west of community organising. If you come idealistic and not prepared, you won’t see much change and the work can quickly collapse. The following is hard-won lessons I learned whilst in 3 council estates (sometimes, painfully so) for those interested in using community organising methodology in council estates and local neighbourhoods. I speak as someone who has lived their entire life in a council estate, being involved in estates organising both as a community leader and as a professional community organiser; these five of my own personal reflections.

Lessons:

Lesson 1: Anchor institutions are vitally important
Lesson 2: Build a strong core team with a mix of turnout skills and logistical skills
Lesson 3: Those who speak the most tend to do the least
Lesson 4: Use formats that ensure everyone speaks
Lesson 5: Consent gives you legitimacy to stop disruptive behaviour

Lesson 1: Anchor institutions are vitally important

An oft-made criticism of community organising in council estates is the parachuting of outsiders into a community they know nothing about, especially where the organiser is culturally very different. However, being an outsider is important to agitate a community to take action on the issues they care about, without any of the trappings of vested interest. What gives the work legitimacy and local roots is the importance of ‘patronage’ from an ‘anchor institution’.

‘Anchor institutions’ are “place-based organisations that have a measure of economic, human and institutional resources, and have the capacity to bring benefits to local families and communities”. Examples include, nearby universities, hospitals, GP practices, faith groups, community groups, primary schools or other organisations with a measure of power and local influence.

‘Patronage’ is important in several ways. Practically, they can provide a space to meet free of charge, well as contribute to the costs and expenses of community organising. They also provide the work a means of legitimacy and protection when working in the local area. For example, when challenged by a local authority on what gave us the right to setup a community organising project in a council estate without obtaining their permission first, the vicar from the ‘patron’ church said, “well, our church has been here looking after the local area for 1200 years. I notice your borough has only existed since 1965.”

Also, more practically, ‘anchor institutions’ can provide a route into identifying potential community leaders within the council estate through pre-existing relationships, in order to recruit initial participants. For example, you could work with a primary school headteacher to approach local parents or youth group leaders from the local mosque to connect with young people from the relevant area.

Lesson 2: Build a strong core team with a mix of turnout skills and logistical skills

A good ‘core team’ is made up of 6–8 committed individuals interested in winning change. There is then usually a number of people involved as part of a ‘secondary team’ who support, i.e. show up to meetings every now and then.

There are two key competencies that are needed, which often (but not always) coalesce around two certain groups of people

1. The ability to turnout people for meetings/events — By holding events with lots of people, communities can hold key local decision-makers to account. As a big generalisation and from experience, the “somewheres” involved tends to have this as their dominant skill set, through their relationships and standing in the local community.

2. The ability to run meetings and logistics independently — Through emails, chairing meetings and organising logistics for meetings and events, the core team can run and develop into a functioning independent organisation. As a big generalisation and from experience, the “anywheres” involved tend to have this as their dominant skill set.

A core team with both these skill sets is critical. Without the ability to turnout people, the group tends to be quite exclusive, with no genuine recognition or legitimacy to represent local residents. From experience, lots of residents associations function like this. Conversely, without the ability to run meetings and logistics independently, the group often struggles to sustain itself and can collapse.

In search of ‘unicorns’

Your work in the council estate will be to identify and build relationships between commitments leaders who demonstrate these traits, and form a ‘core team’. In this search, a key priority will be to identify a ‘unicorn’ leader that can demonstrate both the ability or potential to turnout people for events and run meetings & logistics. They will often be the people that can speak to these two different tribes, broker relationships and trust. If you find one, invest energy into them. From experience, it will deliver dividends.

Lesson 3: Those who speak the most tend to do the least

Discernment is an important skill for an organiser. The ability to discern with whom do you choose to build a team is crucial for success and longevity.

In my experience, ‘the people who speak the most tend to do the least’. I can count the people I’ve met who don’t conform to this rule on one hand. The trick is this — if you feel someone is talks too much, make sure that you test them. Give them a discrete task or a challenge to complete before you invest a lot of time and energy.

Once, I met a man who boasted about how well known they are in the community and could speak for them as a community leader — on the basis I made an introduction to a nearby property developer we had just built a relationship with. He was clearly looking for a community/stakeholder engagement contract. I felt a bit uncomfortable by his approach, but I agreed to give him the benefit of the doubt. I made the simple request that he bring 5 people to the next important meeting, demonstrating he was a community leader. He boasted he could bring 10, but I insisted he just bring 5. At the following event, he came alone. I began to ignore his constant phone calls after that, as I felt he was likely to just use me for my contacts and unlikely to bring energy to the group in return.

On the flipside, another man said he knew people on the estate and was willing to get involved. I ask him to deliver flyers in his tower block to promote a summer party and bring 5 people. He delivered flyers to not only his tower block, but the whole estate, and brought 15 people to the summer party. Needless to say, I always picked up his phone calls.

To those uninitiated and new to community organising, the exclusion and prioritisation of people sounds harsh — especially given our remit to develop leaders and enable the participation of people in public life. Whenever you are building something, people often see the potential power of it. Building someone out of nothing is a fragile thing, like building a house of cards. Sadly, there is a risk that very small minority will want to latch on, suck out energy from the group and exploit it for their own purposes, be it to compensate for personal issues, their own agenda, or something else.

As organisers, we have a duty to discern who we work with, making sure what we build is sustainable and can deliver change, without being sabotaged. Otherwise, our mission of building power and developing new leaders is at risk. We are not social workers. Estates organising is not a support group; there are excellent social workers in our communities and fantastic support groups better designed for this purpose. If we ultimately believe community organising is about building power to make change and developing leaders, we need to take this seriously. Sadly and to put bluntly, not everybody is a potential leader looking to make change in the community.

That being said, always take people at face value — as I did in both examples. Always give them the benefit of the doubt. Believe in them, challenge them to prove themselves and develop as leaders. If they deliver, invest time and energy into them. Then, social change and a sustainable community organising project is possible.

Lesson 4: Use formats that ensure everyone speaks

Have you ever been in a boring meeting where you sit, listen, maybe doodle on a notepad for a bit, and don’t talk at all? Have you ever been a meeting where it’s just the same people that stand up, making unnecessarily long, meandering speeches that don’t seem to matter. They suck, right?

If we’re serious about social change, we need to be social. Often, we ask individual people from the floor to stand ask questions but instead make a long speech, and before we know it, 2 hours have passed and I’m now bored/tired/uninterested (*delete as applicable) enough to pass out sitting in my chair.

Rather than asking just individual people to speak, I’ve used these formats. This isn’t an exhaustive list and I encourage you to find/develop participatory formats that work for you and your context.

Buzz round: Ask people to talk in groups of 2 or 3. Give them a minimum of 3 minutes to discuss (anything less is pointless). And then ask each group to feedback.

Group discussion: Ask people to talk in larger groups (maybe 5–8). Make it clear they have to nominate a table/group captain to feedback. Give 6–15 minutes (anything less is pointless). And then ask the table/group captain to feedback.

Post-it notes: Ask people to talk in groups of 2 or 3, and then ask them to write down a question/comment on a post-it note. Put them on the wall and try your best to group them up, and tease out reflections from people.

There are a lot more sophisticated participatory tools from service design and other participatory methods. But the key thing is… ensure you use formats that enable everyone to speak and express themselves.

Lesson 5: Consent gives you legitimacy to stop disruptive behaviour

In democracy and civil society, consent is a vital tool to ensure legitimacy and accountability. Citizens UK has a habit of asking people at large meetings to consent for the agenda and the people in front to co-chair, usually by waiving their agenda papers in the air. At the beginning, I had always found this puzzling. Surely my attendance should be enough to signify my consent. And if I no longer consented, I could always leave.

In this context, I was chairing one of my resident association meetings. We had some brand new faces, as well as officers from the local authority. I began to proceed with the agenda, and I suddenly paused and asked, “Oh wait… Does everyone consent to this agenda and for me to chair the meeting?”. I distinctly remember the council officers looking confused at me asking the question. Surely, the fact I had called the meeting, was sitting at the head of the table and had distributed the agendas means it would have been obvious. A slight murmur and a few muted yeses reassured me that I had sufficient legitimacy to continue the proceedings. The meeting started well, with initial commitments from council officers around improving cleaning standards in the building.

Suddenly, mid-way through the meeting, a man from another residents association from a different part of the estate burst into the room. He was under the impression that we were holding a secret meeting related to the whole estate, and had deliberately not invited him. He came in with a raised voice and an accusatory tone. Whilst I assured him that this was a meeting that was for just our residents association, and not for the whole estate, he did not relent. Suddenly, I remembered that I had legitimacy to shut this down. I told him calmly but sternly, “At the beginning of this meeting, everyone in this room established there was consent for this agenda and for me to chair. Does this consent still stand?” The dynamic completely shifted. This wasn’t about me shutting his voice down. It became about this man interfering with the group’s work; it was him against the room. Quickly, he calmed down, sat down, and after a few minutes, decided this meeting wasn’t relevant to him and then left.

I often meet people who despair at public engagement meetings and consultations. In public life, we sometimes find people who hijack public meetings, pretend to ask questions but make 8 minute long speeches, or want to shout down proceedings. I call these people leaders of one as they are often the self-proclaimed “voice of the people”, but usually have no people and whose voice is accountable to no-one. Avoid them. At their best, they can be unconstructive in their criticism. At their worse, they can be downright toxic. Sadly, I’ve seen and experienced examples of harassment and borderline violence. People should not give up their evenings to attend meetings with no sense of progress being made, only to satisfy the whims of a minority. Establishing legitimacy of the agenda and the chair through consent from those present is key to protect the needs of the group and ensure the intended business is done.

One thought on “Estates Organising -‘the wild west of community organising’

  1. Pingback: Justice as well as Mercy | The Centre for Theology & Community

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