Citizens’ Organising

Citizens’ Organising is an approach to community development from the United States and an effective mutual method. It can be traced back to the work of Saul Alinsky in the 1970s. His books “Rules for Radicals” and “Reveille for Radicals” are still worth reading. The Industrial Areas Foundation, who organise across cities in the United States, built upon his work after his death in the early 1970s.

Citizens’ Organising in the UK

Attempts  to introduce organising to the UK from the early 1990s were not very successful.  Whilst a few groups still struggle on it never really took root in the UK. However, organising is worth considering and it is possible to add elements into community development practice.

One essential element is power analysis. This means we need to understand who actually has power in a given situation. Sometimes it is important to name the powerful and target them for effective change.

Equally important is its understanding of activism and indeed, if we are to take activism seriously, then organising is essential to community development. Anger, seen as a positive emotion, powers activism. It is important no one person becomes essential to the organisation; power is held collectively, not concentrated in the hands of any one person.  So, roles are held for no more than one year.  This means everyone had opportunities to increase their experience of a range of roles, building a pool of capable people, enhancing  the organisation’s capacity.

The emphasis is upon building relationships and applying pressure to key power-holders.  Activists claim you have “no permanent friends and no permanent enemies”.  The pressure applied to power-holders aims to bring them around to supporting the interests of the citizens’ organisation.  If no-one within the organisation holds power, it is harder to buy out the organisation.

Learning More About Citizens’ Organising

The Citizens’ Organising movement is reluctant to write text books, preferring to pass on their methods through training. They have a point but it is also important to understand what they offer and so a few helpful texts have emerged over the years. One I have found helpful is “Building a People of Power: Equipping Churches to Transform Their Communities” by Robert C Linthicum.

Organising has traditionally involved churches because they are often the organisations that stay in neighbourhoods once everyone else has moved out.  Their persistence means they guarantee income through paying their dues and so the organisation is able to plan ahead.  Many other types of organisation can and do join citizens’ organisations, including other faith groups.

Have you used organising as a part of your development work or experienced a citizens’ organisation in your city?  What have you found helpful about their approach?

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

Leave a Reply 7 comments

Mark Woodhead - June 25, 2014 Reply

Hi Chris,
It was interesting to read your piece on community organising/broad based organising against the background of current developments in Leeds and Wakefield. In Leeds, as I have mentioned, efforts are underway to get ‘Leeds Citizens’ going. I look forward to seeing how that develops. I am told that they have appointed an organiser, to start in August; things might then speed up a bit, more might happen. They are talking about running some training, which I hope to be able to be involved in.

In Wakefield (and elsewhere – see Locality website) there are ‘community organisers’ working, but these seem to be working to a rather different model, and pose certain difficulties for people such as myself – and maybe also for some local residents. They aren’t very good at communicating, sharing, or co-operating with others – they seem determined to go their own sweet way. While one or two of them – taking the national picture of this Locality ‘ community organising’ initiative – have some experience – notably Mark Parker – others seem to have little relevant background and skills. See http://www.locality.org.uk.

As I say, I am in contact with the Leeds community organising developments; watch this space.

Mark

Chris - June 25, 2014 Reply

It is good to hear organising is happening in Leeds. It would be interesting to hear about the training although I suppose it will be for local people. I did the training in 1992 in Birmingham (with a visit to Bristol) and it took a whole week! Presumably local training can be rolled out over a longer period.

Your Wakefield experience reminds me of Sheffield Impact(?), where they too seemed determined to go their own way. I think the reason was they were applying for grants which meant the grants determined their policy. In the States the members pay their dues and that is their sole source of income. Maybe the weakness in the UK is that member churches and organisations are not prepared to pay upfront.

This page on the Locality website http://locality.org.uk/projects/community-organisers/ has more information about training and support for organisers. Also, this site http://www.cocollaborative.org.uk/ has a map showing organising activity in the UK. Certainly seems to be more than I thought. Seems to be four projects in Sheffield.

Do keep this site up to date with developments in Leeds.

Chris

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