Friday, 20 August 2010

Community organisers must not be compromised by government money

Community organising has been very much in the ascent since the Coalition Government came to power proclaiming its Big Society agenda.
Prior to the election, Conservative Party leader David Cameron made no secret of his admiration, pledging to create a National Centre for Community Organising and fund the training to be carried out by “independent third parties such as London Citizens UK, who have proven track records in training community organisers and activists.”
Now in power the plan to fund the training of community organisers appears set to move ahead with Neil Jameson, the executive director of London Citizens and Citizens UK, an early visitor at a Downing Street reception. “We have been talking to the Coalition Government about the work we do,” said Jameson, who was keen to emphasis that the organisation would not be giving up any of its independence if it took up the state’s shilling.
Jameson explained that Citizens UK, the parent body of London Citizens, would be offering professional training in community organising at a cost to government. At present this training comes free to those who form part of its 150 strong membership organisations. This training has also been offered on a subsidised basis to the likes of the Oxfam, the Salvation Army and Church organisations.
The concern of many is that the organisation could be compromised or co-opted if it gets too closely embroiled with government.
Community organising as practiced by London Citizens has taken off in the capital over recent years. The work began in the early 1990s, drawing on the community organising model of Saul Alinsky in 1930s Chicago.
Community organising is about bringing people together and empowering them to achieved change in their own lives through political activism. It seeks to build relationships with those who hold the power and by direct civil action if the initial approaches fail. The most famous US son of the movement is President Barack Obama who trained as an organiser when younger.
The first organisation in the UK was The East London Communities Organisation (telco). Set up in 1996, it proved successful in bringing together different faith groups, schools, trade unions and other community based bodies.
South London Citizens and West London Citizens followed Telco. It is planned that North London Citizens will come into being over the next 12 months. Outside the capital the organisation was less successful, setting up in Liverpool, North Wales, the Black Country, Sheffield and Bristol. None of these survived, withering due to lack of funding to support sufficient organisers in the regions. “I guess we grew too quickly in the early 1990s,”said Jameson. “The first generation of organisers were on their own in the city where they worked. If the organisation does not encourage political action then it ceases to exist.”
The organisation has since retrenched in London looking to build its strength before once again expanding outside the capital. “Ideally we would like £120,000 in the bank before organisers relocate. Then they would work their butts off to achieve the aims,” said Jameson, who confirms plans to extend out to Cardiff and Milton Keynes over the next 12 months.
In London, the organisation seems to have gone from strength to strength. Membership organisations pay annual fees ranging between £600 and £1800 depending on size. For this the leaders of the membership organisation receive training and become involved in campaigns at local and national level. LC also gets funding from a number of trusts.
Among the national campaigns have been the living wage and Strangers into Citizens. The living wage campaign started in east London with research funded by Unison looking at the amount required per hour to live above the poverty line.
The campaign involved direct meetings with the heads of the likes of HSBC Bank and then direct actions at branch level. Successes followed with Barclays Bank becoming a particular advocate of the living wage for its lower paid workers in the cleaning sector. NHS trusts were also targeted, resulting in cleaners and security guards winning better wages. Finally, London Mayor Ken Livingstone took up the cause, creating a living wage unit in his office that set the living wage level for all of those employed by the Greater London Authority. Boris Johnson continued the work when he took over as Mayor, most recently setting the rate at £7.60 an hour. The campaign claims to have put £20 million in the pockets of the lowest paid families since 2001.
Johnson also became a flag waver for another leading campaign to regularise undocumented workers. He supported the Strangers into Citizens campaign that is seeking an earned amnesty for people who have been undocumented and worked here for a number of years. The Liberal Democrats also picked up the sentiments of this campaign during the election with their call for an amnesty for undocumented workers.
At more local level community organising means working with the police and others for safer streets, cheaper housing and better environment.
The power of community organising in bringing politicians to account is best seen at the assemblies. These are huge stage-managed affairs, attracting a couple of thousand people. Two of the most recent held at Westminster Central Hall were for the national party leaders prior to the general election and before that for London Mayoral candidates. The candidates were asked pre-arranged questions, put by selected leaders from the platform. It is about publically holding the politicians to account. There is no debate and no questions from the floor. The assemblies provide a great photo opportunity for the media of democracy at work but in reality are controlled with iron discipline. Member organisations commit to bring a number of people with them and are held to that pledge.
One member of a housing charity recalled that when they turned up with six rather than the pledged 10 people it was “a bit like being put on the naughty step.”
”There is a Stalinistic feel,” he said. Some member organisations also challenge the democracy of London Citizens. One deputy head teacher of a primary school recalled back in 2004, the first assembly that brought together Telco and South London Citizens. The packed meeting were to vote on seven areas to work on. The top four would go ahead for implementation. Seventh in the voting was the London Olympics, yet within a couple of months the hierarchy of London Citizens seemed somehow to have elevated the Olympics to top spot.
One Catholic priest thinks the organisation addresses middle class issues, not necessarily those of the community where they exist. He feels they adopt campaigns and then shuffle them according to political expediency. "They don't stick with issues, only those they can win and get kudos for," said the priest, who also saw the danger of co-option in taking government money to train community organisers. “There will be questions as to who will be boss, if the government is paying they will decide, not the community.”
Jameson though remains steadfast on this point, insisting community organising is about civil society. “We want to work with those on the side of civil society rather than the state,” said Jameson.
There is though clearly concern about co-option by government, if too much funding is accepted. Funding always comes with strings attached. Perhaps one sign of growing disquiet is the declining role of trade unions in London Citizens. At one point there were 20 branches from Unison, PCS and the Unite, today this has reduced to eight. Union branches also used to be well represented at assemblies, now there are few to be seen – replaced it would seem by school children.
Could the reduction have anything to do with the fact that in the case of the public sector some see the London Citizens getting into bed with a government that is committed to putting a good number of their members out of work?
Jameson though has a different explanation, saying that the unions saw things in a very single issue way. So there would be a campaign at a hospital for the living wage, “once this was achieved, they said thanks and we’re off.”
Whatever the cause there is certainly some soul searching going amongst those involved in community organising. This form of political organisation has made great strides, engaging faith communities in real action that has achieved change like the living wage. Large numbers have been mobilised. The danger now is that in taking government money, much of this work could be compromised. The growing concerns about internal democracy may also be causing some to question the work of community organising. Whatever the truth, it must be hoped that the astute leadership of London Citizens are aware of the dangers and do not risk destroying what has so far been a positive experiment in real grass root citizens activism.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Defiance in the face of house demolition

The house of Salim and Arabiya Shawamreh has been demolished three times by the Israeli army over the past 14 years.
The Palestinian couple, with the help of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), have rebuilt the house three times. The last occasion was in 2001, when the house was designated as a peace centre.
Salim takes up the story of the struggle, he, his wife Arabiya and their six children have had to establish a home in Anata, East Jerusalem. “ I went by the book, applying three times for a building permit between 1990 and 1994. First, I was told I was outside the zone and planning area for the village,” said Salim, who revealed how the Israeli authorities continually push to keep Palestinians in the designated village areas so that the rest of the land is open for Israeli settlers.
The second time he applied, he was denied the permit because the authorities said the land sloped. “I could have flattened the area out very quickly with one of the bulldozers that they use to knock down our houses,” said Salim.
The third denial was because the authorities said there were two signatures missing on the application for a permit. A solicitor tried over several months to get details of the names but without success.
Every time Salim applied for the permit, it cost US$5,000. In the end Salim just got on and built his house. Things were ok for a while but then on 9 July 1998, there was a big commotion outside. “They had brought 300 soldiers to demolish our house. We were given 15 minutes to get out before the bulldozers moved in,” recalled Salim. “I protested and got kicked to the ground. My wife and children stayed inside the house and were attacked with teargas.”
The house was flattened. “We had planted 52 trees around the home. We had chickens and ducks,” said Salim. “The trees were cut down, the animals killed. We were left with nothing.”
The Red Cross gave the family a tent and the ICAHD came along. The family decided with the ICAHD to rebuild the house. The shell was up inside a month but then the army arrived again. “The soldiers came at 4 am in the morning with machine guns and bulldozers. The house was demolished for a second time and the tent taken. We were told we had to have permission for the tent from the Israeli authorities,” said Salim.
Israelis and Palestinians came together again to rebuild the house. It was completed on 9 July 1999. Two months passed and no demolition. The Shawamreh family moved in to the house. Then on 4 April 2001, they woke to find it once again surrounded by soldiers with two bulldozers. “The area was surrounded, the furniture thrown into the street and the house demolished,” said Salim.
The house was then rebuilt again. It was agreed with the ICAHD that it would be used as a peace centre. It was completed in July 2003 and has remained standing since that time, though a demolition order was placed on the propery in June 2009.
Arabiya recalled the problems that the children endured as a result of the demolition. “The children regressed at school. They had psychological problems, waking up in the night crying and screaming,” said Arabiya. The children who were young at the time of the demolitons were most severely effected, with her younger children doing better later at school. “I wish there could be peace and we could live normally,” said Arabiya.
The Israeli authorities have overseen the demolition of 24,000 homes, making 160,000 people homeless, since 1967. “Only 8 per cent of the demolitions are anything to do with security,” said Linda Ramsden, the director of ICAHD UK. “It is about dispossessing the Palestinian people, putting them into Bantustans.”
Linda explained how the ICAHD formed in 1997 from the peace movement in Israel. It was made up of those Israelis appalled at the way its government was treating the Palestinians. They went to the Palestinians and asked how they could help. The rebuilding of houses was agreed upon as the best thing they could do.
Linda explained how in the early days, the ICAHD would get notice of a house demolition and people would go to chain onto the building. “Now though the Israeli forces cordon off the street so we can’t get near to the houses, though we try to block the way,” said Linda, who revealed how this slowed the demolitons down and helped bring the actions to the attention of the international community.
The ICAHD has managed to rebuild 162 houses in the West Bank and east Jerusalem area over the past 13 years. Just 12 of these houses have been demolished by the Israeli authorities.
There have been casualties on the way with US citizen Rachel Corrie among those killed while undertaking the work.
The houses are rebuilt all of the time but the ICAHD has a focus on a summer camp that takes place over two weeks in July each year. At this time people come in from across the world to help with the work. Last year, some 43 Spanish people took part with the Spanish government paying for the whole project. This year there are people coming from the UK, US, Ireland, Spain and Switzerland for the camp. “The summer camps offer the opportunity to join with Israelis and Palestinians in rebuilding a house over two weeks. Then the house is handed over to the family,” said Linda.
Salim explains the house rebuilding programme very much in terms of political resistance. “We tell the families that maybe they will get their home, maybe not. They and us maybe arrested. The promise is that we will not leave them. If we have to rebuild the house ten times we will,” said Salim, who says the Israeli authorities think twice before attacking the area if they know there are people from other countries there supporting and doing the work. Salim recalled how the Israeli criticised the Spanish government over the housebuilding last year. “They have also tried to close down ICAHD and stop people sending money,” said Salim, who wants people in the UK to help the Palestinians to get justice. “We need to get this occupation off our backs. We would ask people to boycott Israeli goods because they are coming from the settlements. They are coming from stolen land, from the blood of the people,” said Salim.
* For more information see ICAHD UK, PO BOX 371 Leatherhead KT22 2EUTel: 05602 409976

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Transition town initiatives need encouragement

There is much going on at a local level to address climate change and reduce oil dependency.This is important because as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico proves, it is getting more dangerous and difficult to obtain oil from the earth. Where once oil was regarded as an infinite resource, it is now clear that this is not the case.The point when oil supplies are set to peak is now predicted for 2015. Things may even be worse as there seems to be some doubt as to the validity of figures concerning oil reserves. Many do not realise just how dependent the world is on oil, it is not just a matter of running cars or heating. Some 97 per cent of all our food is oil dependent. Plastic is an oil derivative product. Clothes and shelter are linked up with oil.So the lack of oil is a serious problem in terms of development and survival. Add in the devastating effect that using oil has in terms of climate change and a vicious circle is complete.
Fortunately, there are things happening to address oil dependency. The transition town initiative has built a model that people can use to reduce oil dependency.
There are now more than 180 such intitiatives across the country, including places as diverse as Totnes, Lewes and Exeter. The idea involves a small group of people coming together to discuss ways in which the local area can become more self sufficient and less dependent on oil. It is about building resilience, ready for the day when oil really does become scarce.
For the transition initiative to work, more people must become involved. This can be done initially by showing films, raising awareness about issues like climate crisis and peak oil. Then there must be a move to action.In Exeter, there have been a number of initiatives taken including buying four acres of land for a community farm. Anyone is welcome to come and take part. A couple of farms outside Exeter have also got involved, agreeing to solely supply organic products for the local community. The next move is to raise £190,000 that will enable the purchase of a property that will become a not-for profit co-operative store providng local organically produced food for the people. There are other initiatives to teach people how to produce their own crops and cook. Many of what were once the basic skills of life have been lost in a supermarket led fast food world, where sticking ready prepared meals in the oven has become the norm. Among the farming community there is increasing sympathy for transition style initiatives. One Cornish farmer, Victor Barry, has been farming organically for years. This has meant using horses to plough his fields, thereby cutting the carbon footprint to nil.The transition initiatives also take in other elements of local life like transport and energy systems. Some towns have gone as far as bringing in their own energy generating means like wind turbines, others have sort co-operation with energy companies to work more sustainably.So there is much going on but more needs to happen if the country is to ween itself off oil and save the planet - why delay?