Community Organising: An Exciting, Participative Space for Children

Keith Hebden is a Community Organiser with Thames Valley Citizens and lives in Didcot Oxfordshire with Sophie, who works in Climate Research, and their two children. Keith is an author of three books on politics and public life including ‘Re-Enchanting the Activist: Spirituality and Social Change. Martha is active in XR Youth.

One of the great things about Community Organising is the way children – even the very young – can participate fully. They can talk about their experience of injustice; they can explore solutions and build relational power; and they are deft at negotiating with decision-makers. Adults can be reluctant to engage children in politics because we worry that they will be bored or confused, but it helpfully forces adults to simplify the complex issues in a way that is good for everyone. What’s more, while children may not understand everything that is going on, they still appreciate being able to participate. They can look out at a roomful of people engaged in public life and feel exactly what all the adults are feeling, and it is just as exciting for them. From the age of seven, Martha absolutely loved being taken seriously by adults, without translation or mediation. My desire for all children to experience this drives much of my current organising work.

A roomful of people engaged in public life.

K:           What’s your earliest memory of Community Organising?

M:         Doing the speech at the Maun Valley Citizens Assembly at the College [aged 7]. I remember I’d been getting the speech right in all the rehearsals and then on the day I messed up.

K:           Did you?!

M:         Well, it was only a little bit, but I still remember it.

K:           I think it was the bit about pension funds, which was really complicated, and you were seven.

M:         Yeah, we had big buckets and we were taking money out of one bucket and putting it in another; talking about wages. And how it was unfair.

K:           With Ralph.

M:         Yeah. He was older than me and he was very good at talking. He was much better than me.

K:           He was nine and you were seven.

M:         Oh! I remember before the Assembly we were in your office and a man came to your office and he was saying he wouldn’t come to the Assembly and I asked him to come.

K:           Yes! He said no to everyone else, but you had a prepared speech about road safety and your own personal journey to school and then you said to him, “Will you come?” and he got all uncomfortable and then he folded. And he came.

M:         And then you spoke in front of 350 people at the Assembly and for a year, every time we drove past it you got excited and said, “That’s the place where I spoke to all those people.”

Councillor Rhodes on stage at the Assembly!

I also remember the protest against a Housing charity, and we all wore big white suits.

K:           That was interesting. There were sixty of us and you were all wearing Hazmat suits, because we were saying Haven Homes was toxic and needed to clean up their act.

M:         Yeah.

K:           And there were only four children, you, your sister, and the two children and their mum who lived with us at the time.

M:         Everyone was kind of panicky. And I remember I was with Mum and she was a bit panicky.

K:           Yeah. Because there were vulnerably housed people who had been told by their landlord that we were trying to make them homeless. As we arrived they were shouting and swearing and waving placards; they told us later they had been bussed in by the landlord and given cider and fee-waivers to take part. I managed to get both sides quiet long enough to talk about the difference between ‘Pax Britannica,’ [the fake type of peace-through-force] which Haven Homes used to frighten people into not speaking out, and ‘Pax Christi,’ which is peace founded on justice and repaired relationships. Then I said, “Peace be with you!” and dozens replied, “And also with you,” and they respectfully shared the peace, shaking hands, hugging, healing the temporary divide, and uniting against the landlord.

M:         Yeah, I remember that when we did the hugging and sharing the peace it went from being shouty to being peaceful.

K:           And did you make the connection between that and what we do in Church?

M:         Yes, but I didn’t think it was strange or normal because I was young so whatever you do is just what you do, you don’t have much of a sense of what is ‘normal’ when you’re young, you don’t know what’s going to happen and you don’t know if it’s what normally happens. You just go along with it.

We changed both the meaning of ‘sharing the peace’ and the power relationship in the protest. And we won! The housing provider was forced to fix up the flats/apartments, the mayor put an enquiry in place, and they built on that for further meaningful wins.

If you wanted to explain the difference between ‘Pax Romana’ and ‘Pax Christi’ to a child out of context, you would have a major challenge on your hands. But give children (and for that matter adults) a real substantive context in which to do their public faith, and we all grasp profound theological truths about what peace means in the Christian tradition and the way it is bound up with justice and restoring relationships rather than domination and the silencing of dissent. As a family, we live in a house where there is plenty of dissent, but it rarely disturbs the peace. But when I try to silence them—in one of my many clever ways—they recognise it for what it is— ‘Pax Romana’!

Taken from Snyder and Marshal (eds), Parenting for a Better World: Social Justice Practices for your Family and the Planet, Chalice Press: 2022.  

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