On the eve of our main fringe event at Labour Party Conference 2012, Chief Executive Kathryn Perera draws on Movement for Change’s work to explain the difference between Community Organising and traditional approaches to campaigning:
In the history of political activism, there are shining stars and hard grafters. Mary MacArthur was both. Born in Scotland in 1880, by the time of her premature death in 1921 she had organised more than 300,000 women into community organisations and trade unions. In the process, she inspired and developed the most important generation of female politicians in our country’s history. The scope of her achievements supports the impression one colleague formed, on meeting Mary for the first time, that she was a person of genius.
Mary’s work was rooted in the principle of collective action; that while we may lack power as individuals to achieve change in our own lives on certain issues, through acting together in an organised way we can achieve extraordinary things. She, and those who acted with her to drive forward the early Labour Movement, worked with a sense of urgency prompted by the failure of the established politics of the time to deliver on its democratic promise. They were driven by a desire to redefine ordinary people’s concept of themselves as agents of change.
Movement for Change was formed to re-discover that sense of urgency in how we ‘do politics’. Our organisation’s role is simple: to train and develop people to take action on issues that matter to them in their communities. During the past year, we’ve trained more than 1,200 activists and supported many of them to lead success on issues as diverse as women’s safety at night, the Living Wage, Credit Unions and pigeon-infested underpasses. In Waddon, south London, for example, a Movement for Change organiser built a team of angry residents and kick-started a local action. Waddon is close to the Croydon streets made famous last summer by coverage of the London Riots. Many who live there describe it as “forgotten”, not least because it sits at the junction of two urban motorways which can only be crossed safely via a network of underpasses. The underpasses were filthy, covered in pigeon poo despite the promises of local councillors to clean things up. Their poor state, and the unpleasantness of using them, served as a metaphor for wider problems of poor lighting, anti-social behaviour and urban decay. Yet by speaking with residents one-to-one, conducting targeted listening campaigns and preparing the resultant team in how to conduct political negotiations, within 3 months our organiser’s input led to a complete volte face in the councillors’ position.
In contrast to traditional campaigning Community Organising develops teams of activists to build strong community networks that outlast the specific issue at hand and further their ability to act together in future. It is this concept of power – the ability to act, collectively and in strong relationship with others – which distinguishes Community Organising from various forms of campaigning. We focus on the power of organisation, not the politics of protest, in the belief that leadership development in its broadest sense is the most important feature of a vibrant democracy.
The past 18 months have been a period of steady build for Movement for Change. Developing committed activists; growing localised networks around the country; and building a movement able reach out beyond existing political structures. But we can and must do more. That is why we will shortly be launching an online network, marrying Community Organising on the ground with a social media hub. Our training work will continue at a local level, but will be supplemented by bespoke sessions on payday lending and personal debt, as well as leadership development for committed activists. And our Community Organisers will kick-start new actions in every region of the country, providing the necessary support for those whose concerns are deeply-felt but who may lack the ability to effect change alone. The need for people, in their own communities, to ‘get organised’ has been more urgent.