To build and sustain a broad-based people’s organisation, like London Citizens, is the corporate job of civil society leaders, their institutions and Community Organisers, for whom this is a vocation.
These Citizens organisations need to be owned and therefore funded, as much as possible, by local community institutions in order that they are fully able to honour the agenda and interests of their people and their sector – civil society. Building an organisation such as this takes time, patience and requires the work of skilled technicians. The craft of Community Organising is best learned in action – which of course does not always go smoothly, inevitably there will be disappointments, let downs and frustrations along the way. However, thanks to the tenacity of Organisers and leaders Citizens UK’s 22 year history has been marked by success in community building, leadership development and systemic changes. This revival of the tradition of broad-based Organising in the UK moves us a little closer to the world as it should be.
On 9th November Battersea over 400 leaders from 50 member institutions of South London Citizens met at a Delegates Assembly, for their eighth year pledging to continue to work together for the common good. They publicly paid their dues, welcomed new groups into membership, ratified a new leadership team and voted on the agenda they wish to present the London mayoral candidates next April (prior to the election on 3rd May 2012). The authentic testimony which supported each proposal was as strong and passionate from the primary school children calling for a safer London, as it was from overcrowded families arguing for better housing, as it was from our college students pleading for more jobs and opportunities. At the evening’s crescendo South London Citizens voted safer streets as their top priority for the ensuing year and for the mayoral agenda. Over the last month across the Citizens UK network over one-thousand people have gathered in similar Assemblies to debate, discuss and vote for their own agenda’s – pledging to stay working together in order to achieve their ambitious aims. Delegates at TELCO voted jobs as their priority while for the new North London Citizens chapter and Citizens:MK safer streets came out top. Next week will see West London Citizens and newly founded Shoreditch Citizens define what working together for the common good means in their locale. Each of these governance actions gives our members an enriching experience of democracy and compromise, act as an opportunity for fellowship and builds our power.
Over the years we have learnt that it takes tension and confident character to organise for a mutually beneficial relationship with the power brokers whose decisions impact our neighbourhoods and families. While many organise for change without a relationship, worrying that relationships may contaminate or distract from their task, Citizens believes that it is only through relationships that civil society can be taken seriously and negotiate for change.
When TELCO began back in 1996 we analysed that a working relationship was needed with the developers and property company who were building Canary Wharf, so we invited them to our Founding Assembly. They did not come. An empty chair was places on stage and the next day headlines across the national press read “New Citizens organisation launched in east London but Canary Wharf spoils the party”! This tension and the continued work of TELCO leaders eventually achieved an effective working relationship with Canary Wharf which continues today and has steadily expanded to include most of the tenants on the estate. It is these relationships characterised by respect and tension which have resulted in the international headquarters of law firms and banks who call Canary Wharf home paying all their staff at least a Living Wage – this achievement which would have been impossible without this honest and continuing interaction of civil society and the market.
On 30th November 2,000 leaders in east London will be celebrating the 15th Anniversary of TELCO – Canary Wharf will be represented even agreeing to sponsor the anniversary brochure and add a message of congratulations. We will also be joined by the major power players of the 2012 London Olympics who have been working with us to ensure that next year will see the first Living Wage Olympic Games.
Leaders from South London Citizens were recently invited to meet the new head of the Tate Modern, Chris Dercon – in December 2006, 200 south London leaders accompanied by the BBC briefly occupied the Turbine Hall singing carols skewed to call for a Living Wage. Mr Dercon had heard of our creative use of gallery space and was a presented with a photograph showing the action which lead to the Tate paying a Living Wage. He pledged his commitment to working with us, give us access to the facilities of the museum and jointly plan to support the people who live the neighbourhoods surrounding the Tate.
Finally a warm invitation to all our friends and members to join us on Thursday 15th December from 10.00 to 16.00 for London Citizens’ most original seasonal action – a historic Pageant through the streets of east London in celebration of the role civil society has played in making London great. The Pageant will start in Whitechapel and with the support of marching bands, Chinese Lions, drummers and delegations from across our membership we will walk to a Assembly in St John-at-Hackney Church just off Mare St to celebrate the three major seasonal festivals of Eid-al-Adha, Hanukkah and Christmas. Please register your institution with firstname.lastname@example.org and check our web site for more information.
At the onset of a very busy period of action it is important that we reflect upon and take the lessons from history as it is this that prepares us for our future: Patience is a virtue but sometimes, so is a bit of tension.
Neil Jameson. November 2011