I’ve spent the last 10 years working as a community organiser and some of the most transformative work I’ve been part of has been through universities building strong and meaningful relationships with local communities and acting together to bring about change.
Going to university was life changing for me. The exciting question is whether community organising can enable universities to transform the lives not just the students who go there but also the lives of people in its local communities too.
What is community organising?
Community Organising is a way of making change that is rooted in people and relationships. It’s a methodology that is premised on the idea that with strong enough relationships, investment in leadership development, and an effective, targeted strategy, communities can build the power they need to win change.
It was a way of creating change that isn’t a case of ‘listen to me, i know what’s best for you’ but a recognition that people already knew what their communities need – they just don’t have the power to implement it. Community organising is political but strictly non-partisan, it provides people the tools and skills to participate effectively in public life so that they can have a say on the decisions that affect them. As former community organiser Barack Obama put it:
organising teaches as nothing else does the beauty and strength of everyday people.
Most people trace the source of community organising to Saul Alinsky who developed a methodology whilst studying his PhD in criminology at the University of Chicago in the 1930s. Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation that trained the earliest Citizens UK organisers in the 1990s. However, community organising in the UK actually has a much broader genesis. The suffragettes had 150 paid organisers working for the WSPU in 1910. The early trade union movement and generations of migrant populations have organised communities to fight for justice.
In recent years, community organising has been behind the rise of the Living Wage movement as well as hundreds of other successful campaigns developed by communities listening to each other and negotiating with decision makers over the issues they care about.
The unique role of universities in supporting community organising
This is where universities have such an important role to play. Universities are centres of knowledge, and it’s important to be able to exchange that knowledge with communities – but the real thing that communities need from universities is an exchange of power.
In terms of people, money and relationships, universities are by far the powerful pillars of civil society – but too often they are just another inaccessible building for local people.
I saw this potential most recently whilst working with the Institute of Education at UCL. Undergraduate students were placed in schools to run listening campaigns (a community organising tool to discover the issues impacting people and build relationships). In 2019, working in a series of schools they heard stories of children being denied free school meals because of their parents’ immigration status. This not only meant that children were going hungry, but schools were missing out on tens of thousands of pounds in pupil premium funding that came with free school meal eligibility. Many schools were paying for meals themselves which was an additional pressure on their budget.
The students conducted action research and produced a report but this is not where their work ended. Trained in community organising and supported by professional organisers, the students formed the basis of a movement of school pupils, parents and teachers and organisations such as RAMP that successfully campaigned for the government to change the eligibility criteria for free school meals meaning that tens of thousands of children can now access free school meals.
Case Studies: King’s College London and The Institute of Education
In recent years I’ve seen more and more universities start to invest deeply in community organising. One of the universities I’ve worked most closely with is King’s College London. The organising at King’s started with Parent Power – a new way for the widening participation team to operate. Rather than developing expert interventions or creating offers for parents, it involved what civil rights organiser Ella Baker called “the slow and steady work” of relationship building. At its heart, Parent Power is a commitment to listening to the parents, investing in their development and working alongside them as experts in their children’s lives. This approach can transform a university’s relationships with its local community. As one parent said in an early Parent Power event,
I walked past the university everyday on my way to work but it was just another building. Now I’m so grateful that it’s part of my community and is standing with us to make things better for our families.
Three years into Parent Power, I remember sitting in the Royal Festival Hall with Michael Bennett, the Associate Director of Widening Participation and Liliana Torres, a key parent leader. Liliana raised concerns that Parent Power was on the face of it very diverse but she was the only Latin American parent despite the large local community. Michael asked Liliana why she thought that was the case and what she wanted to do about it. We agreed that Liliana would speak to some of the Latin American parents she knew and come back to us.
When we reconvened, Liliana identified that language skills were the main barrier. Lots of parents would love to learn more about the education system and campaign to improve their children’s education but couldn’t participate in Parent Power in English. Michael simply asked her what she needed to make a Spanish-speaking Parent Power happen and within weeks Empoderando Familias – a now award-winning Spanish-language parent organising group was born. Founded by Liliana, Empoderando Familias has not only taught parents about the education system, campaigned for parents to get better pay and conditions, but has also changed the priorities and policies of KCLWP to focus on the needs of the Latin American community.
None of this would have been possible were it not for the deep relationships, formed over years, between Liliana and the WP team at King’s but also an attitude from the university that was open to listening, took concerns seriously and sought to support and invest in local leaders, rather than try to deliver a service for them. This was an exchange of power, Latin American parents were able to access resources they couldn’t have accessed without a university partner, and KCLWP now had meaningful relationships with a key local community.
The proof of concept from Parent Power and Empoderando Familias enabled community organising to spread within King’s; applying the methodology to building relationships and creating change externally and also within the institution with students and staff. An alumna called Janira who worked in the Student Success team developed a programme to use community organising techniques to have conversations about race. The university built a team of staff and students to welcome a Syrian refugee student and her family to the UK and students and is now expanding that work to support Ukrainian refugees. There is a masters course in community organising and migration where students have been trained and organised to change mental health practice in South London by co-developing a new model of community workers with migrant leaders and the Mental Health Trusts. All of these activities have the potential to change the culture of the institution to one that is more relational and has more impact.
The present and the future
King’s, the IOE and many others have set an example but have only scratched the surface for what’s possible. I’m excited to see the future of community organising in the sector.
Over the next few weeks, some of this work will be showcased through Wonkhe articles. Through a range of voices from students to academics to vice-chancellors, these articles will show the incredible and innovative organising work that is already happening in universities as well as the potential as we enter the next phase.
From transformative student experiences, to creating change and making impact, from skills enabling senior leaders to lead more effectively to building stronger relationships with local communities, universities have a lot to gain, and a lot to give, by investing deeply in relationships and organising alongside with their many communities.