about community organising

I began my work as a Community Organiser in Sheffield in 2012. By that time I had lived in the UK for about six months and was suddenly drawn through a national training programme into a profession where large parts of your working day you were intertwined with discussions about politics, social issues, culture and yes, even Coronation Street. As you can imagine, the learning curve was steep (I still don’t know any of the Corrie characters though). Below is a reflective introduction to community organising that reflects my understanding and take on it, rather than trying to recreate facts based on previous literature on the subject in a texbook manner. I have not inserted references into the text, but have complied a list of readings at the end that have influenced the way in which I discuss community organising, and also practice it. Further discussion is welcomed.

Before coming to England I worked for three months in a Japanese non-profit organisation called Fathering Japan while conducting fieldwork for my master’s thesis. At that time I was researching the gendered nature of childcare duties in Japan, and what benefits the increased involvement of men in childcare could do to the country and to established gender norms. Since taking childcare leave as a man in Japan is rare, the act in itself can have an isolating effect on men and the organisation I worked for had managed to create a tight network of men who provided not only peer support to one another, but were campaigning and raising awareness on the benefits of active fatherhood. However, what impressed me even more was the organisation of the membership and the contributions people were making to the organisation itself through their own expertise, skills and experiences. Activities were thriving and the network proved unexpected value in moments of crisis as well; the head of the organisation told me that during 3/11 when people were stuck in trains and distant locations unable to get to their families, the network that was connected to one another through the organisation sprang into action through Twitter, text messages, emails and phone calls. Someone may have been stuck on a train between Tokyo and Yokohama, worried about their family, contacted another person in their neighbourhood who then ran to the local school and kindergarten to check that children were ok. It was a network in action. This was the first time I began to understand what it means to have a community around you.

When I came to England I came across the term community development for the first time. Community is not something that I ever reflected on in Finland. I grew up in the countryside so the number of people was not great, but we all knew each other and everything about each other. This was just a matter-of-fact and I never had to spare much thought for it. While living in the city however the community constitutes a different kind of beast. You know there is someone living in the flat next to you and you respect each other but interaction is kept to a minimum. The city seemed like an organism where you could not function without your faceless neighbour or other people who make up the city but there was no need to know anything personal about the other person, or even interact. ‘Community’ was something that happened around you but not with you. It was a sense of mutual understanding that did not require interaction. While understanding the concept of community development and seeing the value of it was self-explanatory for me when starting to work in the field, despite the fact that I never really experiences a sense of geographic community after leaving the warm and somewhat naive surroundings of the Finnish countryside in the way it is understood in the UK, the process of community development as an activity, as practice, was something I had a hard time getting to grips with…it just seemed a little invasive, even bothersome to me. But I was determined to understand what, why and how of community development as the whole thing intrigued me; and as I said, I could see the potential and the value of it.

According to United Nations, community development is a process where community members come together and collectively action and generate solutions to common problems. This is pretty much the jist of it but what is meant by the ‘process’ requires a little unpacking that I will be doing below. However, the picture I painted above of the Japanese NPO, their network and their community exemplifies how communities function and support one another.

But community development is not just about networks and social capital, it is both a profession and a process, whose key purpose is to build solidarity and agency, increase equality and mutual respect. There are many community development approaches that vary in terms of their methods, techniques of engagement and processes, and here I am talking about community development as a general approach, an umbrella term that encompasses these various approaches to reaching solidarity and agency. In practice community development means empowerment and takes place through activities that help identify the felt needs of each community, support self-help in localities and induce wide scale participation in decision-making, planning and action. People need to understand their experiences and how they can mobilise the skills gained through these experiences.

Kuvankaappaus 2015-9-12 kello 22.36.24Community Organising is just one approach to building solidarity and agency within the broader community development agenda. It is a grassroots approach to shifting community power, identifying root causes of social problems, development of local leadership and networks and actioning community-led plans for local development. It is distinct from social work that is a broad professional field encompassing health and well-being, social care, welfare administration, elder care, family services, etc. and the social worker might shift between the roles from an advocate to an organiser. The key aims are similar, related to social justice and providing voice, and helping people to help themselves. However, social work can easily be associated with a professional service attached to existing authorities to support services to those in need, whereas a community organiser aims to work independently on the agenda of the community itself, with the ultimate aim, according to Saul Alinsky the father of modern community organising, of “organising yourself out of a job”.

Community organising is therefore essentially about power and influence, who has it, who uses it, and who for? Especially for Alinsky, organising is about seeking controversies and conflicts, rather than avoiding them in the fear of disrupting cohesion and consensus. While there is nothing wrong with the latter two, it is important to remember that conflict also has its perks. The discussion in the video below exemplifies the challenging nature of Alisky’s approach to organising.

The primary method of community organising is challenging discussion and exploration of real needs and reflecting on the structures within which we construct our lives, identifying barriers and understanding concepts that bind us or set us free. It is not only an exploratory process, but also an extremely reflective one. The issues emerge out of the conversation that is led by the community’s own agenda, not that of the organiser (or researcher when utilised in a research context), setting organising apart from the task of asking for mere opinions and consultation where the agenda is pre-set by an external agent. From the perspective of community organising, consultation does not adhere to the democratic principles and is therefore not a tool for organisers. A cynic would probably say that consultation is there only to play the game of democracy in order to validate an already existing decision through creative forms of analysis.

However, for Alinsky conversation is not enough. The Community Organiser is primarily an agitator whose job is to agitate the community and organise them behind their self-identified goals in order to attain them. The organiser needs to have ideas on how to turn the idealism of the community into practical action that is done by disorganising the existing power structures in order to be able to re-organise them in a more egalitarian and just way that addresses the issues that were identified in the first place. Above Alinsky discusses equality and states: “If I give you equality you don’t actually have it […] if I am strong enough to give it to you I am strong enough to take it away as well”. For him, equality is something that is acquired, not handed down. Power is a central theme for Alinsky, around which community organising takes place.

Kuvankaappaus 2015-9-12 kello 22.03.04John Gaventa is another power enthusiast worth mentioning here. He revolutionised the understanding of community power within sociological research and helped cement participatory research as a valid method of inquiry within the sociological research. For Gaventa power is three dimensional, an aspect of analysis that he has since applied to citizen participation as well. The three dimensions are the ability to win political feats, determine the politicisation of social issues, and whether the people affected by the issues have identified them as such. Gaventa implies that citizen participation that matches the dimensions of power offer strategies that address each aspect in a different way. Here’s an excerpt from his 1995 article on the subject:

If we approach the question of citizenship from a pluralist framework, our emphasis will be on building political efficacy and advocacy skills necessary to influence decision-making on key issues. If we use the second dimension of power, which argues that barriers against such participation are constructed, then our focus will be on organizing to build broad-based citizen organizations which can gain access to the political arena. Who participates will be as important as how to participate effectively. But if we are empowering citizens to deal with the third dimension of power, which focuses on questions of knowledge, culture and consciousness, what people are participating about becomes the critical variable, and forms of political education or awareness-building the crucial strategy.”

Connecting to the final point Gaventa makes on critical awareness and education, Paulo Freire is another influential figure within community organising in the Global South. His approach is pedagogical where education and what Freire calls conscientization aims to increase in-depth understanding and knowledge of the world, how societies work and the role of the individual within it. However, conscientization is not only a reflective and educational tool but also includes forms of action taken against the oppressive factors affecting ones life, developed through the deeper understanding of your own positionality in your own circumstances. Essentially, conscientization is a tool of empowerement and confidence and capacity building through education.

For all three community organising is a two-sided process of reflection and action, neither of which can achieve sustainable development and re-organisation of existing structures without the other. The practice itself I find lies in the intersection of action and research, where the exploration of needs requires the organiser to have skills in both data collection and analysis, as well as people skills in terms of inducing research into a participatory activity with the community. Additionally, the organiser needs to be skilled at inducing action that emerges from the research in order for the research to become meaningful and powerful. This is where Alinsky’s agitator role kicks in.

In practical terms the exploration of needs can be carried out in many forms. There is room for one-to-one conversations, group discussions, workshops, games and exercises through which the organiser poses questions that lead the community members to identify and explore the issues they are facing. Similar processes can be utilised in research context as well where the process is likened to action research. In my research project for instance I am utilising Randy Stoecker’s Project-based research cycle that corresponds with the steps a community organiser would also take when working with a community.

Stoecker's Project-based research cycle. Adapted from Stoecker R. (2005), Research Methods for Community Change, SAGE.

Stoecker’s Project-based research cycle. Adapted from Stoecker R. (2005), Research Methods for Community Change, SAGE.

For a Community Organiser the process is the same, where diagnosis refers to the identification of an issue by the community members, prescribing to setting a plan of action, implementation to action itself carried out by the community and evaluation to the process of understanding and discussing what went well and what went wrong, leading the organiser back to the diagnosis of how the action could be improved.

For me personally it’ll be interesting to test community development and organising not only in a rigorous research context but also in a different cultural context that is Japan. The process itself transfers fluidly across cultural lines, and in Finland activities based on the model surely exist; however, what I feel is the most challenging aspect of transferring this knowledge and process into a new culture, is the semantic aspect of community organising, and in fact of community as well. What does it mean to be a member of a community, what about location and space, how are networks created and evaluated, what is the meaning of privacy, who has ownership and how do we understand power and who should and should not have it? Many of these issues are culture bound…The fact that I did not know anyone in my block of flats many years ago (in fact, it is doubtful whether I would have recognised anyone from the block if they passed me on the street) but this did not make me feel disjointed. The block worked as an organism where communication among residents appeared unnecessary. Silent hours were obeyed, front door was locked, bicycles were stored in an orderly fashion, and refuse was disposed of in the way instructed. Life was ordered, and order was respected.

In the UK however, communication among neighbours sharing the same public space appears to be much more highly regarded, resulting in concerns over loss of community spirit when it is absent. I expect Japan to resemble an in-between society where privacy is valued but communication is demanded by a social contract that mandates participation in community activities. In Finland the communication between residents appears to be achieved through the mutual understanding that we all understand what we are supposed to do; no words necessary. This naturally affects the way community development and organising might be viewed and understood in various locations, but I maintain that the core principles of achieving agency and solidarity are still valid irrespective of the cultural context, and it is the methods of practice that need to assume the responsibility of respecting and adhering to cultural peculiarities.

Some Resources:

Saul Alinsky on professional agitators, Youtube
Saul Alinsky (1971). Rules for Radicals. Random House.
Randy Stoecker (2005). Research methods for community change. SAGE
John Gaventa (1980). Power and Powerlessness: Quiscene and rebellion in an Appalachian valley.
John Gaventa (1995). Citizen Knowledge, Citizen Competence and Democracy Building. The Good Society, Vol. 5, No. 3 (fall 1995).
Alison Gilchrist and Marilyn Taylor (2011). A short guide to community development. Policy Press.
Freire Institute
Community Organisers Programme
Community Work in Britain


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