Jack Madden, a Labour Party activist in London and Darlington, describes his experience at the first Movement for Change Organiser School:
Since the start of 2012, Movement for Change has been hosting training sessions up and down the country, trying to spread the principles of community organising throughout Labour movement groups across the UK. I recently attended the very first Movement for Change Community Organising Residential School. This was a weekend-long event, with around thirty potential ‘community organisers’, all eager to learn and eager to gain new skills to help in campaigning activities.
The recommended reading set before the weekend was not only impressive, but extremely revealing. This is clearly an organisation that has a deeply philosophical and well-informed approach to the work they do. They are influenced by a broad range of complimentary perspectives rooted in the history of community organising, with a training pack full of writing from a host of different organising traditions. M4C have successfully combined theory and practice into a package that means complete beginners can be well versed in the essentials of community organising in a very short space of time. In short, Movement for Change have done their homework.
The weekend was attended by an impressive range of people. The room represented a cross-section of society in terms of geography, gender and age. These were not the people cynics would commonly associate with politics. What bound these people together was a genuine desire to find a way to help those in their own communities. Everyone present understood that power rests with communities, with the people, with us. What these potential organisers wanted was the ability to channel that power to affect the changes that ordinary people want to see. That is not to say Movement for Change or the people involved in it do not want to see a Labour government returned to Westminster. They realise that the two are not mutually exclusive, no matter how divorced from one another they are perceived to be. These are people with a holistic and pragmatic view of what ‘politics’ is, and just what can be done with it. So with promising content, and promising people, the training sessions began.
The sessions for the weekend essentially consisted of three basic stages of learning: understanding the philosophy of community organising, understanding the concepts of strategy and power necessary for organising, and understanding the tactics that can be used in order to organise. All the lessons were taught through the practice and involvement of everyone in the room, with each person sharing personal experiences, knowledge, and perspectives in order to illustrate the theory being discussed. This teaching style highlighted the basic truth of community organising: that within each individual is power and that by organising this power and by recognising everyone’s abilities in a group, the power can be used to create change. Through sharing individual experiences people began to realise that they were already engaging with the theories behind community organising. The key was to make people realise that they had the knowledge, the understanding, and the ability to organise. Movement for Change aims to inspire them to use it in the most effective way possible to achieve the changes they seek. It was all finished with a role play to bring all of the teaching together. Though the participants had difficulty at times, it was a great way to see how everything we had learnt over the weekend works in practice. And although some of us were frustrated within our roles, it was a brilliant activity to explore the difficulties of putting theory into action.
So what lessons can be drawn from the weekend? The first is that there is a place for this type of politics today. There are people in communities up and down the country who want to take part and who are actively engaging in this kind of politics. There are people who are interested in making a difference to the communities they are part of. The apathy around politics that is so often talked about can and is being broken down and this group represents one way in which that is happening. Second, it shows that Labour as a political party can reconnect with communities if it really wants to. There are people within Labour who want nothing more than to help others and to make politics a part of the lives of everyone, not just an elite few that we read about or see on the six o clock news. Third, the people doing community organising are not ‘radicals’, they do not want ‘a lurch to the left’, they are not ‘hippies’, and they are not extremists or evangelists. They want to help people, and they want to do this by putting communities of ordinary people back into politics and getting people making political decisions for themselves. Fourth, community organising works- and there are examples that prove it. It is not ‘pie in the sky’ thinking or ‘utopianism’, or ‘unrealistic’ to want to engage more people more directly in politics. Movement for Change has a pragmatic vision, tactics, and methods to achieve their goals. It shows that community organising and Labour Party politics are not separate, that they can and will come together again, and when it does, our party, and our society, will be better for it.