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Naomi Lawson Jacobs: Disability and God’s JusticeNovember 21, 2022
In her recent Modern Church blog, Elaine Graham asked for suggested areas of public policy that might be candidates for a Royal Commission. I would plump for the concept of Citizenship – and the future of participatory democracy. And we might begin here by thinking about the role of churches in this.
The Covid 19 pandemic, and the groundswell of support for Ukrainian refugees, both revealed that millions of citizens of our nation long for the opportunity to contribute to the wellbeing of others. What is lacking is the structural wherewithal. At the same time, trust in our party political system is low – with electoral turnouts to match.
A few years ago I was privileged to experience Citizen’s UK’s six-day training in Community Organising. At the end of the opening session, I well recall the excitement of being in a room with thirty or more people from various committed faith perspectives, and those of no explicit faith; with a range of ages represented (but a preponderance of those in their twenties and thirties) – all passionate about moving from ‘the world as it is’ to the ‘world as it should be’. As someone with over thirty years experience in Christian social justice, what was unique about this context was the offer of a mechanism for achieving actual change. A real, workable model for becoming active citizens in our varied local contexts. My thought was, ‘If only this had been available to me when I was younger’: something to do in response to injustice which was not simply mitigation, petition-signing, protest marches or writing to/lobbying my MP. All of which, though they have a part to play in political processes, can lead to cynicism and hopelessness that agency can ever be claimed or exercised by ‘the people’.
For those unfamiliar with Community Organising, I refer you to the very comprehensive website of Citizens UK (see www.citizensuk.org), and in particular the rapidly developing churches’ community of practice which enables theological reflection on Community Organising and resources those who are involved in broad-based alliances as part of their churches ( https://bit.ly/3dsRqsW). Also important is the work of Angus Ritchie, and the Centre for Theology and Community in East London (www.theology-centre.org).
Ritchie describes Community Organising as a structured process which brings together grassroots institutions like churches, mosques and schools in a particular town or city to act on issues of common concern. It originated in the USA in the 1930s and has been growing in the UK since the 1990s. In contrast to philanthropy, the all-important iron rule of Community Organising is ‘never do for others what they can do for themselves’.
Community Organising starts from an awareness that whilst the market and the state are ‘organised’ – the so-called ‘third’ sector – civic society (though perhaps we should call this the first sector) is less so. It seeks to address the fact that collectives of all kinds have waned in importance under neoliberalism, and this has weakened participatory democracy, and undermined ways of building ‘people power’.
Community Organising aims to address this and build power through a distinct methodology and discipline that is, above all, relational. It begins with listening to people – their passions and their concerns – through systematic listening campaigns built on 1-2-1 conversations. The 1-2-1 is a basic building block of organising – it is an intentional conversation where the agenda is the other person, being attentive to the building of common ‘self-interest’ (not to be confused with ‘selfish interest’); a power analysis is conducted in order to take effective action on particular injustices; there is a constant focus on developing leaders who can testify to their experience and give voice (leaders are defined as those closest to the injustice, who are often those otherwise marginalised and oppressed by systems of power); change is won in a way that empowers leaders and builds agency (ensuring that campaigns are winnable and incremental); all meetings and actions are evaluated by a method akin to the ‘pastoral cycle’; broad-based alliances of diverse institutions are evolved that are constantly listening to those in their communities through 1-2-1s such that their institutions are strengthened, and they become part of a long-term ‘collective of collectives’. Its power comes through the number and diversity of people that an alliance represents. This broad-based alliance works to an annual cycle of action for change – calling power-holders to account, but can also respond quickly to crises and challenges (eg influxes of refugees; pandemic response; major disasters or crimes in local communities). Member organisations pay dues, which ensures that the alliance is independent of any body from whom it may wish to win changes.
Angus Ritchie explains why Community Organising focuses on collective endeavours – on strengthening institutions: ‘Institutions attract a lot of suspicion, some of it justified. But an institution is just the set of structured relationships which emerge when human beings agree to be faithful to one another across time. That is what a Scout group, trade union, marriage and mosque have in common. It is one of the characteristic myths of our culture that such commitments restrict our freedom. In fact, our institutions are vital to our freedom. They enable us to build relationships of solidarity and trust across boundaries of age, race and religion. Without them, we are isolated individuals, and our lives and communities are dominated even more by the power of the market and the state.’
This points church congregations towards a new vision for citizenship: strengthening our relationality within, and also towards reaching out to build relationships with other collectives that we can work with to resist oppressive hierarchies. The particular challenge of our time is to rekindle the concept of ‘solidarity’. We need to press through our differences in search of common interests and the common good – all the time resisting ‘divide and rule’ by those in power and fragmentation amongst an ‘us’ that must be forever porous.
Alison Webster is General Secretary of Modern Church and Mission Theologian in Residence for Citizens UK.