A year ago, today, we lost our rock: Sr Ita Keane (1945-2019) to a tragic road traffic accident.
Sr Ita Keane was the Director of St Mary’s Convent, an inner-city Birmingham Catholic convent established 178 years ago on Hunters Road in Lozells (St Francis Handsworth parish). Home to the UK’s top community organising nuns, the convent has been the epicentre of all meeting, training and reflecting by civil society leaders across Citizens UK in Birmingham since 2012. And for almost a decade previously, it was where neighbourhood leaders gathered to respond to major local episodes of riots, crime and hardship.
Sr Ita was the force behind St Mary’s Convent and together with a brilliant team help turn it into a popular community anchor institution in the parish and beyond. ‘The Sisters’ have been amongst our chapter’s most consistent and courageous campaigners. Arguably the best Brum example of catholic social teaching in action.
Here, I would like to pull out four traits of Sr Ita which would be helpful to all of us organising today.
1. Know the real-life stories of people in your community
In our 1-2-1s, she always raised a story of an individual or a family she was working with to overcome a hardship they were facing. She never quoted a story she read in the press to root her knowledge of community issues. Had never watched ‘I, Daniel Blake’ because she was regularly in the company of families with lived experience. Many of these families’ stories became powerful in-person testimonies at our Assemblies and campaigns.
2. Power analysis helps you overcome distraction
She understood the importance of doing a power analysis: who has the authority to make the change happen and how are decisions actually made? This was very important to her because as the head of a busy organisation with a building and projects to oversee, the myriad of repeat city summits, seminars and conferences became overwhelming distractions. So, community organising allowed her to pinpoint her participation to negotiating with power directly at the best moments.
3. Have attention to detail
We often cite three ingredients to a good action: ‘Agenda, Logistics and Turnout’. Whilst ‘Agenda’ is determined by stories, issues and power analysis taking up considerable amount of time, Sr Ita was integral to our Organisers improving on logistics and coordinating turnout.
As the staff team were based in the Convent, she often made time to stop by to ask how our Assembly planning or the next public action was unravelling – sometimes coming with a cuppa and cake! At every Assembly she would pledge 30 turnout and within 2 weeks (yes, not the day before) of the event send a list of names who will be attending. She had worked out how everyone would get there as well as sort necessary childcare arrangements for those who needed it.
4. Take time to pause and chill
Humour and kind banter are a regular feature of life in St Mary’s Convent. In community organising we deal with some heart-wrenching issues testing us emotionally and spiritually. Though we talk about separating the public (campaigns) and private (health & wellbeing), both do intertwine regularly. Sr Ita was apt at getting a non-stop person like me to put the brakes on and get away from it even if it was through jokes whilst we were in ‘thick of it’.
It has been an absolute privilege and honour to organise with Sr Ita winning big change with some of our city’s poorest and most disadvantaged communities. Her legacy to broad based community organising in the UK would be ‘every chapter needs a nun’. They will keep us in good organising habit.
With best wishes,