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.

Learning by teaching

This past weekend Citizens UK hosted 15 incredible young leaders for a day’s training about leadership at Aston University. The students were really incredible and did an excellent job of engaging with the content and thinking together about how to win change and strengthen institutions, the core focus of Citizens UK’s work. As a part of the training, I spoke about the importance of one-to-one conversations and why we think they’re so important in community organising, both to understand other people and to articulate our own values. One-to-one conversations are about building public relationships between people and to better understand the self-interest of people within a community or organisation or institution.

I have had many one-to-ones over the last year, as I’ve been working in Bartley Green to expand and develop our organising capacity here. I know what I’ve been doing in one way, but getting the chance to talk about it and teach it to a new group of people really impressed on me how you don’t ever really know anything for yourself until you teach it to someone else. Speaking about the power of one-to-ones I was able to say something I believe strongly but had never really articulated: that people in our lives will only be as vulnerable as we are. If we want to have meaningful relationships where people open up and share what’s important in their lives, we have to be willing to do the same ourselves and be willing to be vulnerable when other people are not. Everything is complicated by power structures, our own positions and how people see us, and whether people we interact with are interested in engaging with us. The starting point, however, always needs to be a willingness to who our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and that is easier said than done.

From notes to data

For the first several months of this project, I have been meeting people, taking walks, having meetings, and doing anything I can to expand my contacts past the most obvious connections I had known before the project started. I have been keeping notes on my interactions with everyone I meet. These notes have been my memories of things that have happened, or things people have told me. As I read write them, I have been trying to hard to stay as ‘objective’ as possible; that is, I’m trying to avoid evaluative language or write things that veer off into my own interpretations. But of course, simply remembering is a kind of implicit analysis. You can’t remember everything and what you remember is inevitably a complex mix of your own identity, the identity of the person you’re talking to, and the context of the conversation.

I have not decided yet what role these notes will play in my analysis, if they will simply act as a reference for me, or if I will try to do some more formal analysis of them. For now, I am moving into the more formal interviews for the project, with recordings and transcripts to analyse. The informal conversations, however, will play an important role in how I think about the interviews that I will now do and the things that these interviews will inevitably focus on. I’m confident that these conversations have been essential for the next step and for building the necessary background for showing me where the project should focus and where the analysis is needed.

Meeting people is easy

Much of the work of this project so far has been meeting people and meeting more people and then meeting more people. I have been travelling around the city the last three weeks, talking to various leaders and learning more about how religious communities live and and worship together, with while trying to get some sense of the space of the city, particularly south Birmingham, where I have been doing the bulk of my work. It strikes me that many of the populations of interest, particularly when it comes to superdiversity, are small, concentrated communities, often not visible unless you know exactly when and where to look for them. I’ve been grateful to so many different people for helping me by introducing me to everyone they know.

A highlight so far has been meeting with the mayor as a part of the Citizens UK Birmingham Leadership Group, to discuss our priorities with him. The more I learn about community organising, the more I realise the important of timing and being careful to find the right time and place to pursue particular priorities. What is the right place and the right time to do each action will change, depending on the circumstances and you need to be open and willing to adapt to the circumstances around you.

Where are you from?: First reflections on Superdivercity

As a person with an American accent in Birmingham, people often ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I’m often slightly annoyed when I answer this question particularly if it comes up when someone in a shop is asking me this after I’ve asked where some item I can’t find is. I’m from Birmingham: it’s the place that I consider home. You can imagine that most people don’t accept this answer and it usually gets followed up with, ‘Right, but where are you really from?’ and I have to launch into the long confusing story about why I ended up here, of all places.

The thing about Birmingham is that quite a few people are not really from around here. Yesterday, I was looking at a map Bartley Green with the warden at St Michael’s CofE church and we were talking about how everything had been built after the war — all the families had been transplanted from other places. After two months of talking to people in south Birmingham, I’ve been struck by how many stories of people and communities include some movement either within the city, or from other places in the country, or from outside of Britain.

My project is interested in Superdiversity, which for me includes the sense that there are really no majority categories in the city. This is certainly true looking at the changing demographic data around ethnicity, but is less clear when you look at the census data for religion. Birmingham is still a majority Christian city, with large minority Muslim and non-religious populations, followed by Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jewish people. These larger categories, however, mask vast diversity within different faith groups — Christians might be Catholic, or Anglican, or Pentecostal; Muslims could be Shi’a or Sunni, or from conservative or liberal mosques; the ‘nons’ cover everyone from ardent atheists, to the spiritual but not religious.

As I reflect on my first few months of this project, I am struck by how these two features — diversity in where we’re from and diversity in what we believe — of Birmingham come together when communities emerge in particular places. If we want to know what it means for someone to be of faith or of no faith in a particular place at a particular time, there’s so much more to find out than just asking them to tick a box on a form. And what you might assume about someone about the way the look, or sound, might be misleading too. This is just a starting point, of course, but the construction of categories of faith and regional and ethnic identity in the stories we tell about ourselves do seem to be important to understanding how local communities function and how telling these stories can be important for thinking about why things are the way they are.

Analysing Religious Discourse

I’m very excited to announce the launch of my edited collection Analysing Religious Discourse.

Analysing Religious Discourse Book Launch 19 July, 1PM-2PM (BST)

Celebrate the publication of Analysing Religious Discourse! The first edited collection of its kind, the volume introduces contemporary research on religious discourse from a variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives, including ethnography, metaphor, cognition, and many, many more topics. The launch will feature presentations by many of the volume’s contributors.

Address to join: https://newman-ac-uk.zoom.us/j/95852010421?pwd=Y0tMc3FDa1JURUxqbm43YjZRNXIyZz09

Read the introduction now at: http://bit.ly/AnaRelDisIntro

And pre-order the book with discount code ARD2021 at: http://bit.ly/AnaRelDis 

Citizens UK Leadership Training

I spent the last three days at the Citizens UK three-day leadership training and really enjoyed it. Lots to think about in terms of what a leader is and how change happens within communities. This year, all training has been done online and it will be interesting to reflect on the effect of Covid on religious identity and superdiverse communities going forward.