Connecting for Good (CfG) is a movement powered by Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire. It’s purpose is to grow an ecosystem of connection across Coventry, so that everyone in the city has potential to act and shape their neighbourhoods. This work is built on Grapevine’s 25 year legacy of disability justice work, challenging the norms of who can and who can not contribute. This post is blog 5 from a series of 7 sharing organising methods we are using that challenge and also return me to the fundamentals lessons of community organising and the importance of building relational power.
“Change comes from power, and power comes from organisation. In order to act, people must get together.” – Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals
The Alinsky model, which is one of the dominant teachings of community organising, is a broad based organising model. It is a model that prioritises working through existing institutions in a given area, developing them to be more powerful relationally in order to strengthen communities and win on issues that matter to the people. The rationale is that faith, public and community institutions are often already organised. They have an internal leadership structure, an understanding of accountability and people in the community attending. You can draw on them to activate their following. Finally, old power institutions have long histories and will likely continue to be around in the future, unlike projects or individuals. This makes the organising both in terms of people, and wins you gain, more sustainable.
But what do you do when these institutions ignore (for a whole host of reasons) the very folks who are powering a movement calling for transformative change? Relying on institutions alone without challenging culture will not deliver the gains we are seeking. Especially if we are really trying to shift the balance of power. Culture can take a willing generation to change and so our work in Coventry can not solely rely on what is already there. How CfG addresses these challenges is by supporting the old and creating new institutions powered by the movement that are better able to understand the ramifications of loneliness, what it means to be oppressed and the shocks of COVID.
Grapevine is building the “organised infrastructure” or in other words, the institutions they want to see. Their approach is abundantly collaborative – which for our sector can be disappointingly rare. They work with community leaders, local authorities, teachers, nurses, neighbours, artists, poets. We work with anyone who wants to get stuck in and act on the movement’s values.
And the rallying point for them all is called Collaboration Station.
Collaboration Station is Coventry’s open ideas night where ideas are bounced around, supported by others and powered up for action. It’s also got the potential to become a place of whole movement congregation for mutual support and awareness with an equalising, playful, urgent, bonding atmosphere.
“Collaboration Station is a great way to hear voices from across a range of backgrounds, and from people who are passionate about making real and lasting change in the city. It’s the spirit of Coventry embodied in practical action” – Justine Themen – Deputy Artistic Director Belgrade Theatre
It includes those too often ignored and intentionally invites institutions with organised money and organised power that are attracted to and/or could be doing more to tackle isolation. This looks like West Midlands Combined Authority, Good Gym, Coventry University, the local and cultural institutions are there too. It is early days still as the co-owned space works out its relationship with organised power.
“I’m finally in contact with people who want to work together to build a better community and make their surroundings better. It’s so easy to feel hopeless and depressed about the world, and Collaboration Station makes you see the power of people and the power of coming together to make small (but huge) changes” – Sophie, Local Resident
“It was AMAZING. My favourite Zoom experience so far. I’ve never experienced such participation and energy in a Zoom session of any kind. You can feel the community, connection, hope, empowerment, and, dare I say, love…” – Seth Reynolds NPC Systems Change Principal.
Up until the pandemic Collaboration Station had been hosted by Drapers Cafe Bar (a firm local favourite) and Coventry University Hub. Creating the right atmosphere for Collaboration Station has always been a key factor of its success. Understanding the ingredients to create the same atmosphere online for the energy and commitment to action to flow is key.
Organising when you can’t knock on doors. Lessons from Mel Smith, Organiser and Deputy CEO Grapevine
Building local connections especially during this time of physical separation is so important and not just to combat loneliness and isolation. If we get the conditions right the virtual world can be as fruitful as in-person. These new relationships and connections bring forth resources, creativity and leadership too. And so whether it be a 1-to-1, core group meeting or a large gathering there is close attention paid to…
- Designing in moments for human connection online. E.g.sharing 3 things about ourselves as organisers in a pre meet email, creating a collective photo album of what’s keeping us going right now, contributing to a Changemaker playlist.
- Welcoming everyone by name as they enter the virtual room and allow time for people to settle in, acknowledge friendly faces and encourage waves, shrieks, comments in the chat box and welcoming conversations
- Creating a transition moment – to take us from human connection to action. This could be a story or a grounding activity e.g. the lighting of a candle as an alternative to chatting around a campfire.
- Designing in signals of solidarity – if you agree raise your hand, click you fingers, create a heart shape with your hands, sing together (Lean on Me is a firm favourite), chant in unison “Fired up, ready to go!”. Take a photo/video of this and share afterwards.
- Modelling the diversity of leadership you want to see in your communities and keep asking who is still missing from the table?
- Allowing for moments of collective reflection
- Can everyone you are working with both in your organisation and wider communities articulate the vision and mission you are all working towards? Is there more work to do here? What does this look like?
- Who can access the space you have chosen for a meeting? Is that person ‘inconveniencing’ the room, or do they need support? Is spoken communication the only option here, or might there be others? (Questions inspired by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha)
- Are the asks you are calling on institutions/ people in positional power challenging enough? What do you want to ask but are tentative? Is there some help you need to be more brave?
- How often do you talk about power? Are you supporting people in the room to know that it is their right to ask and work with people in significant positions of power to be accountable and act for the betterment of their neighbourhoods?
What is your strategy to stay sustainable in the changing and challenging moments?