Community organising is all about shifting the power dynamic, so that the community can build power, and exercise it collectively to influence decisions made about them.
This all culminates in an ‘action’ – the moment when organised people confront their target, face to face, for a desired decision. This could be in an office with a handful of people, or at a large public assembly. These are a few of the key elements to running a successful action.
You have done your research, you know who your target is, and you’ve got them to the meeting. The target cannot be an organisation or institution; it must be the specific person who has the power to say yes to your demand. If you don’t have the right person in the room there can be no action.
Your demand has to be specific enough to know if you have won, and it has to be realistic. Most people would say yes if asked ‘Are you going to try to reduce poverty?’, but there is no clear way of saying afterwards if they have done it or not. Asking ‘Will you pay all of your employees the Living Wage by 1st January?’ is clear enough to declare a win if they say yes, and specific enough to hold the target to account if they don’t do as they promised.
Do your research
Not only should you know that what you are asking is feasible, you should know what is going to motivate your target to say yes. What is their self-interest? The aim should be to create a win-win situation, which satisfies both the target’s self-interest and the community’s shared self-interest. Be prepared for things to go wrong!Keeping in control of the action is vital. A lot of this can be done beforehand in a pre-meeting. Decide who is going to speak and what they are going to say. Time your agenda, to the minute. Being organised and running a professional action makes your target much more likely to take you seriously and say yes. However, they might have their own ideas, and power people seem to like to steal the show! Treat them with respect, and explain beforehand how long they will have to speak. Have a chairperson who is confident enough to move speakers on, and have someone acting as a timekeeper who can really concentrate on the timings and can back the chairperson up. If the speaker ignores the chair, consider having a backup plan such as a very loud buzzer, turning the microphone off, or a signal which tells everyone in the room to start applauding. The crucial moment is your demand. It must be clear, and your target should be given an opportunity to respond with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The person asking must be prepared for the target trying to evade this – they must reinforce the question and not give up until they receive a yes or no response.
Hopefully you will get the right result, so make sure everybody knows; celebrate! Thank your target, offer to work with them to make sure it happens. Many of these community organising techniques are common sense, but I have been in many a meeting where the right target is there, but all that happens is several people rant at them angrily about a whole host of personal problems, and nothing is achieved. If we are serious about taking action in the community we must be clear about our goal, passionate about the issue, and ready to hold each other to account, as well as our target. We must be organised.
TCC is an alliance of community groups, faith groups, and schools from across North East Wales. Any of our members can raise an issue to work on. One of our members is St Giles’ Parish Church. The church is in Wrexham town centre, and being one of the ‘seven wonders of Wales’ is a popular tourist attraction. However, tourists and church goers alike had seen an increase in anti-social behaviour: people drinking, openly taking drugs, and littering the church grounds. TCC members thoroughly researched the issue, building allies with local shop owners who were facing the same problems. They found out that Police Community Support Officers were currently taking part in a pilot scheme which meant they had to be in certain places at certain times. It became apparent that this was having a detrimental impact on the town centre. TCC invited the Police Inspector for Wrexham to attend a public assembly, which over 100 people attended. At the assembly, TCC members from St Giles’ talked about how the issue was affecting them, how the elderly volunteer gardening team were regularly clearing up broken glass and drug needles. They shared stories from the business owners, who said that people were using their shop doorways to drink and inject drugs, putting people off coming into the shops and also putting them off visiting the town centre altogether. This had all been well planned and rehearsed beforehand.
The Police Inspector was then given three minutes to respond to the points raised. A lighting system showed green to start, amber when he had 30 seconds remaining, and red when his time was up. Having the lights in a place where the whole meeting could see them meant that it was very obvious if any of the speakers overran their time, and gave the chair more confidence to get the speaker to stop. After the Inspector had spoken, he was asked to stay on stage, and one of our members delivered the ‘ask’: “Will you increase the numbers of PCSOs patrolling St Giles’ and the town centre?”. The inspector promised to do so, and on the front page of the local newspaper the next day was quoted saying how impressed he was with TCC’s public assembly, and that he was scrapping the pilot scheme, to ensure an increased presence of PCSOs around St Giles and the town centre. Success! This was a carefully run action, which showed community members as being well-informed and well organised. We had thought about the inspector’s self-interest; he wants to provide the most effective policing possible, so we provided evidence which showed the current system was not working. His role is a high profile one, for which reputation is very important. Having over 100 people there, and the fact that the story was going to be reported in the newspaper, meant he would want to be seen to be taking the community’s concerns seriously. Having a specific ask meant he became publically committed to getting PCSOs back into the town centre. The Inspector acted on this commitment immediately, which was a fantastic success for the local community.