Community organising, also known as citizens organising, is a way of coordinating a broad-base of people and organisations. This co-ordination makes “civil society” organisations effective in shaping their neighbourhood, city or even region, in the common interests of those who live there.
Civil society is the real grass roots: all those small groups of ordinary people such as faith communities, trade unions, schools, tenants groups, women’s groups, neighbours old and young. These groups have small pockets of power, but through working together they can have much more influence and hold decision-making bodies to account better.
Sometimes civil society spontaneously organises on its own in reaction to a threat: closing our community swimming pools, for example. But when the issue is won (or lost), the energy fades away. The aim of broad-based community organising is to harness this energy by building a strong, diverse alliance of organisations and individuals. Together they constantly build power and act effectively on issues of common concern. By identifying and training people in local communities, and by helping them to work together on issues, it can change the city for the common good.
Community organising is not an agenda of issues to impose. Rather, it is a method or framework for members to decide on the issues they want to address and work together to tackle them.
Examples of community organising
Low paid office workers and local people targeted major banks in London. Together they campaigned and won a London Living Wage of £7.10 per hour, enough to help them save, invest in their children’s well-being, and work with dignity. Who would have thought the CEO of HBOS would have agreed to that? But effective citizen organising made it happen.
After tragic incidents in west London, mosques, churches, tenants groups and schools came together to start ‘City Safe’, organising the families and communities affected by youth crime to intervene effectively from the grass roots up. Working with the police they made the streets safer, deterred young people from the gang culture, and came together in a community that had been afraid and divided by the issue.
Origins of community organising
Broad-based community organising has its roots in the United States. It began in the late 1930s, when Saul Alinsky, a young trade union organiser, gained notoriety by successfully organising the packing house workers, their families, and church congregations in the Back of the Yards area of Chicago. They built an organisation that attacked high rents, low wages, prices in local stores, interest rates on loans and mortgages, municipal services and schools. A string of victories gave the community a new start, and the Community Council they built still existed 25 years later.
Since then a number of community organisations have been established in the United States including the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and Gamaliel Foundation (where Barack Obama trained as a community organiser in his 20s). In the UK London Citizens has been one of the more high profile organising bodies, but there is also Changemakers in Manchester and Stockton (part of Church Action on Poverty) and Together Creating Communities in North Wales, as well as some other Citizens bodies linked to London Citizens in other cities.
Community organising in Leeds
Over the past couple of years in Leeds there have been numerous organisations and individuals involved in developing a Leeds based Organising body. Out of these wider conversations a small but diverse group have been working at putting the structures in place for a community Organising body; getting trained up in Community organising; networking with other UK and North American Community Organising bodies; and building strong relationships with interested parties in the city through one-to-one meetings. In April 2012 Leeds Community Organising launched with the first 12 organisations publically signing up to take the organisation forward including churches, a mosque, a Sikh temple, a local development trust, and an environmental campaigning group. There will now be monthly strategy meetings of this group, 2 weekend-long training’s in the Autumn, and the beginnings of a listening campaign to decide on issues that LCO may being to work on. We will also be continuing to build public relationships through one-t-one meetings and encouraging more organisations to sign up to Leeds Community Organising.
Mike Bush Community Reporter
If you are interested in Leeds Community Organising or want to know more about us, then please do get in touch –
For information on community organising visit:
Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971) Random House, ISBN 0-394-44341-1; Vintage books paperback: ISBN 0-679-72113-4
Edward T D Chambers and Michael A Cowan, Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action and Justice
Michael Gecan, Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action (Anchor Books, 2004). ISBN 1-4000-7649-8.
Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance