Exploring better ways to live, and how to make better places to live in

Exploring better ways to live, and how to make better places to live in
Living with rats, Blog by Julian Dobson (Co-founder of New Start Magazine)
26.04.11

Community organisers: collaborators or prophets?

Of all the discussions that followed last week’s troubles in Bristol, perhaps the most important is a series of posts by Tessy Britton on conflict and collaboration, and the online chat that has surrounded them.

Tessy, whose work I admire immensely, poses in her latest post a series of collaborative alternatives to Saul Alinsky’s famous ‘rules for radicals’ – calling for respect, working together, accountability and dialogue. These hark back to a long and undervalued philosophical debate about non-violence and peacemaking. Much of the recent conversation has debated whether conflict is a legitimate tool or approach in community organising. Tessy calls for an alternative approach:

‘This alternative model demands that *everyone* transform the way they operate – working towards creating communities that avoid disputes altogether. This can be done by developing strong *permanent* lines of communication and building *collaborative capacity* through deliberately and methodically developing widespread connection – strong and trusting relationships and a sense of partnership between local authorities and community members.’

There is an elephant in the room here, though, and its name is equality. More often than not those without political, economic or social power are encouraged to transform the way they operate in order to fit the values and objectives of those with power. And it’s worth rewinding to Bristol before the Stokes Croft riot to see what this means.

Stokes Croft may not be everyone’s idea of a perfect community, but it certainly fits the ‘hand made’ model Tessy applauds in previous posts. It is (and has been for decades) a bohemian area of the city, the kind of place that gets populated by artists, bike shops, cafes and so on.

It sees itself as ‘alternative’ but the vision set out by local activists from the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft is remarkably conservative, in that it focuses on people taking responsibility for their own environment, working together to improve it rather than demanding action from government, and preserving what is good about the urban fabric.

As they put it: ‘Our modus operandi is to work with the fabric of the built environment. To improve through painting, to act gently. To care for the fabric of the area. PRSC believes that we make our own future.‘ If you want big society, you’ve got it here in barrow-loads.

So what happens to these urban conservationists? Over recent months there has been a stand-off between local people, who have passionately objected to the siting of a new Tesco in the middle of their patch (when there are already two others within walking distance) and the combined forces of authority and commerce. The new store has been built under police guard, while city councillors buckled under at the thought of having to pay the legal costs of any appeal against refusal of planning permission.

There is plenty of background to all this at the No to Tesco blog and on the hyperlocal website, the Stokes Croft Town Crier. What’s clear is that while there’s plenty of opposition to Tesco, there’s little sympathy for the people who rioted last week and certainly no suggestion that anyone should use violent ends to make their views known.

Far from being a community where valiant police hold the line against a tide of anarchy, Stokes Croft demonstrates a series of power struggles that are anything but equal. At the top of this tree of inequality is the monopolist supermarket, whose slogan is ‘Every little helps’ but whose leaders do not appear to have any concept of ‘enough’.

Reluctantly supporting them is the city council, whose role as a community leader is compromised by the requirement to frame their discussions within narrow planning rules rather than broad principles, and whose freedom of action is tied by the fear of running up huge legal costs in a fight with a corporate giant that they cannot expect to win.

The police, despite the questionable intelligence of their operation last week, are some way down this tree. Their role is narrowly interpreted as upholding law and order, which time and again results in intervening on behalf of the haves against perceived threats from the have-nots. They are doing the job they are required to do: but when push comes to shove (and more) that is more likely to involve protecting the owners of property against the public than protecting the public against the owners of property.

This is not to defend rioting, in general or in this particular case. But the point, which goes back to Tessy’s argument, is that the holders of power are not neutral. If a key purpose of a big society is to help people to come together to improve their own lives, as the government argues, then you cannot avoid an analysis of where power lies and in whose interests it is being used. Such analysis is at the heart of successful community organising.

You cannot simply skate over inequalities and injustices or assume that those who perpetrate them will be ready and willing to respectfully collaborate to bring about their end. Those who are advantaged by inequality can be remarkably impervious to collaboration.

To confront abuses or failures of power you don’t need to seek out conflict, but you need to know what to do when it comes to you. Community organisers don’t need to be agent provocateurs. But they do need the moral courage to take a stand, the moral vision to understand what they are standing against and for and why, and the perception to realise that bullying and abuse cross political and philosophical lines and is often done in ignorance or even with good intentions.

So yes, let’s update or replace Alinsky’s rules with ones that emphasise respect and cooperation. And let’s ask, encourage and persuade the holders of power and influence to sign up to them. But let’s remember too that the best community organisers are also prophets: people who can speak uncomfortable truths and confront the most powerful with the consequences of their actions.