Blog | May 2019
“All organizing is disorganizing”
by Farhan Samanani
“All organizing is disorganizing”. This is a phrase I hear repeatedly, during my first month with Citizens UK, who describe themselves as “the home of community organizing in the UK”. Community organizing is a practice emerging from the US, given it’s modern formulation by Saul Alinsky. Working as a criminologist, and with experience in the US labor movement, Alinsky applied many of the principles of labor organizing to local neighbourhoods and community groups, with a view to building up the political power of those living in deprived neighbourhoods. Like labor organizing, community organizing relies heavily on numbers to drive change – it requires residents or members of community institutions to vote, protest, challenge politicians, run projects and do much more as a collective, too large and too (potentially) obstructive to ignore. In late March, I arrived to spend a year with Citizens UK to understand how they attempted to build such tight-knit collectives within superdiverse and changing places – and what that did to the forms of difference they encountered.
The plan, upon my arrival, was that I would spend the year shadowing two East London organizers, one based in Newham and the other in Waltham Forest, as well as following the team on a national project to lobby for a change in the UK’s hate crime laws. This, it was agreed would allow me to understand both how the organization was grounded in particular places (neighbourhoods, institutions, relationships), and how they were able to create change at a greater scale. And, it was decided that I would do all this not simply as a passive observer, but as someone able to lend a hand – to get involved in neighbourhood projects as well as the work around hate crime and to learn first hand.
I quickly discovered, however, that the work community organizers do rarely stays within neat boxes. Shortly before I arrived, I received an email asking if I would be happy to join the team, on my first day, on a journey to Nottingham, to discuss the hate crime project with a delegation of groups from different cities. In Nottingham, the local Citizens UK chapter had been responsible for a first-of-its-kind change, where they had convinced the local police force to treat misogyny as a hate crime. This led to a wide-ranging change in the local policing strategy, as preventing misogyny became a strategic objective for the police. Now, the Nottingham group, alongside other local chapters of Citizens, had decided that their next objective would be to try to get a similar policy implemented nation-wide. Meanwhile, local chapters at the meeting had come more out of concern with Islamophobia, as they found that mosques and Muslims were being widely targeted in their local areas, and they struggled to find a solution. Much of the day involved discussions around how to build a common agenda in combatting hate crime. This was no small thing: Citizens UK derive their agenda not from their own, internal political priorities, but through a process of canvassing local leaders and organizations in the areas in which they work. This makes building wider coalitions a messy and tentative process, as when new ideas or concerns are raised from outside of the area, organizers must check back with local leaders and organizations to see how the particular issue resonates with them. Inevitably, these local voices offer their own take on matters, suggesting different priorities and strategies, which then have to be brought back together. Any new consensus is then tested locally once again, and so the process continues. And so, I left the meeting that day with a list of dozens of individuals and organizations to meet with, in order to try to understand how the agenda on hate crime had come together and was continuing to develop.
The locally-based work was no more contained. Shadowing the community organizer for Waltham Forest involved trips not only around the neighbourhood, or into other parts of London, but as far away as Birmingham and Leicester, as part of efforts to build alliances across local groups, or to shape a common political agenda between Muslim organizations in advance of Ramadan. In Newham, I met with housing organizations, youth clubs, journalists, shop owners and many others, all involved in the local chapter’s efforts to improve safety and curb youth violence in the area. Just as it is the member organizations – the churches, schools or homeless shelters – who determine the agenda that is pursued by local organizers, so to are these organizations responsible for paying the organizers’ salary. This requires a deep buy-in – as one organizer put it, “your institution should have to bleed for this work”. In turn, this means that if organizers were making connections and building links across a wide-reaching and often messy scale, then this was seemingly done on the impetus of the locally-grounded organizations, which provide both their mandate and their money. How organizations come to think of change in power in terms of links with those well beyond them will be an interesting question to trace, going forward.
Beyond grappling with the wider-reaching and multifaceted nature of the work Citizens UK does, my first month of fieldwork has highlighted a number of other key themes. For one, Citizens UK only work with local organizations; community organizers do not connect with individuals, except via institutions, and only organizations can become members of local chapters. This is grounded in a belief that we are “stronger together”, which not only references their view of how power works, but of how social life ought to be lived. This emphasis on the importance of organizations and collectives gives Citizens UK a conservative bent that can sometimes sit in some tension with the often-progressive agenda it takes on from these local organizations. This tension was something raised by many organizers and is something I’m interested in exploring further.
A second important theme has been around depth: from the injunction that organizations have to ‘bleed’ in paying membership dues, to the intensive time commitment required of local leaders, it’s clear that Citizens UK are interested in building a form of power and politics that has deep roots in people’s everyday lives and connects with deeply held values. But the extent to which this is possible seems like a continually open question. For instance, I attended two events aimed at training Muslim leaders. In both, leaders were excited at the prospect of using community organizing methods to transform both their own organizations and wider society. At the same time, many also expressed profound anxiety over all the talk of power and collectively-negotiated values, which were feared to be potentially un-Islamic. Finally, and relatedly, with a model of politics that attempts to be so personal there is the question of how diverse individual biographies come to be woven into the broader collectives Citizens UK works to organize.
My first six weeks at the organization have been very busy – sometimes to the point where it has felt chaotic. Shadowing organizers, even within the relatively narrow remit agreed for my research, has meant visiting multiple cities, attending dozens of meetings, meeting hundreds of people, and trying to understand the values and perspectives of around 23 key member organizations – each of which is hardly a unified entity itself. I certainly feel that I have my work cut out for me. But if I have learnt anything so far, it is that this scope and diversity is simply a part of how community organizers at Citizens UK operate, and it is essential to how they produce political change. After all, all organizing is disorganizing.