By John Haines, Taunton Deane and South Sedgemoor Methodist Circuit
280 people turned out on a late winter midweek evening to come to the Founding Assembly for Citizens Somerset, the latest Chapter to be established under the umbrella of Citizens UK. Hosted by Richard Huish College in Taunton they were engaging in this latest venture of community organising, demonstrating that people are genuinely interested in active expressions of local democracy, whatever the frustrations with national politics at this time.
Those present heard presentations from the organising group about the work that has gone on to get us to this point but they were also entertained - with a filmed rap from local students illustrating Somerset’s often rebellious history, some rousing folk songs from “three girls and a one-eyed dog” and a very professional documentary about Somerset as a county.
The launch of Somerset Citizens represents the culmination of several years work, initially around the move to welcome refugee families into the county. This has led to 30 such families being settled and inspired those involved to see how other local issues could be tackled through community engagement. Eventually this has led to the Founding, on the night, of what is the first Citizens UK chapter in the South-West and the first in a predominantly rural area.
The organisations who committed themselves at the launch as Founding Members were the Diocese of Bath & Wells, the West Somerset & Taunton Quakers, the United Reformed Church in Taunton and across Somerset, and the Taunton Deane & South Sedgemoor Methodist Circuit, together with King’s College Taunton, Queen’s College Taunton, Wellington School, Richard Huish College and a group of committed individuals known as Mavericks, described as an organisation for people without an organisation!
Citizens UK’s philosophy is based on listening, listening to local people and understanding what issues matter to them. There is nothing so powerful as hearing individuals’ stories for inspiring people to take action to address injustices. At the launch event we heard a number of such stories and perhaps the most powerful was from a homeless man who, despite being in employment, has struggled to find a settled way in life. His story in itself has been impacted by the three issues which came through strongly in the local listening exercises and which have been adopted as the first priority areas for action - Housing and Homelessness, Community Safety and Public Transport.
So while the launch represented the culmination of something, it is also just the start of the real work and some of the first steps in Community Action. At the end of the event a large proportion of those present committed themselves to getting involved in one or other of the Action Teams and two bodies have expressed interest in joining as Member Organisations.
The Founding Assembly was a launch of two entities - Citizens Somerset as a Chapter of Citizens UK and, within that, a local Alliance in Somerset West and Taunton to reflect the newly created local authority area. While initially the focus will be in the west of the county it is expected that other local Alliances will soon develop with the support of the Leadership Group.
At the end of the Founding Assembly thanks were extended to Richard Weaver who has supported the work in Somerset while “on loan” from his role as Community Organiser with Citizens Cymru Wales. A welcome was also extended to Hero Austin who is going to take on a part-time role as Community Organiser for Citizens Somerset, with some continuing input from Richard.