Our work with Citizens UK
Over the past year we have been developing our work around community organising in Feltham. This blog gives a flavour of our work and where it has taken us.
Rationale for engaging with Citizens UK
Citizens UK (CUK) supports local communities to develop their own community organising campaigns to achieve greater grassroots power and social justice. The work involves developing local capacity to participate in public life and hold power holders to account. Reach Children’s Hub (RCH) started working with CUK in July 2019; the hub’s strategy had developed with an emphasis on putting ‘people before programmes’ and it felt that a community organising approach aligned closely with its mission to engage the local community, foster a sense of community cohesion and promote the importance of Early Years and the role of the Hub in the area.
The listening campaign
All RCH staff received initial training in organising from CUK in July 2019. This involved a workshop on running an effective listening campaign. During the Autumn term of 2019 the initial campaign meetings took place with our CUK West London organiser, Daniel Mackintosh. Our first step as an organising team was for RCH staff to listen to each other. Staff found this a very powerful process and it built further trust within the team as well as developing their understanding of how to listen well.
In January 2020 we started our community listening campaign in Feltham. Building on the strong relationships which RCH staff had developed with local parents, young people and community members, the team listened to over 120 people. This involved holding one-to-one conversations with these individuals, inviting them to talk about issues that they care about and to reflect on why they are important to them. The power of telling one’s own story cannot be underestimated, both for the person sharing their story and the individual listening. We found that working out the right question to pose at the start of the conversation was key to understanding people’s stories. For example, asking someone, ‘What do you care about?’ is less effective than framing the question as ‘What makes you angry?’ or ‘What has led you to do what you do?’ (‘do’ being interpreted in a broad sense). Although the conversation is designed to be about the young person, parent or community member, the organising team also share a brief overview of their personal story at the start of each conversation, both to build trust and to model the nature of the conversation.
The team also carried out a house meeting with over 60 sixth formers at Reach Academy Feltham. A week before this meeting, two RCH staff held a focus group with 10 pupils in Year 12 and Year 13 and posed the same questions to the young people as those asked during the one-to-one conversations. Through this, the staff identified potential leaders within the group. These young leaders were trained up to lead the house meeting, which involved presenting the CUK campaign to the room, facilitating the group work (mapping out local assets and challenges on printed Google maps of Feltham) and leading the feedback session. Data from the one-to-one conversations and house meeting was collated into a shared Excel sheet and this has proved to be a useful working document throughout the campaign.
The first discerning meeting
In February 2020 we held the first CUK discerning meeting at Reach Academy Feltham, attended by 50 people. The group comprised of Reach Academy pupils, local parents (both Reach and non-Reach), community members, the police and other local representatives. The purpose of the meeting was to present the findings of the listening campaign, discuss the emerging issues (centred on the 8 key themes emerging from the listening campaign data) and to vote on the first key issue to focus on. There was a palpable energy in the room during this event and a real sense of possibility. Some of the most powerful moments were when people who, until then, had chosen not to contribute much, stood up and shared their stories with the room. Some of these people have gone on to become leaders in the campaign, leading parts of other meetings and supporting with logistics.
The issue which received the most votes at the discerning meeting was a lack of youth provision and the impact this has on feeling unsafe in the area. To identify the locations most related to the issue, RCH staff came together with the community leaders to label and cluster different places in Feltham where the issue is most prominent. From this, a route covering all of these places was drawn up, beginning from Reach Academy Feltham, covering the Feltham Duck Pond area, passing by the New Look/McDonalds corner, crossing over to Feltham Park and finishing at the Assembly Hall. A week before lockdown we had planned to run walks in the community to gather further stories and anecdotes of issues which arise in these specific area but due to the pandemic this did not happen.
Moving the campaign online due to Covid-19
Since March 2020 our campaign has been running online. Instead of the physical walk, we used the expertise of two team members with experience of working with geographical locations and mapping applications. They edited a Google Map of the local area and the organising team – now expanded to include leaders who had volunteered from the discerning meeting – contacted young people and adults in Feltham to ask the following questions:
- Where do you feel safest in these areas? Why?
- Where do you feel most unsafe in these areas? Why?
- Where do you enjoy spending time in these areas?
- Young people were also asked where they would seek support in these areas.
The stories which emerged from this activity were collected by the community leaders and sent to a member of RCH, who inputted them onto the edited Google Map. The leaders sent through around 80 stories from adults and 40 stories from young people, both positive and negative; they sent stories via email, videos, voice recordings, text messages and screenshots. The result was an interactive, visual tool with clusters of stories around different areas. The locations with most negative stories (which required action) were similar to those identified in the meeting.
With the results of the map clearly highlighting three core areas, we enlisted two Reach Academy teachers who are from the local area to create a short video in which they briefed everyone who had been involved so far in the campaign on the results of the online mapping work. The video invited people to vote in a Doodle poll on the area they thought the campaign should focus on first. The area from the top of the high street down to the railway station received the most votes (42%, out of 78 votes). The organising team then looked back through the stories associated with this area and identified the three main issues related to it:
- Feeling unsafe in alleyways near the station
- Intimidating anti-social behaviour on the high street at certain times
- Young people feeling they lacked a safe place to go in an emergency in this area
The second discerning meeting
On 11th of June 2020 we held our second discerning meeting online, attended by 32 members of the local community. This meeting was hosted by emerging local leaders from the campaign and included a powerful reflection from a young person on why they had chosen to be involved. Following an update of the campaign so far and further reflections by three local people on the top three issues in the specific place (from the top of the high street down to the railway station), those present voted on the most pressing issue in this area. The issue which came top was a lack of a safe place to go in an emergency. However, it was agreed that, if possible, we would try to tackle all three issues simultaneously.
Out of the total 32 people present on the call, 12 have pledged to continue to be involved with the Feltham Citizens organising campaign and are working together on the next steps. Most recently this has involved the core organising team meeting online to come up with potential solutions to the three issues and to establish who the power holders are that we need to hold to account. On 16th July 2020 we are holding our action meeting online. Between now and then the team will be working to contact the power holders to begin negotiations; they will be invited to attend our action meeting on the 16th. The organising team is also working on turnout for that meeting, aiming for 100 people to attend online in order to ensure that the power holders can be publicly held accountable for helping us implement solutions to the three main issues in the chosen area.
Reflections from the campaign so far
- Train up young people during the listening campaign: after every meeting so far, a reflection has been that we would have liked more young people to have attended. While we listened to young people at the house meeting and in the focus groups, we did not run one-to-ones with them. We have also only recently engaged with local teachers and in hindsight, doing this from the offset may have engendered greater youth involvement.
- Be ambitious (and organised) with the number of people you listen to: we focused largely on listening to people we already had a strong relationship with. While this enabled us to set up conversations with relative ease, we also recognise that we could have pushed harder to listen to wider voices in the community. We are now working on this.
- Be up front about the challenges, the time and the effort: as we are learning, community organising is slow, deep work. To do it properly you cannot rush it. We have found that it is important to communicate this clearly. It is also useful to share the future steps of the campaign with those at the meetings in order to convey a sense of progress over time.
- Acknowledge that the work is messy and complex and uncertain: every member of the team, at various points, has had their doubts about whether we are doing things right, or well. There have been moments of euphoria coupled with feelings of failure. This is normal. The work is not linear and it is unpredictable, but, as we are coming to learn, this is what makes moments of success so rewarding.
- Create a sense of team: from the moment we began listening to the community we have been identifying potential local leaders. Gradually, a core organising team has emerged of the people who are committed and have influence. Once you start building a sense of team among these people, the work begins to develop from this core group and not just from RCH staff. This is where the real grassroots organising begins and where other local organisations may be more interested in getting involved.
- Keep working at the relationships: a relational approach is embedded in the work of the hub and the school so relationships with most pupils and parents are strong. We are always trying to deepen these relationships and recognise the importance of doing so with community members too. Staying in touch with people in between the meetings is a key part of building trust and belief in the organising campaign.
- Collect a certain type of story: We have found that personal, specific and detailed stories are most effective in stirring up the anger and motivation to act. Some stories we collected were more vague, distant or impersonal; these make it harder to identify a concrete issue or area and those who shared them are less likely to get involved. Asking the right questions is key to this (see section on listening campaign).
- Work with other organisations in the local alliance: We have increasingly realised the importance of collaborating with other organisations in the West London Alliance, and of trying to expand the base of organisations involved in this alliance through the listening campaign. This is important both for increasing the numbers of people involved in the campaign (and thereby increasing their power) and amplifying the voice of the community.