Community organising: a crucible for local, national and global action
In the Spring of 2020 Sasha Josette, then an organiser with the UK Labour Party’s Community Organising Unit, talked to Nick Mahony of Municipal Enquiry about how community organising can help remake local politics; build local, national and international forms of solidarity; challenge organisational hierarchies, economic inequalities and racism; address the climate crisis and help create a just transition. Sasha no longer works with the Labour Party and this interview, reflecting on the work of Labour's Community Organising Unit which was subsequently disbanded in Summer 2021, is published here for the first time.
What is the Community Organising Unit?
The Community Organising Unit launched in June 2018 with a first cohort of 6 community organisers. This grew to 20, with 9 digital community organisers in place by 2019 - taking the team to 29. During the general election, 17 community organisers and 4 digital community organisers worked across the UK and 5 members of staff were seconded to Labour’s Member Mobilisation team. Over 100 Constituency Labour Party’s have now had some training in community organising since the unit was set up.
For the Labour Party to win the next election and beyond that, it has to rebuild in its heartlands: win back Scotland, swing coastal towns and hold firm in the cities - building an alliance from London to Leigh and Lanarkshire. This presents a big challenge - to achieve this community organising must be at the centre of Labour’s rebuilding strategy.
The phenomenal growth in Labour party membership was recognised to be disproportionately city based and simply mobilising members was not a solution, or even an option in areas where membership and vote share had been hemorrhaging for decades, particularly across the Midlands, the North and Scotland. Knocking on doors and asking people to vote Labour one more time was simply not an option. A longer term solution was needed. Equally, with a growth in membership in metropolitan cities like London it was recognised that it was critical to invest in the membership and equip people with the skills to organise and campaign giving the Labour Party deeper roots in communities.
It is within this context that the Community Organising Unit (COU) was set up with the ambition to rebuild the presence of the Labour Party in areas that were suffering the worst effects of austerity, low wage employment, child poverty and inequality.
The team is one of the most diverse teams in the Party. People, like myself for example: I have a communications background, but I am also a single mum and someone who has real experience of Universal Credit. Also within the team are organisers who are former mental health nurses, midwives, teachers and trade union organisers.
The Community Organising Unit team became the most diverse team in the whole Labour Party, in terms of gender and race. The diversity of our team matters because it meant that we collaborate with communities on campaigns in ways that really connected to the communities we were working with. This meant Labour campaigns started to be created not just by members of staff in the Party but members of staff working in communities too.
How did you get involved with the Community Organising Unit?
I got involved because I had heard about what the COU was doing and I thought the work looked really interesting. I had previously felt disenfranchised from Party politics until this point because mainstream politics felt really inaccessible to me.
On a basic level, going to local CLP meetings was impossible for me as I am a single mum and need to get the tea and put the kids to bed and this clashed with local meetings which were always on a Thursday at 7pm. Even when I did get to the meetings they were very male, pale, stale and still felt very inaccessible to me. If that’s your first introduction to Party politics then how many people are going to go back to that again?
In 2016 I started to get involved with Momentum and was part of the group that started the World Transformed Festival. These initiatives felt like they offered more inclusive and open environments for people like me who were newly energised and activated in politics. But right from the start there was something about the COU that felt different to both of these projects - from what I was reading and hearing about the COU it felt like the kind of organising that was true to my own politics, true to being able to actually go into and work with communities, to build relationships and talk with people.
In a world where so many people feel disenfranchised from politics, one of the most radical things you can do is just talk to someone and meet people where they are at. This is something different from top-down political education, top-down movement building or what a lot of campaigning and training often entails. This is because it’s about actually building things together, including campaigns and everything else that people in communities need, but it’s about doing this together - that felt really powerful.
I still took some convincing, as at the time it felt like being outside the Labour Party gave me much more freedom to use my voice and work on the campaigns I thought were important. I was worried that once I was employed by the Labour Party I wouldn’t be able to do that and talk out in the same ways I’d been used to.
Another important issue I kept coming up against at the time was how reliant the movement is on volunteers and how exclusive this makes it. This narrows down who can get involved and especially marginalises many people of colour.
What’s your role within the Community Organising Unit?
In 2019, working with Rebecca Long Bailey’s team, I led and coordinated the community organising campaign around the Green Industrial Revolution policy with the aim of building community power in communities fighting to put wealth back into their local economy whilst also fighting the climate crisis. We built a powerful organising and policy campaign across the country engaging thousands of people in deindustrialised towns, coastal areas and metropolitan cities, involving people and local businesses impacted by climate crisis to help elucidate what climate justice and a just transition would mean for them.
This included the promotion of policies that would have seen 100,000 well-paid, sustainable jobs created in Scotland, and up to 1 million in the UK, and would have ushered in a concomitant regeneration of countless sectors in Scotland’s economy. We looked at opportunities to invest in renewable energy and decentralised energy networks that would benefit local economies and support community owned energy. As part of this we developed participatory processes to help develop this policy for the Labour Party and supported local residents to build local campaigns around a Green Industrial Revolution, to build community power around this policy.
We wanted to get community organisers deeply involved in all of this, not least so that they could help this work continue with communities after these events had taken place. We realised that what we leave behind, in terms of the legacy of these events, could also be really important.
How were these Green Industrial Revolution community events organised in practice?
We focused on deindustrialised towns, coastal towns and ex-mining areas including lots of areas in what people are now calling the ‘red wall’, which are areas Labour now needs to win back. We also organised events in places like Motherwell and Glasgow in Scotland, as well as places in South Wales. Between our COU team and the BEIS team there wasn’t a single weekend that we weren’t working on this - Rebecca just didn’t stop and was totally dedicated to this way of doing politics.
After the first few sessions, seeing how successful the events had become, the team realised how politically important these events were. The events were allowing us to go into areas like Morecombe, for example, and have roundtables with a large range of people from the community: there’d be workers from the local nuclear power plant there, teachers, local climate campaigners, young people who’d just been involved in school strikes and the events gave people a chance to talk about the big questions: ‘what would a just transition mean? ‘What would it mean in this community?’ ‘How do we move from one place to another?’
Sasha Josette (pictured above with the microphone) facilitating one of the local community green new deal events
So, for example, we talked at the events about how we could create green unionised jobs, we looked at issues of retraining and education, at how many jobs could be created in the local area from a new insulation policy, or a new solar panel policy, how schools could get more funding in order to play their part in this and whether we needed more technical colleges. All these and many other kinds of important conversations could be had around the question of transition and the jobs and opportunities that could arise from needing to address this. So the events were clearly about much more than promoting a new policy or talking to people about how to implement it, they were much more about listening to where people were at and looking for opportunities to actually start to create a just transition where they are.
To get to the stage where we could have these kinds of conversations in community settings, local organisers did hundreds of one-to-ones with a wide range of local people, from union organisers and community activists, to business people and people in the local colleges. It was by sounding people out in this way and getting them involved in the process that we got people into the room.
Our team could get hundreds of local people involved. That’s not luck, that was all down to the hard work and trust building activities of the local organisers. We did lots of preparation and provided assurances to people that they’d be listened to. People needed to feel that something would come out of taking part.
Working with our local organisers we made sure that at least a third of people at local events were non Labour Party members. We often had queues round the door. The meetings were packed out, it was great.
We wanted the events themselves to be as participatory as possible, so we kept the panel and speakers to an absolute minimum. I’m of the view that we should kill off panels completely, death to the panel! This view isn't very widespread, but personally I think that not everyone thinks like that or takes in information in that particular way. When you have an event that’s two hours long, which is quite a long time to take out of someone’s weekend already, the event needs to be fast-running and quick, like it’s part of something and so it feels like people aren’t just being talked at. It can take a bit of convincing to keep the local MP or local candidate to a maximum of 5 mins, they’re not used to that! It was also really important to brief the chair well to help keep the meeting moving along in the right way.
We also tried to turn the usual expectations upside down by ensuring that the first people to speak were always local climate strikers, who were mostly young people. So at the start of each event we invited these young people to explain why they had come to the meeting and what climate issues meant to them. Sometimes they were shy and would come up together in pairs or small groups. But we always found these contributions from young people helped to frame the sessions really well, giving people a strong sense of ‘this is why we are here and why this issue is so important’.
So the young people would start and they’d be followed by a community leader of some sort and we’d always try to platform people of colour and women as much as possible. The local Labour candidate would be introduced next and invited to say a few words. Then, finally, people would hear from an MP.
After this set of short introductory talks, everyone, including the Parliamentary candidate and MP, would have to come down off the stage and join the roundtables so they could participate in discussions alongside the other people who’d come along. This was really lovely to see and I think the people who had come along really appreciated it too.
All the policy team would be in the room too. Initially they were sitting on the sidelines and taking notes, but after the first event they joined the table discussions as well.
We’d also have local musicians and artists at the meetings so they could contribute. And alongside all these people I had a fantastic illustrator on my team and she’d have her i-pad and would live-illustrate what was happening so it could be projected straight onto a big screen. This allowed people to see themselves being drawn and for different comments, points and ideas from the discussions to be highlighted as the roundtables were happening.
Video clips were then also generated featuring different people taking part and talking and people could take these home with them. This way of organising was about bringing people together and bringing the exchanges to life really quickly.
Returning to the events themselves, after the speakers had contributed, we’d have two different round table discussions. The first roundtable would be quite generic and about opening up conversations around why the issue of climate change is important and relevant in this community? It’d be about starting to outline the big vision. The next roundtable would then focus on a set of more detailed themes, with each group having a different issue to tackle and people being encouraged to move round the room to look at as wide a range of issues as possible.
The detailed themes that were discussed at each event would be derived from the earlier conversations and listening work that had already been undertaken by the local organiser, working together with other members of the local constituency Labour Party. We didn’t just make the themes up in a top-down way.
So, for example, when it came to the event in Morecambe, buses and the issue of transport was particularly important. In other places health and care work was more of a priority. These themes all related back to climate, but come at this issue from different angles.
Good facilitation was important at the events, so a few people didn’t get to dominate discussions and everyone had a chance to express themselves. We encouraged people to write as well as speak, so facilitators could look at what they’d written and people could respond. It was important that participation could take place in more ways than one. The events were therefore very different to how most political meetings are organised.
What happened to the material generated at these participatory events?
All the material would be collected and I spent hours and hours collating the work into documents. These documents would then be sent to the local community organisers and local Party in the constituency where the event had happened, so it could be used to develop local campaigns. The material was also sent to the policy team, so they could use it to further develop their policies, strategy and communications.
In terms of how the material helped propel local campaigns, there was, for example, an issue that emerged at an event in Cornwall with the local private water company and our event and this was the springboard for a local community campaign to clean up the local water supply.
Then in South Wales, for example, we helped with a campaign to save a local recycling centre, which was about to get closed down. We helped to save the recycling centre, which was great and it also led to a lot of people from outside the Party getting involved.
What difference do you think it makes when a political party like Labour gets involved in community organising?
Community Organising is about transferring power from the elite to ordinary people.
It is about recognising that decent housing conditions and Living Wages are achieved by getting Labour into government and also that people impacted by these issues have a critical role to play in fighting to win on these issues right now. Like the Miners of Tredegar organising together for universal healthcare or the mums’ who are taking on dodgy landlords because their children are struggling to breathe because of toxic mould in their housing block, or the fast food worker galvanising co-workers to fight for a £10 an hour - The Labour Party’s power comes from people. Community Organising aims to address that sense of powerlessness directly by identifying and developing the leadership skills of ordinary people to build power together to win the change they need in their lives.
From the Labour Party members in Hendon organising with local residents to build the power to take on a Tory Council to address inhumane housing conditions, to residents in Carmarthenshire organising together to overturn the closure of a recycling centre. Community organising is about building power, power that will - given time and resources - turn winning campaigns into winning elections.
It is so important that people see how much the Party does for local communities. For example in Broxtowe the CLP took over a high street shop and turned into a community hub. During lockdown this was converted into a food distribution centre to provide essential services to local residents. They even had the local fire brigade volunteering to do deliveries. (Link to video)
There’s also a lot that still needs to be upgraded around local digital organising, especially when it comes to how online networks and social media campaigns are built and used in community contexts.
The existence of the Community Organising Unit meant there was a complete community organising team supporting this work going on in different communities, all with the aim of building capacity and showing people that a party like Labour is constantly giving back to communities between elections.
Were there tensions between the Community Organising Unit and local councillors or other officials?
Community Organising really doesn't work this way. It is about bringing people together. I think from the Labour Together report it is clear that this is something the organisation values rather than seeing it as a tension. Our team has organisers who had previous roles in Friends of the Earth, Acorn, NHS workers, so we really were not there to get involved in any factional way.
Community Organising and Election Mobilising are traditionally viewed as mutually exclusive approaches. Electoral campaigns tend to focus on creating a temporary voter turnout machine that disappears when the election is over. These campaigns, by and large, aim to win without investing in building ordinary people’s capacity to make change.
For community organisers, the focus during elections becomes mobilising the people we’ve trained and built relationships with prior to elections and to enable members to own election strategy. Ahead of the short campaign for any elections, community organisers switch to getting constituencies they work in election-ready.
But it’s also true that this kind of work takes time. Building trust takes time. I wish we had more time.
The Community Organising Unit approach is notable for how it encouraged connections to be made between local, national and global forms of political thinking and action, could you say something about how this was encouraged in practice?
In a period in which people feel a deep cynicism about politicians, Community Organising has the potential to change the relationship between people and politics. By developing grassroots leaders, building relationships with civil society, building capacity within our own membership and winning social justice campaigns across the country. The Community Organising Unit has sought to prove that the Labour Party is not simply a political party that knocks on doors at election time but one that can reinvigorate democracy and people’s belief in the power of change from the bottom up. It has sought to build Labour as a vehicle for social justice and social change all year around. By building a strong presence in key constituencies and reimagining the relationship between the party and citizens - it would give the party a better chance of electoral success and enabling the Labour Party to mobilise a larger base of support in any given area
It’s not just one person struggling with mould in their house, but suddenly, by coming together with lots of other people struggling with similar issues in their area - and in their region - these people can start to connect up with a whole network of other housing campaigners. That can then also link up with a national campaign focused on improving housing. One person who felt like they were a lone voice, suddenly has a whole movement behind them.
And that, I think, is one of the most incredible experiences as an organiser I’ve ever, ever felt and had in my life - seeing local people and small campaigns starting to be all networked up and those people feeling how powerful their collective voice and these local campaigns coming together can actually be.
What you’re doing when this happens is building solidarity. Take Shevonne. She had never seen herself as a leader. She is a mum who was really angry that her block of flats in Putney was being so neglected by the landlord that residents could potentially die. She described her situation as the next Grenfell waiting to happen. But turning that anger into organised action was the turning point for Shevonne.
Within a week of meeting with a Labour community organiser, Shevonne had knocked on every door in the block. Within two weeks, a team of resident leaders had been built who were prepared to launch a campaign against the landlord so that they could no longer deliberately ignore families living in catastrophic housing conditions. Within a month residents had been trained in relationship building, issue identification and negotiation and armed with a set of realistic, achievable demands, Shevonne - with the whole block behind her - led the residents in negotiation with the CEO and landlord and won!
In Clyde House out of 160 residents, we secured 55 additional registrations to vote and got 155 labour promises and 10 new labour party members. On its own, this might not be a huge number but you can see how doing this in multiple blocks, or streets, over a couple of years would have huge impacts.
With the organising around the green industrial revolution, we really wanted to embed an ethos of 'not here not there' into the organising approach. We looked to create links with similar climate campaigns in the global south - with activists who have been on the front line of the climate crisis for decades and who in reality disproportionately bare the burden of the climate crisis.
This is one of many reasons why it’s important to understand these kinds of experiences, especially if we are going to have anti-racism and international solidarity solidly built into our organising. If we can do this it means that we need to have the ability to share our experiences and get advice from people who have been doing this for a really long time. This kind of approach can, in turn, also create opportunities to build internationalism.
At the beginning of the interview you talked about how narrow and inaccessible politics felt to you before you got involved in community organising. What you’ve been talking about here appears to stand in contrast to the kinds of politics you find alienating, is that right?
Yes absolutely and when you’re talking about climate change or the Green Industrial Revolution community organising is very much about addressing economic and racial inequalities. One incredible, and personal experience I had was when I met workers who were talking about job losses due to contracts being lost to the global south, in this case Indonesia. Someone then started talking about the need to "bring jobs home", to help them and their local communities. I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but I did feel uncomfortable with the language being used, not least because, on a personal level, I have family and friends in South East Asia. So in this case, when we talk about jobs, there are livelihoods to consider in Indonesia too and we need to talk about the global system, as people depend on jobs in all these different communities. So I shared my thoughts and personal experiences and this was such a good opportunity for new solidarities to be created. I love these listening campaigns.
So you think there's a lot to build on and that can be learnt from what the Community Organising Unit has done?
Definitely. We’ve been doing this work for more than two years now and have established lots of relationships. It was levelled at the Labour Party during the General Election that it wasn’t listening enough. Whether this is fair or not it’s clear that for too long the culture between the Labour Party, members and communities has been too transactional. Internally, when meetings tend to be about ‘minutes and motions’ there is limited opportunity to build relationships across political viewpoints and identify the big issues impacting on our communities. Too often, new and old members are put off and don’t come back. And externally, CLPs need to spend time listening to people in the local community about the pressures they face and the potential solutions we can work on together.
Community Organisers held 7,400 1-2-1’s prior to the general election (from January 2019). 1-2-1’s are opportunities to find people with the energy, fire, and leadership skills. They are critical for identifying potential leaders; building relationships with civil society, local trade union branches, BAME and faith institutions and organisations fighting austerity. From 1-2-1’s trust and relationships are built, issues are identified, people are trained, leaders are uncovered. Each organiser aims to have 15 1-2-1’s per week.
I already briefly mentioned the amazing story from the Broxtowe Labour Party which illustrates this: the organiser there ended up taking on an unused shop in the High Street, in an area that had been in steep decline. Last year they then turned the shop into a community hub staffed by volunteers. They had their meetings there, they did training there, they also had all kinds of social activities in the shop for the local community. Then during the first wave of Covid this hub turned into the local food distribution centre and the local fire brigade would come by every day to help distribute food to people. They also had links to the local primary and secondary schools, so if there was a local family in need they would put them in touch with the local Labour Party people volunteering in the hub because we would give them food. It was such a special thing. So I think it’s really important that we don’t forget that initiatives like this have already started and that they still need resources and our support.
We need to build the next generation of leaders, so we need to be able to resource that work and support community organising. The other thing I think it’s really vital to CO and why it needs to be resourced is related to the importance of storytelling - not everyone appreciates how important storytelling actually is. When we do community organising and digital organising, part of this organising is always about how we tell the story of our community and our movement. For me, narratives should come from people and we need to learn this if we want to be able to tell more compelling stories about the community and about the movement. Storytelling is vital to this way of doing politics in my view.
For example, in Blackpool, where we did one of the green industrial revolution events, a young girl stood up and gave feedback from her table and she looked really young and was wearing an anti-fracking t-shirt, so I assumed she was an avid campaigner. I thought she was about 17 and I later started a conversation with her and it turned out this was actually the first political event she’d ever attended.
This young woman was quite nervous and had recently found out about anti-fracking because she had walked by a group of old ladies, ‘the fracking nanas’, who were wearing yellow t-shirts protesting against fracking, on a street she walked down on her way back from school every day. One day she had stopped to ask them what they were doing and then realised that she had no idea that there was this fracking site on her doorstep and the repercussions of this.
She then started to wear a yellow t-shirt and get involved with them as a result of that experience. And then, literally a couple of weeks later, she was at our event getting involved in the debates and feeding back to politicians.
When I heard her story at the event, I was like ‘that’s really interesting’ and organised a 1-2-1 with her to find out more. She was a young girl, who is BAME, who was thinking about what to do with her life and what to do at university, she had never been interested or involved in politics before and there she was at our event. After the event she got involved in some community organising training and then got more involved still and got paid to come along to more of the green industrial revolution events around the country, she also received invites to contribute to other conversations.
In the space of six months, she was then sitting at events talking about the importance of climate policy to young people and the next generations alongside Rebecca Long-Bailey and John McDonnell. By the end of this she was doing roundtables with Naomi Klien and others in Parliament and doing interviews with the media for Vice, the Guardian and all kinds of things. She went on to do politics at Cambridge and set up a local climate policy group at her university.
For me that story is so important because it shows a journey from walking home from school every day and not being involved to someone growing into this incredible political leader in her own right. It’s inspiring and it’s beautiful and there’s going to be so many opportunities in that story to understand activism, to understand organising, to understand climate policy and how this person got engaged with several aspects of the political journey. She’s amazing and I absolutely love her. I won’t rest or retire until I see that woman in Parliament.
Lots of what you’ve been talking about happened less than a year ago but the movement and society in the UK is now in a very different place. Based on your experiences of working with the Community Organising Unit, what do you think needs to happen next?
We were able to tell stories of communities rising up and the movement emerging - it was beautiful. Whatever the political climate over the next few years these communities are still there.
The movement comes from communities, when community organising really grows that’s how we can then get to have a sustainable and thriving movement. So that’s the challenge I believe we need to address now
There isn’t a way of talking about the change that’s happened since the last General Election that isn’t dramatic. A year ago I had a feeling of hope, that transformation might be possible. We were bringing people together, creating amazing campaigns and videos, producing social media content showing people I knew doing amazing things. It felt beautiful that we were able to start to tell the stories of our communities.
Now it feels like the rug has been pulled out from under us very very quickly and as organisers we have to bounce back from that. This situation, coupled with what’s happened with Black Lives Matter, Covid, quarantine and anti-racism, means if feels like there’s a lot more going on now than we could ever hope to change, so it’s hard to keep that fire and that hope alive.
There are times when I’ve just felt saddened. The problems we face now seem bigger than ever. But I don’t know any other way of being in the world.
That hope, that many of us started to feel, still needs to be nurtured. As organisers it’s what drives us and why we keep trying to change the world. I’ve had to take some time personally to try and reflect and recharge.
The story of community organising you have told here is very rich and multidimensional: it links the local, national and global; illustrates how the personal connects with the collective; relates issues of race, class and gender to the health of community and our institutions. We could discuss all of this a lot more, but do you want to finish by saying anything more about how you think community organising needs to develop so it can potentially become more effective?
There are now a lot of conversations about how we unite as a movement, but the component that I think is missing in these conversations still tends to be community organising. For me this is less about how we unite the left and more about how we build from the work of community organisers up and down the country. To create opportunities for government action, which requires the public sector, policy developers, trade unions, our local communities, local authorities and politicians to unite to put forth economic solutions that address regional and national inequalities. We need to organise with the communities most impacted by an economic system that continues to fail them, people feel disenfranchised and powerless. And we need to create opportunities where the participation of people and communities is at the centre of economic transformation and rebuilding at a time when people most need it.