The power to compel change

This last week, I was away at Citizens UK‘s six-day residential leadership course, hosted this year by The Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. The course is accredited by my very own Newman University with an award of a Certificate in Community Leadership. I did Citizens’ three-day training online last year and was really eager to spend more time learning about how community organising works. It was an intense time of personal and professional growth and vulnerability with some 50 other people, almost all of whom I had meaningful conversations with over the course of the week. There was so much that happened that it’s impossible to sum it up in a succinct way — suffice to say if you want to learn about community and relational leadership, this course is definitely worth your time. For me, though, there were three main takeaways:

  1. You only get as much justice as you have the power to compel. This quote from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides was a key part of the learning from the very beginning, as we looked at how power works in society. An important part of community organising is power analysis: looking at where power sits in different organisations and how changes can be made by compelling people with power to act. This is a messy, pragmatic process that doesn’t suit idealogues well: you almost always have to compromise to win change. Justice is possible, but you can’t get justice by simply having the best, rightest beliefs. You have to be willing to work in increments towards your goals.
  2. People act in their own self-interest, and if you want to make change, you have to understand the self-interest of the people you want to organise. Community organising is built on conversations we call one-to-ones, where people talk about who they are and what they want. By understanding what people in a community want and how they see themselves, organisers and leaders can act in the interest of the community and also have the broad support of that community, because they are asking people to act in the direction of the change the community wants.
  3. Broad changes require broad support, and broad support requires broad-based organising. On Wednesday, we took a coach to London to support an action on Parliament Square where community organisers, activists, and workers met together to call for the government to pay social care workers the real living wage in England. MPs came out to meet us and we had an assembly in Methodist Central Hall in Westminster with nearly 400 people. Looking around the assembly, you could get a sense of how diverse civil society is in the UK. Seeing broad-based community organising in action, and people come together in an organised way and demand change was incredibly inspiring. While we haven’t one this campaign yet, you can see how we get there, by growing the base of the movement through specific, targeted actions on the people whose minds we need to change. The more people we have standing with us, the easier it is to speak loudly enough to be heard.

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