Self help initiatives within disadvantaged urban communities to prevent vandalism

Author: Neil Jameson

Neil Jameson is the Founding Executive Director of Citizens UK, the home of community organising in the UK. Citizens UK Alliances have been established across ten major cities or regions of the UK, including London, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Tyne & Wear and Wales. Citizens UK’s other successes have included the Living Wage campaign, which they launched in 2001, and which has led to over 3,000 organisations in the UK becoming accredited Living Wage Employers. In 2016, Neil was awarded a CBE for ‘services to community organising and social justice’. Here, he reflects on his 1977 Travelling Fellowship. In 1977 I was a Project Leader at a small family centre in Coventry. My job was to serve the needs of the residents of the council estate at which the centre was based. A friend who had seen an advert for the Travelling Fellowships recommended that I apply. It was apparent to me that a Fellowship could provide a boost to my own career development, but that it was also an opportunity to explore new ideas around how to work differently with communities. I applied under the Prevention of Vandalism category. The successful Fellows were myself and six police officers. Their approach was “how do you stop it?” My approach was “Why does it happen in the first place?” My Fellowship grant allowed me to travel to several cities in the USA. In New York, Boston, Chicago and Detroit I observed a number of initiatives where large alliances of institutions, particularly faith groups, were coming together to fight for common causes, such as better housing, safer streets and more stable employment. I witnessed community development projects, regeneration schemes, and programmes using business to lift people out of poverty. Through working together to achieve these goals, the bonds between these people were strengthened. The key to the learning from my Fellowship can be summed up by a quote from the philosopher John Stuart Mill: "That which people get for themselves is so much better than that which they are given." At Citizens UK, we never talk about “empowering” people; you can’t give people power, they have to take it for themselves. And the process of taking power is itself liberating. At the time of my Fellowship, we had a welfare-driven state which condescended to people by handing out presents and prizes, and this leads to dependency. During my Fellowship, I also spent time among some Native American communities. A Cherokee reservation was situated in an area where the main industry was gambling; the Cherokees were experiencing serious problems with unemployment and alcoholism. Meanwhile, a Mohawk community, illegally occupying their tribe’s old burial ground, were leading self-sustaining and enterprising lives. Their sense of pride, in contrast to the Cherokees’ sense of loss, was tangible. The most important aspect of my Fellowship was a meeting with Ed Chambers, then Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the community organising network established by Saul Alinsky in 1940. The IAF’s model was to be the inspiration for Citizens UK, and this meeting was the start of a relationship between the two organisations which has continued for decades. My Fellowship provided me with the insight that organising helps people to participate in public life and strengthen themselves in the process, but it would take ten years for me to raise enough money to put this idea into practice and establish Citizens UK. In the intervening period, I read more about community organising and came to understand that what I had witnessed in the USA had happened in the UK for hundreds of years, but this tradition seemed to have been lost. I established Citizens UK in 1989, and since then it has changed my life, my family’s lives and the lives of the thousands of people who work with us. We now employ 55 Community Organisers: we have created a career and a vocation out of organising communities so that they become more powerful. I am thankful that my Churchill Fellowship enabled all this to happen. I am encouraging lots of people to apply for a Churchill Fellowship this year. It is a wonderful opportunity. There are community organising models in India, the Philippines, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, which prospective Fellows may learn important lessons from, but the States still leads the way. Raising money and becoming sustainable is a key issue for organisations like Citizens UK, and the IAF have been active for over 70 years. Community organising is as important a subject for a Fellowship now as it was when I applied 40 years ago, and its objective is something everyone desires: getting to know your neighbour, and changing the world! Summer newsletter 2017