Stephen Smith has been a Community Organiser since the very first Community Organisers programme launched in 2011. Stephen now works as a Neighbourhood Coordinator with Nottinghamshire County Council and talks here to Nick Mahony of Municipal Enquiry about his hopes and plans for community organising in Nottinghamshire
Tell us about your role and the place where you work?
Currently, I have two roles. I am the Director of Community Organising with Sneinton Alchemy CIC (or Notts Social Action Hub), the Community Interest Company that was funded to train Nottinghamshire residents in community organising from March 2011. In 2019 I successfully campaigned to become a trustee of CO Ltd (National Academy of Community Organising)
I am also employed by Nottinghamshire County Council as a Neighbourhood Coordinator within the Communities Team, which is part of the Place Department.
I have worked for many years in Sneinton, which is also close to where I live. It’s a very deprived Neighbourhood situated on the outskirts of the city Centre comprising mainly terraced houses. The area is very multicultural, home to a lot of people from the Czech and Polish Roma communities and a long-standing Asian community. Due to a plethora of health issues, especially lung related and mental health problems, people living in Sneinton are more likely to die 15-20 years before the average life expectancy in this country.
I was first employed as a Neighbourhood Coordinator by Nottinghamshire County Council in 2017 to develop a project called ‘Age Friendly Nottinghamshire’. The focus of the project was to address issues of loneliness, isolation and mental health with a view to supporting older people in the area to be more active and encouraging the community to look after its older residents.
Based on feedback gathered during this pilot project, Age Friendly Nottinghamshire transformed into a programme called Community Friendly Nottinghamshire which allowed us to utilise the Community Organising approach with the intention to “bring people together to take action on the things they care about”. This project allowed us to really get out there to listen to people, network, find like-minded people and help support new projects and community action.
The ‘Community Friendly’ project was launched while I was involved in the development of the Community Organising (CO) expansion programme and both of these projects relied on training residents in Community Organising. I was able to exceed the initial commissioned target of training 115 people in Community Organising and by March 2020 the courses that I led had attracted over 400 participants with a healthy mix of residents and public sector people signing-up, including people working in public health and the police, as well as people in the voluntary sector. As a result, we now have a range of people in paid roles who are trained in Community Organising (CO), with this working to help embed the CO approach across different organisations. Many of these people are now also members of the CO programme, are still engaged and continue to be invited to network. For example, 21 members from Nottinghamshire have formed a Local Organising Group to strengthen how they listen and respond to residents. This shows some of the value of embedding community organising in public sector organisations. But there is another reason I think this approach is important which relates to the financial sustainability of community organising. When the Community Organising programme originally started there was a lot of talk about ‘creating an independent labour market’ for Community Organisers. The aim was for organisations like the NHS and housing associations to create sustainable jobs for people who are trained up as Community Organisers. This was how it was explained to me by the Locality Programme Team.
If we look back further, to a time before the Community Organising took off in the UK, many public and voluntary sector organisations would seek to employ community development workers to strengthen community resilience. During discussion with Locality (and in the initial CO handbook) there was an inference that community organisers would be employed in the same way and that there would need to be long-term employment opportunities for trained community organisers.
In recent years there has been less discussion of the creation of this independent labour market and as a result many trained Community Organisers are still largely reliant on external sources of funding to sustain themselves and their work. Personally, I think we’ve shot ourselves in the foot by not continuing to focus on creating this independent labour market, as without secure jobs it is going to be difficult for trained community organisers to continue to develop this important work in the medium and longer terms.
In this respect I’m one of the fortunate ones, as I now have a sustainable basis on which I can community organise due to my paid role as a Neighbourhood Coordinator within the County Council. As a council employee doing community organising I’m still out on the streets, ‘listening to empower’ and bringing people together to take action, so what I’m doing now through working with the council is exactly the same as I was doing before, there’s no deviation. It’s just that now the community organising approach is increasingly being valued by Nottingham County Council (NCC) as a way of helping people in communities to help themselves. Overall, there’s already a clear drive here to ‘listen’ and ‘collaborate’ and ‘codesign’ and more generally for the public sector and the community to work more closely together. There’s still plenty of work to be done but things are moving in the right direction.
What tensions do you currently face in your role as a Community Organiser?
At a recent national Community Organising gathering, during a couple of breakout workshops, I felt uncomfortable because some participants had mixed feelings about me being a CO and working for the council. While many talked positively about mutual aid groups, some were more negative about councils and argued that councils should completely step out of the way and not be involved with mutual aid groups. My own view is that a collaborative effort is the way forward, merging the expertise and resources of the public sector with the passion and knowledge that residents and volunteers can bring. Afterall, “passion without organisation is like Diana Ross without the Supremes”
Some CO’s probably feel that by working for a council I have sold my soul to the devil but the truth is I’ve scratched around for years and years trying to secure sustainable funding for Community Organising activities – whether it’s 6 months, a year's, or 18 months funding. Even when you manage to secure 18 months of funding you must still immediately think about and even start planning for what will happen after that. I have a mortgage and bills to pay, so how can I sustain myself if I haven’t got anything in place after such a short period of funding has run out? After years and years of living like that and not having any continuity of funding this situation takes its toll on your mental health.
This issue of financial sustainability and resourcing is the elephant in the room when we’re talking about Community Organising at the moment; it’s why we’ve still got to build that independent labour market - to create proper contracted jobs for Community Organisers and end peoples’ reliance solely on short-term project funding.
Without a conscious effort to get trained Community Organisers into proper employment my fear is that we will lose many great CO’s, who will be forced into getting non-CO type jobs. Would it therefore really be such a bad thing if councils across the country employed CO’s?
Generally speaking, Community Organising is about supporting people in communities to build more just and democratically accountable neighbourhoods and supporting transitions to more equal and environmentally sustainable ways of life - how do you think Community Organising is supporting these kinds of transitions where you are, and how far do you think you can go with Community Organising in Nottinghamshire in the years ahead?
In general, Nottinghamshire County Council appreciates the value of the CO approach because it is aligned with its ambition to ‘put local people at the heart of everything it does, and to enable the growth of vibrant and supportive communities’. The Council sets out 3 priorities in its latest communities strategy, these are: ‘helping people to help themselves, investing in place & community and investing in skills and aspiration’. Community organising is named as the activity of choice that will make all this happen and one of the success measures is the number of “community organising and social action training offers for employees and communities” – the aim here being “to upskill workforce development and build community capacity”. This demonstrates a commitment from the council to empowering communities using the community organising approach.
Once people have the knowledge and skills and confidence to tackle an issue that means something to them, I think they will also be able to apply their understanding of CO to other areas and work together on all kinds of issues long into the future.
In my own work here, for example, I have supported people who have started off doing litter picking schemes and who are now trying to develop Neighbourhood plans. Through its commitment to training residents in community organising Nottinghamshire County Council is giving residents the fishing rod but not the fish. It is truly equipping people with the capacity to get things done.
Alongside training community organisers, what we need to do now to further develop this work is build a network here that can connect and relate all the many different individuals and groups doing Community Organising. We need to continue to prioritise working with people who are looking to meet their immediate needs as we know that it’s only after they’ve done this that people can consider the wider issues and get their teeth into bigger things. We then also need to help connect the different people and groups organising and working on the ground. By taking this approach we are already beginning to observe a ripple effect and I think this will continue long into the future.
Tell us more about how you understand these connections between local community based organising and organising as part of a network to address the bigger issues?
Most of the time when I do my listening I start with local and more immediate issues, without pushing my agenda onto people. I might well be thinking ‘I wish you’d want to change systematic power and shift power imbalances’ but I just step back. This is because community organising leadership means ‘listening to empower’, letting people do what they want to do and helping people and communities develop the capacity to take the lead.
Some people may assume that by taking this approach and helping residents to tackle their own very local issues power isn’t being shifted, but I like to think that this approach, which involves helping to empower one individual at a time, will bear fruit in the end.
Can a person really shift power if they are not already empowered themselves?
For me, every person needs to start by focusing on their individual power before trying to change things at the community or national level. This is the crux of it. If the person isn’t empowered first, we need to help that person to feel empowered, then they will also be more likely to work at the local and national levels too - we can’t just start at the national, when people don’t feel empowered to do anything for themselves locally. “Personal power is the ability to stand on your own two feet with a smile on your face in the middle of a universe that contains a million ways to crush you.” “People never know what they are capable of until all other options run out.” J.Z. Colby
What do you think the future is for Community Organising where you are?
The Community Friendly Nottinghamshire project now has additional funding from Nottinghamshire County Council to work in more areas across the county and to build on the work my team have done for nearly 4 years. When I started working as an organiser in 2011 and received funding from the Community Organising Expansion programme it was specifically for the delivery of Community Organising training, now I’m employed by the county council it means I don’t have to put all my energy into training and can also focus on helping people make connections and build a strong network. I think my current approach is therefore more sustainable and consistent.
Have any of the people or groups you’ve trained and organised ever moved into formal politics e.g. become a local Councillor, or an MP?
Yes, let me end by telling you about the example of a young guy called Anthony. A couple of years ago there was a situation in a local community here where there was a lot of tension between some of the young people and older residents. As part of the Community Organising work there, the Community Friendly Nottinghamshire team started listening to the younger and older people and as part of this process met this guy called Anthony who was 22 years old at the time. Anthony looked after his grandparents and wanted to do something to help get the young people together and to get them more engaged, especially the 14-15 year olds.
When we met him and did the listening Anthony was very reserved and always had his hood up, so to all intents and purposes he seemed like one of the young guys that the older people were complaining about. After attending a community organising weekend residential workshop that I delivered, Anthony decided he would set up a community group called ‘All Rise’. Anthony used this group to bring the young and older people together and worked with my team to host 2 neighbourhood networking events where we listened to the community.
There were some fantastic and emotional exchanges as part of this process and that’s what was needed - people just wanted to sit, talk and eat cake together. A couple of the local Councillors turned up to these meetings and it turned out they’d never had an opportunity to talk to these younger people in this way and they started developing friendships as a result.
A pub landlord who was there offered a side room so the meetings could continue. One of the councillor’s said he’d also give £50, towards a pool competition. The group ended up organising a litter picking event involving a mix of younger and older residents coming together to clear up the local parks. The area was cleared up, the relationships developed, and trust grew. I met up with Anthony sometime later and he said, ‘you know what Steve, I’m running for Councillor’. I was so happy to hear this, and it reinforces what I have previously said relating to power. I’m hoping many more local leaders like Anthony will emerge from the training and Community Organising networks we are developing here in Notts.