Tessy Britton sparked off discussion with a thought-provoking couple of pieces on community organising and the continuum between collaboration and conflict. She came down strongly in favour of a collaborative approach, drawing on the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach. Tessy even offered a reworking of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.
A flurry of follow-up pieces ensued adding, reflecting and responding to Tessy’s blog – Julian Dobson, Thomas Neumark of the RSA (and a Camden Councillor), Anthony Zacharzewski from the Democratic Society, Jess Steele who manages the CO programme at Locality and Cormac Russell from the ABCD Institute. I would encourage everyone with an interest in Community Organisers to read all of these!
Community organising has attracted plenty of criticism from all sides – Alinsky supporters have bemoaned a perceived watering down of his model, critics of Alinsky have attacked the adoption of his approach, other criticism appears to be based on a desire to resist change more generally. And there have also been criticism based on a lack of understanding of what the programme aims to do.
It’s important to distinguish between different sort of criticism and to respond to them accordingly. In fact, I’m going to heed my own advice and offer my own response to the debate in two parts…this piece will address the issues of communication and understanding about the programme. I’ll post a separate piece about the more detailed debate about the relative merits of different approaches.
Criticism borne out of misunderstanding or confusion about the programme is quite different to the sort of sophisticated and nuanced critique that Tessy offered. However both are of equal importance and should be addressed as a priority by Locality. I appreciate the effort that Jess is putting in to this through her blog, in an attempt to make the programme transparent – but it’s more than a one-person job to be honest!
There is, in my view, widespread confusion about what community organising is, how it differs from other approaches such as community development, and what it has in common. Even less well understood are the differences between different community organising approaches advocated by as Saul Alinsky, Paulo Friere and Brazilian sociologist Clodomir Santos De Morais. Locality’s approach is to combine these different strands in order to develop a new contemporary model of community organising appropriate to 21st Century life. One key difference with traditional models of community organising is the role of local VCS groups as ‘hosts’ to the organisers. How this plays out will be interesting to see – I can see both advantages and risks in this approach…but it is certainly too early to write it off in my view.
There is also misunderstanding about the way the programme will work, in no small part due to crude and ill-informed reporting in the press. Newsnight’s infantile coverage of Big Society in general and the community organisers programme in particular is unfathomable in my view, but Daily Mail headlines like this are just absurd.
Locality should be applauded for making their bid available for all to see and an open process for people to nominate themselves – either as hosts or to be organisers. However this transparency needs to be maintained in the future – covering the basis for decisions about selection and the content of the training provision. I don’t doubt that these will be made available once they have been developed – my intention is just a little nudge to make sure they are not forgotten! J
Stephen Kearney from RE:Generate, who are the lead delivery partner for the community organiser training within the Locality-led programme posted a long comment on Jess’ blog (worthy of a blog in its own right). Stephen set out to explain in some detail RE:Generate’s approach to community organising , as well as suggesting that blogging about the programme was something of a distraction from getting on and doing things. Whilst I am not defending talking instead of doing, I think Stephen (who is obviously rightly focussed on delivering the training) was misguided in dismissing the importance and value of communication about the programme and engaging with critics, sceptics and supporters alike.
Communication is crucial in order to manage expectations, engage constructively in challenge and debate, to share and receive learning and respond to misunderstanding and confusion. The programme cannot operate effectively without focussing on external perceptions, or it will make the task of the community organisers even harder at a local level.
David Wilcox sums up my own view very eloquently in his comment on Jess’ blog “blogging by those running the programme is important because it shows preparedness to engage, and the realities of doing a very challenging job. That’s what builds trust…Head down and just get on with the job would, in my view, miss a big opportunity, and risk a lot of push back from those who would like to be friends, if occasionally critical.”