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Community Organising through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching - St Davids Catholic Sixth Form College

Community Organising through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching - St Davids Catholic Sixth Form College

-Richard Weaver & Geraint Williams

From the margins to the centre

This is the story of the power of Community Organising to bring people on the margins of their institution and community into the centre of its life and to be able to work together with others to bring about change which benefits them and many others across both their institution and community.

St David’s is a Roman Catholic Sixth Form College located just north of the centre of the City of Cardiff. The college has around 1,500 students, from across Cardiff and also drawing students from Catholic and other schools in Barry, west of Cardiff, and from Merthyr Tydfil, Pontypridd, and Caerphilly, in the South Wales Valleys. The College was a founding member of the first Citizens UK alliances in Wales in 2014. Voter registration and other actions ahead of the 2015 UK Parliament elections were early actions in the College supported by Organisers. A team of students learned about the importance of voting and led a voter registration drive across all the tutorial groups in the College. This demonstrated how taking a Community Organising approach to registering students to vote led to 95 per cent of the students in the college being registered and ready to vote. Voter registration has become part of the normal practice and culture of the College with very large numbers of students registering to vote ahead of every Senedd, local, and Westminster elections since then.

Community Organising was seen as an integral part of the College’s Catholic ethos. The College had a desire to build and develop its ambition to become a genuine community and commit itself to the common good and support those on the margins. It drew a lot of its ambition for community organising from the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum, which was a key document on Catholic Social Teaching. For the College, Community Organising was the vehicle to develop a relational culture within its institution so it could reach out to the wider catholic community and beyond.

Drawing on Catholic Social Teaching in relation to the dignity of work, a team of students from St David’s organised with other Citizens Cymru Wales members to successfully convince Cynthia Ogbonna, the head of Cardiff Bus Company, for the company to become an accredited Living Wage employer, thus leading to a substantial pay rise for many of their workers across the city.

Building on the success of their Living Wage actions, a leadership development programme for students was developed. Over the course of the academic year, this programme would provide them with the tools to make change using Community Organising and an experience of the five steps to social change model: organise, listen, plan, act, and negotiate.

Through conversations with staff in the College, one key hope was that the programme would enable students to reflect on Catholic faith and Catholic Social Teaching and to put this into practice while studying. One senior staff member said that a hope for them would be that students would be inspired by what former students had achieved and that their ambitions on what they would want to change would be raised above a focus on the price of chips in the college canteen. Several staff also hoped that that working as part of the Citizens programme would enable students to talk more with others in the College and break down barriers between some groups. One teacher expressed it like this: ‘at the end of each lesson, the students leave the classroom with their phones clamped to their ears. I know that they are not on a call, but this is a way for them not to have to have to talk to anyone.

This College may well be the last institution they are part of before going into work or further study. I am really worried that, if they don’t learn how to communicate with people who are not just from their immediate family, and friendship group while they are here in the college, they will never learn it. And that will impact on our churches and communities and broader society if it is full of people who struggle to relate to and communicate with other people who come from a different background or perspective to them.’

In the first weeks of the autumn term, every new student in the college attended an introductory session on Community Organising, including hearing from an ex-student of the College who had been involved in the Cardiff Bus Living Wage campaign. From this, twenty-five students were selected to be part of the Citizens student community leadership programme in the College. These students were a diverse bunch, from different parts of Cardiff and South Wales, several who had grown up outside the UK and recently arrived in Wales, and a mix of those who were seen as academic high-flyers along with other students who were resitting GCSEs alongside their College courses and others who were doing vocational courses.

Among them was James who, with his sister and mum, had just moved to Cardiff from the top end of one of the Valleys so he could study at the college and so his sister was much closer to her cleaning jobs. James, like several of the group, had little confidence in himself and was nervous to even speak in a small group in the initial sessions of the programme. James had moved from a small, former, coal-mining town where few of his friends stayed on for college and young people from there often felt that people in Cardiff and elsewhere had a dim view of this area and an even dimmer view of young people from the town.

The initial sessions focused on building a sense of team. Discussions focused on what the students wanted to change that would make their community an even better place for everyone and their personal experience of issues. Several of the students raised the issue of cycle lanes on the roads around the college. Or, rather, the lack of them and where, there were some, it was mostly in short stretches which seemed to start and stop at random. As a result, few students were regularly cycling to the college.

To get our research started, we did a neighbourhood walk as a group to map out where the cycle lanes were and where new ones could be added or existing ones extended. However, from our conversations on the walk it became clear that none of the students in the group were coming to the college by bike. In addition to the lack of cycle lanes, the steep hill, Penylan Road, leading to the College, may well have been a factor in deterring cyclists. But then the conversation turned to how the students were actually getting to the college. Some were walking but most were taking at least one bus each day. Several of the students were relying on two buses to get to College on time and to get home. This was James’ experience and he shared it with the rest of the group.

Some of the students coming from outside Cardiff were depending on a train and then a bus. All of them had stories of being late for their first lesson of the day and of being late home because of a bus being late or so overcrowded that they could not get on the bus or train. This was an issue that was directly affecting them almost daily and so something these students wanted to change.

Ahead of the half term break, the students talked to their peers from across the college to listen to see if other students were also experiencing problems with their bus or train journeys to the college. Due to the diversity of the group, they represented many different tutorial and subject groups and between them they organised themselves to talk to all the tutorial groups in the College. James and a number of the other students also undertook research actions at the bus stops close to the college in the mornings and on their way home. Several of the students also contacted other local institutions that had lots of members using the same local bus routes serving the College. These included the local Roman Catholic parish, Cardiff Metropolitan University, and Cardiff University.

The students then met together to discuss what they had heard and learned from this listening and the research actions. They had heard many stories of problems with buses and trains. Students, older people, and those with small children all shared experiences of buses turning up late and of often having to wait for the second or third bus to come before they could even get on the bus. This was particularly true of two of the Cardiff Bus routes serving St David’s College – the number 57 and 58 buses.

As a result, there were many stories of students regularly being late for their first lesson of the day. Cumulatively, this added up to hundreds of learning hours missed already in the autumn term alone. Students from the college and university also shared their experiences of the buses in the mornings and after College and comparing this to their experience of catching buses in the middle of the day. Somewhat paradoxically, the buses on the routes at the start and end of the College day were often single-decker buses, whereas in the middle of the day there were more double-decker buses. So, there were overcrowded single-decker buses at peak times and half empty double-decker buses sailing past empty bus stops on the routes in the middle of the day. This didn’t make sense to the students. Surely it should be the other way round. After all, all they wanted was for their buses to run on time!

The students decided to take action; to get this issue and their solution recognised by Cynthia Ogbonna, the Chief Executive of Cardiff Bus Company, and to get a chance to meet and negotiate with her and others from the senior management team for Cardiff Bus. It was coming up to Christmas and so the students decided that a Christmas themed action would be best. And in the planning meetings for the action, the creativity of the students went into over-drive!

One of the quieter students, Edward, revealed that he was a keen musician. In the space of a few days, he had written alternative words to Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer so that the song was now all about buses coming down Penylan Hill. Edward, another student who had been nervous to speak in the group at the start of term had found his voice. The students were keen to deliver a Christmas gift to Cynthia Ogbonna and her staff as part of the action. But what should it be? Well, what did they want – double-decker buses on the 57 and 58 bus routes at peak times. So, the students decided that the perfect Christmas gift would be to give a double-decker chocolate bar to every staff member at Cardiff Bus Company. They found out that there 700 staff members including all the drivers, cleaners, security, and office staff. 700 double decker chocolate bars were bought, and each one had a gift tag attached to it. On one side of the tag, students from across the college wrote something that they loved about Cardiff Bus Company. And on the other side, they wrote that getting double decker buses at peak times would make them love Cardiff Bus even more! Emily and Julia, two others in the group who were studying art and film studies in the college, volunteered to design and make a giant Christmas card with pictures of Cardiff buses replacing baubles on the tree.

The day of the action arrived. The students travelled by College minibus down to the headquarters of Cardiff Bus company on Sloper Road in Cardiff. James was dressed in a Father Christmas outfit. Several other students were dressed as elves and everyone else was wearing a Santa hat. James and the elves carried present sacks full of the chocolate bars, each with its gift tag attached. They and the other students approached the senior executives from Cardiff Bus Company carrying the gifts and singing their song. To be fair, the staff, who knew we were coming and were lined up outside the offices, looked a bit bemused. We could spot the grins of the drivers and other workers back in the depths of the bus depot. James, in his Father Christmas outfit, spoke briefly to explain what their campaign and how doubledecker buses would make a big difference to them and many other students and local residents. The staff promised to pass on the gifts and agreed to meet in the new year.

Change soon came as a result of their action. By the February half term, the students who had planned and delivered their campaign action and others in the College were seeing more double-decker buses on the 57 and 58 bus routes at peak times.

They were now much more often able to get on the first bus that came along, rather than having to wait for the second or even third bus because of an overcrowded singledecker bus. They could see and experience the change they had made.

However, the students didn’t want to stop there. For many of the students, improving cycling routes and bus services also connected very strongly with their interests for more action on environmental issues. Having won change through their bus campaign, they had the confidence to think about other problems which they experienced daily and which they wanted to change. The College had introduced wooden recyclable cutlery in the college canteen. But if students went off site for a lunch break, as many did, then much of the packaging and materials for their takeaway lunch was not recyclable. The students again undertook a listening campaign across the College and with university students, discussed what they had heard and planned how they could take action. They organised a recycled art exhibition in the College which every student could enter. It was wellattended, and they used this to do further listening on people’s experiences of takeaways close to the College.

By the last weeks before Easter, they were ready to take action again. They decided to target a favourite takeaway for St David’s College students, Benny’s Fried Chicken. The students loved their chicken and chips but didn’t like their polystyrene packaging and plastic forks, none of which could be recycled. On a Monday afternoon after College, the team of students who had planned the action along with a group of other students who had agreed to join the action walked down Penylan Hill together to Benny’s Fried Chicken. This time, James and Edward had volunteered to dress in chicken costumes! Forty-five students lined up outside the takeaway and then formed an orderly queue, each one of them carrying a recyclable food box to put chicken and chips in. They formed a long queue leading up to the counter, snaking back out and along the road. None of the other takeaways were as busy at 5pm on a Monday afternoon, and so the long queue – added to the students dressed up as bright yellow chickens – got the attention of other businesses and people passing by. When a student reached the counter, they ordered chicken or chips or both, explained that they were concerned about the environmental impact of using polystyrene packaging and asked that their food be put in the recyclable cardboard food box. They also asked for a meeting with the manager for a group to be able to discuss for the takeaway to make the move to fully recyclable packaging. The initial students were told that the manager was not there and no meeting would be possible. By the third student, the staff had caught on that there was a pattern to what was being requested, or would be requested, by everyone in the queue. And by the sixth or seventh student the manager had appeared from a space in the back of the takeaway and sat down with James and Edward and other students from the group for an impromptu negotiation. They got a commitment to meet again on how a change in packaging could be made. The students were thrilled with their progress in this second campaign.

The local authority elections in Cardiff and across Wales were coming up in May that year. James and many of the core group of students from St David’s College were among around two hundred people from member institutions across Cardiff meeting for an Accountability Assembly with the leaders of the main parties in Cardiff Council.

James, Edward, Emily and Julia shared about their successful bus campaign and asked the party leaders to work with them to reduce the use of single use plastics and non-recyclable materials by takeaways in the city. All of the party leaders agreed on the night to work with the students on this. Following the election, the Welsh Labour group took on leadership of Cardiff City Council and in their programme for government was a clear commitment on reducing the use of single-use plastics.

Students from St David’s College learned the skills of Community Organising, developed their leadership skills and put these into action with other institutions in the city to make change on issues they prioritised. Over the year, the College had also become a more relational place, with strong relationships formed between students following vastly different courses and from very different backgrounds. Tensions between different groups have reduced or disappeared altogether. And James and other students who had felt on the margins of the College and their communities went from being nervous to speak in front of a small group to being able to confidently share their campaigns and asks with the head of Cardiff Bus Company and Council leaders and play a central role in making positive change.

Education - Power - Change

Education Power Change

This is an extract from Education Power Change by Sebastien Chapleau.
Click below to download your free e-book and read more case studies on schools involved in Community Organising

Citizens UK is made up of hundreds of member organisations that are committed to taking action together for social justice and the common good.

We believe that faith, education, trade union and community organisations play a vital role as civil society institutions with deep and long-standing roots in their local areas. Through voluntary participation in these organisations, people build relationships, trust, vision and hope - and learn how to work constructively with those they might disagree with, to focus on what they have in common.

Posted by Lauren Del Fabbro on 22 Mar, 2023