Community Organisers – conflict, collaboration, communication and consensus

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.”



17 thoughts on “Community Organisers – conflict, collaboration, communication and consensus

  1. Some really excellent points, Toby.Personally, I think programmes like this can only work with as near to complete openness as possible. And the argument, that "I don’t have time to blog" is no longer acceptable. I know from the work I do, in Social Media Surgeries and on a professional basis that many people do struggle with the idea of expressing their personalities online in public, but may do successfully make that transition, and their work and lives are enhanced by it.And, if you still don’t think you have time, then, supposedly, this government has done away with all that multi-layered reporting for previous funding programmes, so why not use the time you would have otherwise have spent writing reports to blog instead.

  2. A neat summary Toby to what has been a fascinating debate. But this is not a new debate. I recall this debate happening in the earlies 80s when I first became involved although the terminology was different and the thought-leaders a different bunch – a la Bordieu and his reflexive praxis back then. Its was a debate that was still running in the early 90 when we launched the community magazine ‘Rough Draft’ in Liverpool to facilitate a community debate on how to engage with political power – resistance or renewal (it lasted 6 editions!)At the end of the day is it really about adopting one approach or adapting others? Is the approach more important than the task? Is the task a political project or social one? Is it about directed service or community mobilisation? Is is about saviour, co-production or self-organisation. It seems to me that the 21st century approach needs to be more emergent in its outlook and this is more likely to accept that each situation is historically contingent, path-dependent and co-operative. Different approaches can co-exist, although there may be a discussion to be had about how they co-evolve!Ultimately the solution to community organisation must be about self-reliance but accepting that a gap often exists between the concrete realities of ‘community’ and necessity attributes of a community able to response. How you build that bridge is about what kind of gap exists. The only real attribute that community organisers require, as you point out, is trust. And there are many routes to gaining trust, just as many as there are to destroy it.@_garrilla

  3. Garrilla/JohnThanks for your excellent comments.@garrilla – you’re quite right to point out that this is not a new debate. However there are always differences in revisiting old ideas & discussions….the context is different, and the fact this debate is playing out across blogs, tweet etc is very different. Nonetheless we should learn from what’s gone before. I think you make a number of insightful points….which fit with the general gist of the 2nd part of my response to the debate (currently 1/2-written & unpublished!) on the detail of tessy’s conflict vs collaboration critique.@John – reminiscent of Clay Shirky’s cognitive surplus. It’s not whether we have time, but how we choose to use it. Then again, you know that I don’t need convincing…More soonToby

  4. <span class="Apple-style-span" style="font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; border-collapse: collapse; line-height: 24px; ">&quot;the fact this debate is playing out across blogs, tweet etc is very different&quot;</span><div> <font class="Apple-style-span" face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="5"><span class="Apple-style-span" style="border-collapse: collapse; font-size: 18px; line-height: 24px;"><br></span></font></div><div><font class="Apple-style-span" face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="5"><span class="Apple-style-span" style="border-collapse: collapse; font-size: 18px; line-height: 24px;">its more immediate (and less intermediated) but its the same debate in wider geographic space but its still the samizdat…</span></font></div> <div><font class="Apple-style-span" face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="5"><span class="Apple-style-span" style="border-collapse: collapse; font-size: 18px; line-height: 24px;"><br></span></font></div><div><font class="Apple-style-span" face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="5"><span class="Apple-style-span" style="border-collapse: collapse; font-size: 18px; line-height: 24px;">For example, the whole 'Rough Draft' project was borne out of the same debate about treading the fine line between between being active and being thoughtful, the idea of the 'rough draft' was a commentary of any length on the issues of community without being too precious. Time passed is time lost, but acting in isolation does no one any favours. The debate, and the medium, lend itself to spillover, and that a good thing long may it continue.</span></font></div> <div><font class="Apple-style-span" face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="5"><span class="Apple-style-span" style="border-collapse: collapse; font-size: 18px; line-height: 24px; "><br></span></font></div><div><font class="Apple-style-span" face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="5"><span class="Apple-style-span" style="border-collapse: collapse; font-size: 18px; line-height: 24px;">Even though there is a danger of the discussion happening in the clouds, to overuse the metaphor, and pissing down on those below,  I'm all in favour keeping the discussion flowing – no theory of change = no practical steps to change – but as we were discussing yesterday my Jedi friend, #jfdi</span></font></div>

  5. There’s a line isn’t there which you Toby, and David Wilcox hint at? Communication and transparency are very much desired commodities and far more preferable than the ‘head down’ approach. It’s not bad communications to say that there isn’t anything to report. But you do have to say that, otherwise people will only interpret and guess at what’s occurring.However, when it comes to project delivery there comes a time when one has to stop talking about doing it and start doing it. Locality clearly had the time to consider and provide a successful tender to undertake the £15M Community Organisers programme. But 3 months after this was announced there are an awful lot of people who still have no idea what’s going on with it and Jess herself states in her blogs that progress has ‘…dragged on’.It’s a huge programme of course and very many people, groups and organisations believe they could help to deliver it in their own localities. So of course there’s a lot of interest and what does one do to satisfy the interest? If you go onto the Locality website you’ll learn there are ’11 Kickstart’ projects but you’ll not learn what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. So jump over to Jess’s blog as advised to ‘find out the latest on the project’. Well, there’s not much there either I’m afraid. Two May entries provide us with a blog which Jess admits to being ‘far too long’ and a bolt-on clarification piece.Jess reminds us that ‘Organisers will be local people, recruited and hosted by local community organisations’. So understandably, people who work in and care passionately about our sector are waiting to see what is actually going to be done. Many want to know if they’re going to get any delivery opportunities so whilst they wait they can only speculate.As with Big Society, the longer no definitive delivery is communicated, the greater the likelihood that a clear understanding of who and what Community Organisers are will rival the debate around who and what Big Society is.

  6. Hi Toby,Great wholeheartedly agree. Communication and transparency are vital but there needs to be balance. As I responded on Jess’s blog. People need time to deliver action and activists, who are under significant professional and family pressure need to prioritise. If an activist can’t get these priorities right they burn out and serve no ones interests.I was approached by a member of my team recently who reflected on the difficulties within a limited budget of delivering on the ground, filling out her blog, twittering, and filing in the Root Solution Listening Matters forms. Those bottom up comms are fundamental in the RSLM process which is the Engine of the Locality CO programme.She said that the pressure she felt to blog was intimidating and distracting.She spoke about the

  7. Opps – damn technology. ;-)she spoke of the exhaustion she felt and the impact it was having on her partner who patiently waited and then fell asleep without saying goodnight.He asked me recently at a social event whether there is a way to take the pressure off the family. I replied that it was vital she prioritise and deliver on the ground. It would be misguided if I was suggesting that we do not communicate or be transparent, but given this story I maintain, absolutely that there needs to be balance. A race to keep up with people who have the time to blog or indeed prioritise creates the danger of exclusion. If people want to take a balanced approach I applaud wishesStephen

  8. @StephenI think this illustrates how everyone needs to change the way they work. Social Media is not an add-on it should be a fundamental core activity of people who want to do this sort of stuff. Community Organising is about communication, and, if you ignore it then you are saying I only want to communicate with the kind of people who attend meetings. That is a dwindling minority in the 21st Century and we shouldn’t be investing resources in actions that think it is the only way to do things. Your colleague who feels overloaded might like to think how she might replace some of her analogue activities with digital ones that would reach a much wider audience.

  9. Thank you JohnDigital comms is at the heart of our organising and animating programme and so is the face to face work that builds trust respect and relationships. Organisers and Animators that use root solution listening matters use blogs, twitter Facebook and other media. They also regularly use conference calling on line.They also routinely meet hundreds of people, networking them digitally and physically to develop a local power base to support their action. So the concept of ignoring digital is anathema to Regenerate and our Programmes. Our advice however remains firm. Take a balanced approach, don’t feel pressured and sustain and nurture yourself so that you can organise or animate effectively.Best wishesStephenStephen

  10. Dear All,Fascinating debate and one I have engaged with on every level – at the grass roots, at local authority level and on the national stage. Social Media has it’s place. A rightful place in building social networks. Just two of the projects I am involved with, with RE:generate are trialling how RSLM and digital networks can work together. My experience of building networks of people at the grassroots born out of trust and respect can only be built through direct face to face interaction. In communities where apathy is high and people are disengaged from the wider society we need to be able to build networks first and foremost on the ground. Once engaged people can then be encouraged to join the debate online.we must strike a balance. As an experienced organiser and animator leading work in a number of communities and supporting others to do the same I would be very disappointed to see one of our animators leading our process in front of the screen. Build personal relationships first. Take time to do this. Encourage people to join the conversation in a way they feel most comfortable. We must encourage relationships, dialogue and conversations to develop in a way that those in communities want them to. If our Animators want to lead work on the ground, encourage local action and dialogue face to face between local people politicians and organisations let them. Social media – can and will come later. Since joining RE:generate, I have personally introduced over 3000 people to social media in new ways. We are by no means caught in the 20th century. I am regularly looking for innovative ways to engage people in dialogue around what matters to them and the actions they can take to participate in public life. None of this would have been possible were in to for the relationships built on the ground. Best wishes,NickPS in the middle of building relationships on the ground in Bath to encourage people into taking positive local action.

  11. Great debate!I think we ought to distinguish between different people’s communications.Those delivering on the ground, those managing the training and those managing the programme. The balance Stephen rightly calls for is different depending on the role….Right now, with the programme being set up, those outside it want desperately to know what’s happening and to engage with it. That responsibility shouldn’t fall to people doing organising…though their iput is valued and welcome…it’s horses for courses, but the debate we are having needs to be had. It’s not a frivolous extra but an essential.Like John, I believe there are ways to integrate social media into how we work that make it a time saver, not a time waster…we’ve all seen I’ll conceived projects that have ultimaelty failed communities because they weren’t debated and designed collaboratively at the outset. Getting people involved can save money and time in the long run, even if it sometimes mean upfront investment of time.Look forward to further thought and comment. ReLly appreciate people putting time in to having the discussion!

  12. <div><br></div>I'm reminded of 'The Samizdat' at the end of the Soviet era Russia. To keep ideas alive many dissidents became 'samizdat' (sam: oneself  izdat: publisher) and started to copy banned works so they could be shared. Many Samizdat would receive a book or pamphlet and make one or two copies to pass-on around the network, but as always there were people in the network who weren't publisher/copiers, they shared the same 'front of the mind'.  <br> <br><div>We're not having a banned conversation (yet!) but from my recent explorations around the scene there is a 'Social Samizdat', it takes a network of interactions to make the reflexive loop work – theory of change &gt; policy &gt; practice &gt; feedback –  and  conversations like this are part of that process. </div> <div><br></div><div>What I'm sensing is that everyone likes the networked conversation, but we're concerned that the asymmetry of both time and writing skills could start the conversation. I'm not so worried about that, but I think there a lots of people out there with the 'same front of the mind' to try keep everyone is the loop. Together, solutions to keep the network conversations active by finding ways for everyone to engage in the conversation at different levels should be possible. If we can't do that, how do we engage in the bigger social?</div> <div><br></div><div>I'll blog some ideas about reinforcing the loop over the coming days. If anyone want to see it you can follow me on twitter <a href="!/_garrilla">@_garrilla</a> or subscribe to my blog by clicking on my name at the top of the post…</div>

  13. GarillaLove it. Please keep me in touch let’s work on that.Toby, thankyou.It’s 23.27, I’m off to bed with my lovely wife if I can prize her away from the computer.Best wishes all.Thankyou for the debate.ZzzzzzzzzStephen

  14. <html><body bgcolor="#FFFFFF"><div>Thank god for the Internet.</div><div>Did someone say god!!</div><div>Best</div><div>S<br><br>Stephen Kearney<div><br></div></div><div><br></div></body></html>

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