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Migrant community businesses organise

Citizens UK is the national home of community organising where people powered democracy is put into action by civil society alliances in over 14 towns and cities. One of its oldest alliances is here in Birmingham where since 2013 faith, education, trade union, community and enterprise organisations have teamed up to win change on range of issues from living wage, neighbourhood safety, youth mental health and refugee welcome. This craft of community organising does more than focus on campaigns, it is preoccupied with the importance of people being able to participate in public life and affect decisions affecting their lives. Being at the table, not on the menu.

So, when over 500 community leaders from Citizens UK packed the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham in March 2015 calling on the elected leader of the city council to resettle 50 Syrian refugees from UN Camps, unbeknown an important chain of events was launched which will agitate local agencies to think differently about the world of business support and inclusive growth. One of the attendees, Professor Monder Ram, the Director of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME), quizzed me about the diversity and scale of the participation he witnessed in the Great Hall, as many were from ethnic minority backgrounds public agencies often say are so ‘hard to reach’.

So, 18 months later - after a series of focus groups - the first ever project to try and use community organising tools to get business support to entrepreneurs in local High Streets frequented by Birmingham’s migrant and refugee communities was created.

‘Pounding the streets’

Called the ‘Business Leaders Project’, a unique partnership between Citizens UK, CREME, NatWest Bank and the Growth Hub of the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Partnership was established between 2017 and 2019 to reach out to 300 ethnic minority business owners working intensively with 60 of them through a combination of free surgeries, workshops, events and 1-to-1 help.

The person on the ground was Dr Mosese Dakunivosa who through slow, respectful work established relationships with business owners in the ‘economically disadvantaged’ neighbourhoods of Lozells, Small Heath & Sparkbrook. Most of these shop keepers, internet cafes, money exchanges, independent gyms and social enterprises had never received any help before from the region’s long running business support agencies. Few were hardly ever contacted in person, and if they were it tended to be a council officer regarding trading standards or regulation. Their communities and high streets did not appear in the city’s promotion to visitors, so much so major international sports and cultural events will be held in the city with little if any trade benefit to these neighbourhoods.

What Mosese found from ‘pounding the streets’ listening and working with every business owner were the following:

  1. They did not have a relentless urgency for ‘Growth’ - as in scaling up to be a major business with £1M+ turnover in a short period of time. They were mostly keen to survive long-term.
  2. Navigating housing, education, immigration and community safety issues were as important to them as ‘working on their business.’
  3. Many prioritised their contributions to their community by offering regular time, money and energy to support a place of worship, charitable causes and/or diaspora network. Perhaps contrary to traditional British business sentiment of ‘you give back when you’ve made it’.
  4. Trust and relationship building were vital for their participation, as because of their experiences of (2) above, anyone from a public agency might be starting on a deficit.

Inclusive Growth

During recent years, the term ‘Inclusive Growth’ has become topical on the radar of policy makers and Think-Tanks. The OECD says, ‘Inclusive growth is economic growth that is distributed fairly across society and creates opportunities for all.’

In Autumn of 2019, Citizens UK teamed up with NESTA to unpack what a community organising approach to Inclusive Growth might look like using Birmingham and East London as case studies, with researchers evaluating both.  The plan in Birmingham was to focus on how community organising for the upcoming regional elections might develop greater public participation and leadership capacity of the entrepreneurs to secure pledges on important local issues such as access to opportunities arising from the Commonwealth Games.

A significant amount of work was undertaken to hold events and workshops to pin a set of specific priorities for whoever was seeking to be our next Regional Mayor and Police Commissioner. A logistical road map was implemented to organise up to 1000 people to return to the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham on the 1st of April 2020. Unfortunately, all this intensive effort was brought to a halt when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, and the country entered lockdown in March to deal with the biggest threat to public health in generations.

Covid-19 & Leadership

Immediately, Citizens UK: Birmingham launched a rapid listening campaign to connect with member institutions & community businesses we worked with. Daily telephone calls and online meetings with different faith, education, trade union, business and community leaders revealed a combination of anxiety and uncertainty about the impact of the virus to people’s safety, income and simply way of life. ONS data from April showed the super output areas with excess Covid-19 deaths in Birmingham were where they worked or lived in.

Our response was to focus on what will support every organisation and business we worked with to meet the challenges they now faced, instead of establishing our own Covid-19 mutual support helpline in the city. The excellent co-ordinating work of the Birmingham Voluntary Services Council demonstrated the third sector were ‘quick off the blocks’ to arrange local mutual support groups offering food parcels and other help to vulnerable households. They included many of our member organisations acting with others in their localities to get basic help to those most at risk.

There were three key aspects to our response with business owners:

Establish a Leadership Group

With some of them having years of previous 1:1 engagement through the Business Leaders Project and in recently being involved in shaping the now cancelled pre-election Assembly, there was strong commitment to team up to build their collective power to survive this monumental test.

Deal with immediate threats.

Sisters Care Ltd, a small care firm and a social enterprise, faced huge risks as they were in the bottom of the pecking order to get personal protective equipment (PPE) gear to work because they were not an NHS organisation. A social media campaign by some of the Business Leaders project partners backed by a special Sky news report eventually resulted in donations of PPE gear arriving to them.

Take collective action

  • An online round-table meeting the Senior Officer at Birmingham City Council overseeing the newly announced Business Grant from Government resulted in many of them understanding the eligibility criteria, applying and securing this help.
  • Responding to a tender with 5 of them to help the Council get key public health messages to several different communities was successful offering capacity for some of them to remain operational.
  • A round-table meeting with the Cabinet member for Transport was held urging him to seek further support from government and to consider delaying the roll out of the Clean Air Zone beyond January.

Moving forward into the rest of the Summer of 2020, the priority will be to strengthen the Business Leadership Group as their immediate focus moves on to what being ‘Covid-secure’ means and to step up their participation to shape recovery plans by those in power in the region. More training, collective action and learning is to follow to ensure our exploration of Inclusive Growth is truly about people being ‘at the table and not on the menu’ at a time when it matters the most.

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Newham Citizens leader Caroline Verdant on the 3 things that inspire her to be brave and fight injustice

Caroline Verdant is a Citizens UK leader in Newham, East London (TELCO chapter). Here she tells us how she found her passion for community organising and the three things that inspire her to be brave and fight injustice. 


I  first got involved in community organising through St Antony’s Catholic Primary School, where I work as a Higher Level Teaching Assistant and Performing Arts Shadow Lead. For the last 20 years, St Antony’s have worked with Citizens East London chapter, TELCO, to campaign for local justice and issues like a real Living Wage. I was invited to get involved with Citizens a number of years ago and started attending rallies where I’d see hundreds of people with banners, making noise outside Westminster.

In those earlier years, I wondered what it was all for. Why was I going to these rallies? Who were the people I voted for and what was I really voting on? Asking myself these questions often left me feeling hopeless and wondering what role I could play in helping my community.

Fast forward to today, I'm a completely different person to when my organising journey first started. My confidence has grown so much, where I can now share my own experiences with bigger audiences, set agendas, chair meetings and speak with politicians, while believing that I can lead and change the lives of my community.

These are just three of the things that have inspired my journey to be empowered and brave enough to speak out and help my community.

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Over 125 social care, charity and faith leaders join call for government to fund real Living Wage in social care

Citizens UK is upping pressure on the government to provide a real Living Wage for care workers on the eve of the Chancellor's Covid-19 financial statement.

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Leeds Citizens take action for Living Wage in social care

Leeds Citizens are holding a day of action to show love for care workers during COVID-19 crisis and call on the government to guarantee the real Living Wage.

At 3pm on Thursday 2nd July, 50 faith and community representatives from across Leeds will gather for a visual display to show support for social care workers at Sunnyview House in Beeston. Following social distancing, we will assemble around the building forming an ‘embrace’ representing our love for social care workers.

The Rt Revd Paul Slater, Bishop of Kirkstall (Area Bishop for the City of Leeds) and The Revd Lindsey Pearson, Vicar of Beeston, will perform a blessing for the care home. Faith and community representatives will present gifts for care workers from the communities of Leeds. A message from Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central and a poem by a recipient of social care will also be read.

Click here for details of how to join the action

Sign our petition here and ask your MP to support our campaign

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Why the Government needs to start listening when it comes to Free School Meals

Joanne is a Citizens leader in Tyne and Wear and part of the team campaigning to ensure no child to go hungry during the Covid-19 pandemic. Here she celebrates the announcement that Free School Meals will be covered for children during the summer holidays, but asks what we need to do next to keep these temporary measures permanent. 

I was amazed by the Government’s u-turn on Free School Meals over the summer holidays, following a letter and campaign by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford. Marcus’ letter was heartfelt and from his own experience. For those of us that have been campaigning for this for months, this letter was the much-appreciated and much-needed intervention that raised the profile of this cause, and got a government to take notice. Families will be able to feed their children – for this summer, at least.

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Information can save lives! Organising for advice and guidance in Spanish

Written by Claudia Lopez-Prieto EAL director in St Gabriels College and member of Empoderando Padres, KCL

Lambeth is one of the most diverse boroughs in London, and the Latin American community is the second-fastest-growing and one of the 10 largest communities in the city. Regardless the Latin American community is largely invisible... and so are our needs. 

In Lambeth official guidance and advice had been translated into Somali and Portuguese; however, no translation into Spanish had been made despite being amongst the top languages spoken in the borough. Latin American families were getting information from their home countries or through unofficial sources that were not accurate or applicable to Lambeth and the UK. We had to act.

Lambeth Talk - Lambeth Council's newsletter now in Spanish!

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Interview with Dr Simon Mason: Celebrating Pride Month

Veteran community organiser and Tyne & Wear Citizens leader Dr Simon Mason reflects this Pride month on being involved with the founding of the Living Wage, justice in mental health - and how to improve LGBT representation in Citizens UK local alliances.

How did you get involved with community organising?

I first became involved in community organising in 1996 when I worked as a vicar in Plaistow and North Canning Town, in east London. I was a leader in the early stages of the Living Wage Campaign started by leaders in TELCO. One strand of the campaign was to get banks to adopt the Living Wage. HSBC bank had recently moved its HQ to Canary Wharf and we decided to attend its AGM. We bought shares and a group of leaders attended their AGM in 2001. It was my job to stand up and, through a Point of Order, speak to the AGM about the Living Wage.

"I told the booted and suited audience about the security guards, cleaners and caterers at HSBC who were on poverty wages. People who were having to work two or three jobs each week to make ends meet for their families."

Radio 4 broadcast the TELCO action at the HSBC AGM. It was the first time the phrase, ‘Living Wage’ was heard in the UK. That TELCO action on HSBC bank got us our first meeting with Sir John Bond, the HSBC Chairman. Some thirteen years later HSBC became a Living Wage employer. The same year as the NHS Trust I now work for became a Living Wage employer.

Simon joins a Tyne and Wear Citizens 'Reclaim The Metro' action to support victims of Islamophobic hate

What are the benefits of being a leader within Citizens UK?

I have had the honour of founding two CUK Chapters. The first was TELCO in east London. The second is in my home town of Newcastle. Tyne and Wear Citizens was launched in the autumn of 2017. The iconic Tyne Theatre was filled to capacity as over 1000 delegates from twenty-eight institutions across the region assembled to launch the latest chapter in Citizens UK. This launch broadcast by the BBC came on the back of several years of hard work, with leaders meeting monthly to support a community organiser who worked with us to secure the funding for a full-time organiser and then launch the chapter.

In the room that evening were people from all walks of life - students, university lecturers, charity sector workers, and people of faith - Quaker, Christian and Muslim. Truly a broad-based alliance.

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Temporary support continues for homeless people with No Recourse to Public Funds. Now let's make it permanent

Breaking news: Homeless people who have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) will continue living in temporary accommodation.

On 24th June, Dame Louise Casey clarified that the Government's announcement of £105 million in extra funding to support rough sleepers will also include people who have NRPF. 

Citizens UK leaders around the country have been campaigning to support homeless people in this crisis - and beyond - regardless of their immigration status. Nobody should be left behind. Not now, not ever. 

Hear from some of our leaders on the news below:

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We need to suspend - and then end - No Recourse to Public Funds

Today the Select Committee on Work and Pensions called for the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition to be suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

We wholeheartedly support this call.

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In conversation with Bishop Dr Eric Brown

Bishop Dr Eric Brown Community Organising Windrush

On Windrush Day we spoke to Bishop Dr Eric Brown about his thoughts on the scandal, and on a number of topics around community organising.

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