Frontline voices: Mark Parker – community organising and politics

Mark Parker /   June 29, 2015 at 8:33 PM 4,177 views

In the seventh post in this series on voices from the frontline, Mark Parker talks about his commitment to community organising – and how it is ultimately all about relationships. Community organising is all about developing the collective power of citizens to determine their own way to fulfilment and well-being. Politics is an everyday matter. It is the shared endeavour of community members to find an inclusive and participatory future and deliberately shifts power toward broad, democratic, open and accountable grass-roots organisations. I have been involved in community organising for about three years now and have a longer history of over ten years in management of a national community sector organisation. Whilst I am still learning my craft as an organiser, I decided to use my blog to share the journey with friends and colleagues when I completed my MA in Community Organising at QMUL in Mile End. Now I’m working in Camberwell as a self-employed community organiser supported by Cambridge House. Our democracy leaves so much of our society without a voice. Most people regard politics as a dirty word and their lives are led to avoid anything to do with politicians and the parties they represent. Most people organise themselves to stay out of the way of shared decision-making or collective action and so they are seen as apathetic and unengaged. But when you actually respect their views, listen to their opinions and trust their insights, they open up. Organising is all about inviting citizens back into the public realm – but on their terms! Participation is often used in policy speak as a gesture toward accountability but most such exercises are about a pre-determined agenda against a tight deadline driven by political and financial constraints and often with little or no real potential for movement from the desired end-point. For ‘the people’ to really have their say, we need to be able to determine our own agenda democratically, work in ways and at times that suit our process and style, and to be able to hold to public account those who have the power and position to deliver. In essence, community organising is about creating an independent place for civil society to call state, for-profit and voluntary enterprises to account, to find together the common good. Remaking politics from the grassroots – for that’s what community organising seeks to achieve – has already had significant impact on the UK scene. The work of Citizens UK is the most prominent of the networks and their work has shaped the Coalition’s programme of community organiser training currently in its second year. Citizens UK has been behind several key campaigns that have delivered tangible benefits for people on low incomes. Their most high profile effort has taken ten years and more but the Living Wage is now a widely acknowledged element of good business practice. Since 2001, the campaign has impacted over 45,000 employees and put over £210 million into the pockets of some of the lowest paid workers in the UK. Alongside their wish to earn enough to have time to spend with their families, Citizens UK members have also highlighted the street safety of young people. As a direct result of children and young people feeling threatened and intimidated, CitySafe Havens have been designed to provide places of refuge where trained volunteers commit to reporting all crime. In London alone they now number over 300. At the 2010 General Election, Citizens UK called a national Assembly at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster and invited all three main party leaders to respond to an agenda developed by Citizens UK chapters themselves. The date was set only three days before the election but all three leaders turned up; all three made commitments in front of 2,000 people on the issues that the people had voted onto the agenda. The ‘fourth leaders’ debate’ was a spectacular success and drove home the impact that community organising can have on UK politics. By far the largest and most ambitious UK organising effort is the new government-backed training programme supporting 500 organisers through a year’s intensive on-the-job training. The contract was won by Locality and so far about 220 fresh recruits in six cohorts have begun their journey. I was one of the first cohort which graduated in September 2012 and are now beginning to form a new network of independent organisers across the country. Each organiser supports a group of local leaders who also learn the listening approach (making up a further 4,500 ‘volunteer organisers’) and we are all drawn together once a year at an Action Camp which provides solidarity, training and opportunities to organise nationally. Organising is remodelling how we do politics but the essence of organising is about relationships. Unless politics (and the policy that flows from it) are built on trusting relationships, we are bound to repeat the mistakes of the last decades. Relational housing policy, health care and education policy are a real possibility but require the application of a listening, personal yet public process that is both challenging and exhilarating. Growing policy from the grassroots guerrilla-style takes time, courage, guts and determination and no little willingness to challenge established orthodoxy. Courtesy of Mark Parker. Mark blogs at Southwark Organising

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