How community organising enhances the student experience.
Abigail is an associate organiser in Lambeth who came into organising through her university, King’s College London. Whilst a student, she co-founded a community organising society, King’s 4 Change, which started off her organising journey in Lambeth. She co-edits the Iron Rule Blog.
In 2019 I was in my second year of university at King’s College London, studying Global Health and Social Medicine. I had recently decided that I no longer wanted to become a doctor and was just beginning to explore the countless other possibilities for what I could do with my life. As part of my journey of discovery, I enrolled in the pilot of the King’s Civic Leadership Academy, a programme that combines civic education with a placement at a local charity to give students an insight into the third sector.
It was during this programme, in a session led by Citizens UK, that I first learned of community organising. My interest was piqued in a workshop on the importance of bringing your power to the negotiation table and not just emotive arguments. In another session I was fascinated to learn about the relational one-to-one conversation, a community organising technique designed to build relationships, and what it could achieve. It was not until we were shown a clip of the 2016 London Mayoral Assembly, however, that I knew I had to start organising. Before this session, changemaking had seemed to me like the summit of a very tall mountain, and every book you read, or degree you accumulated, or extra bullet point added to your CV, took you one step closer to that elusive summit. Then I watched a young woman named Ijeoma, around my age, Nigerian like I was, stand in front of Sadiq Khan, Zac Goldsmith and 6,000 community members of London Citizens and tell her story. She explained how despite having grown up in London, she was illegally detained by the Home Office when she was 15 and now could not access student loans because she did not have British citizenship. I watched her confidently ask the candidates to create a Deputy Mayor to cover citizenship and integration related issues if they were elected. I watched her receive a standing ovation from the audience even before the candidates responded and watched them enthusiastically agree to her ask. If community organising was the thing that could give someone like Ijeoma, someone like me, that kind of power, I wanted in.
Soon I co-founded a student society called King’s 4 Change (K4C) with fellow students whose minds had also been blown by our sessions with Citizens UK. The purpose of the society was to bring students together to build power and win change both within our university and in its local community. We co-founders felt that for the majority of students, the only ways to engage in politics were either through the occasional election or social media echo chambers. Brexit had more than shown us that these methods were insufficient for the student community to have any meaningful impact. Community organising is radically different – it brings everyday people right up close to power, puts the tools of changemaking in our hands. We wanted as many King’s students as possible to access this and we wanted to build our power so we could change the university for the better.
Additionally, community organising has a special ability to open people’s minds beyond their own culture, their own traditions, their social media bubble. This was definitely my experience at King’s. In the lead up to the 2020 London Mayoral Assembly, which ended up taking place online in 2021, I had a one-to-one relational conversation with a community leader from The Advocacy Academy named Bel. He was a key leader of a London Citizens climate campaign called Just Transition. The aim of the campaign was to ensure that London transitioned into a carbon neutral city in a way that benefitted marginalised communities. Prior to this conversation, climate change had been very low on my list of priorities and as a Black, working-class person, I felt somewhat excluded from climate action circles. But Bel told me about his interest in the campaign overlapped with his struggles to find work and I realised I had an interest too. My church was becoming increasingly affected by the Low Emissions Zones around it, which would soon hinder our ability to collect our 500+ Sunday School kids from the local area. Just Transition was all about not allowing communities like ours to be left behind by climate-friendly policies.
Bel explained that so far in the listening for the campaign they were missing student voices so K4C ran some house meetings (small group meetings in which we share stories, listen to each other and find common interests) to hear how climate change was personally affecting members of the King’s community. Soon we were watching the Mayoral Assembly (virtually) alongside 50 students representing K4C and holding the mayoral candidates to account on this campaign and others. Sadiq Khan agreed to work with us on our asks and the campaign is ongoing. This work built my confidence to take action, helped me build a network across King’s and allowed me to impact a London-wide issue.
Fast forward a year or so, community organising with Citizens UK became the beginning of my career – I graduated and became an organiser with South London Citizens. I’m currently working on a programme made possible by the department created by Ijeoma’s ask, a poetic, full circle situation that is not unusual in the world of community organising. The fundamental aim of this work is to inspire and develop leaders who can win change and then who go on to develop others to do the same. However, I know that most students who organise at university will not become full time organisers (unfortunately) and I’ve made my peace with that. Organising provides several skills that are invaluable in whatever workplace you end up in after university:
- Confidence: from telling your story in front of 100s of people to meeting with decision makers, organising provides many opportunities for building confidence.This confidence does not necessarily come from individual charisma but from sound training, clear methods and the support of a team closely bound by common interests.
- Sustainable and efficient team building: the iron rule of organising is “never, ever, do for others what they can do for themselves”. I have known to repeat this over, and over, and over again in training sessions. The rule means each individual in the team is being developed through responsibility and has ownership over the campaign. If one person leaves, the work continues. I cannot think of a single job ad that is not looking for team working skills; organising teaches you to value team working as the way to achieve success, not just as a buzzword.
- Reflection and evaluation: evaluation is one of the habits of organising – there are always ways we could have built more power, won more change, developed more people, strengthened more relationships. This evaluative mindset is essential when striving for excellence in any profession. Striking the right balance of a healthy attention to detail and ambition to be better, whilst avoiding unfair or unkind criticalness is something I learned through team evaluations in organising and now apply in other areas of my life.
- Civic consciousness: in this modern age of buzzwords like ‘corporate social responsibility’ and ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’, organising teaches you how to think about justice and community in a meaningful way rather than as a tick box exercise. Before thinking in vague terms about the problems of the world, community organising requires you to start with yourself and the issues that matter to you. Once you find something you are truly invested in, not just publicly invested in because it’s the current trend, you are more equipped to think about social justice.
To sum up, when I think about my university experience without community organising I think of a sphere being flattened into a two-dimensional circle – complete but also lacking. I had a wonderful time studying for my degree but community organising helped me understand who I am, what I care about, and what skills I have to bring to combatting the injustices of the world. It has helped me see what I am capable of in a way I never did before. I would not be the same without it.
You can find a slightly condensed version of this article in the Higher Education Sector journal wonkHE, alongside a series of articles on community organising in universities, here: From student to organiser | Wonkhe