Kate Talbot training with other Labour activists
Kate Talbot (@geordiekate89), a Labour Party activist in Vauxhall (south London), describes her experience at the first Movement for Change Organiser School:
I recently attended Movement for Change’s first residential training weekend. The invite had promised an “intensive training course in the core skills of community organising”. Well, at least the description was honest: I barely had time to drop my bags in my room and grab a bite to eat before starting the first session!
The thing that struck me initially was the mix of participants. Many political events I’ve attended have been aimed specifically at women, or specifically at young people, and their audiences have obviously reflected that. Most CLP meetings I’ve been to (although I should point out I exclude Vauxhall from this) have been chaired by older white men and attended by the same. However at the Movement for Change residential, those around me ranged from 17 to 60+ in age, and hailed from all parts of the UK.
At the start of the weekend Blair McDougall, the National Director, challenged us all to share our motivations for attending the course in an honest way. After the predictable silence that falls when a room full of people are asked to speak in front of 40 others they’ve never met, answers began to trickle through. Some attendees were seasoned organisers who had come to hone their existing skills, while others had only just joined the Labour Party. Many were seeking to make their CLPs more inclusive and community based, while a few were attending precisely because they belonged to CLPs which were not making that effort. However, two things seemed to unite everyone: passion and curiosity. Passion for politics to change the world around them, and curiosity to see if Movement for Change and community organising could really help them to do that.
The course was intensive and interactive, with much demanded of participants. In our small group sessions, we explored the important differences between strategy and tactics, and I learned some worthwhile lessons about resisting the urge to rush to action without making an honest assessment of the existing situation and power structure. We also focused on understanding and communicating our own stories (or “political narratives”) and practised using them to motivate others to act.
Yet the course didn’t leave us feeling that it would be easy to take the lessons and skills back into the real world. We were challenged to be honest and self-aware in the difficulties of organising in our own local communities. For example, on the last morning everyone took part in a two hour, 40 person role play, in which a small group of Labour activists aimed to win the Living Wage through a community campaign on a university campus. All of the discussions we’d had, tactics we’d learned, and discoveries we’d made could finally be put to good use…
I don’t think any of the participants would be too offended if I say we failed miserably. We rushed straight in, tried to impose aims and actions on those to whom we were supposed to be listening and allowed the nasty Vice Chancellor (played with relish by Blair) to dictate all the proceedings. Still, as one of the trainers so diplomatically put it, this made for a valuable evaluation.
The training culminated in a few people sharing their political narratives with everyone else. As we learned about why people held the values they held, rather than just what those values were, we began to experience the power of organising and realise how far we’d come in terms of skills and experience over the course of the weekend. My belief in the importance of developing close public relationships with others was reinforced. I really began to understand how power is often given away or assumed rather than being inherent to one group or individual. Perhaps most importantly for me, I realised just how much I identified with Saul Alinksy’s assertion that we need to understand and be realistic about the world as it is, before we can even begin to try to move towards the world as it should be.
I’m taking what I’ve learned into the organising work I am doing already with Movement for Change in Lambeth. I’ll also be relying on the excellent handouts and workbook for extra support as I experience organising challenges in the real world. It is this follow-up which means that the lessons I learned won’t (as they so often can be) be left at the training room door.