Two and a half years ago Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire (Grapevine) and Act Build Change came together to develop a community organising methodology to grow a movement of 3000 people from isolation to powerful connection. The movement is called Connecting for Good (CfG) and we are all working to shift power in the city of Coventry so that all of us can plan, dream and contribute to our city and nation.
When I was invited to lead on the organising work with Grapevine it felt both a meaningful and almost impossible collaboration. I was told I would be supporting the growth of a movement led by the isolated. Those without following. Anyone who has read anything about organising knows that following is always where an organiser must begin. It goes against the very teachings I was taught in.
I am now so aware of how little I knew when starting, how much I have learnt through this process and how my organising craft is stronger because of Grapevine and the neighbours, mischief makers and leaders who have trusted me, shared their wisdom and we have taken leaps of faith together.
“Learn about the world as it is and don’t confuse it with the world you would like it to be … You learn to be realistic in your expectations” – Saul Alinksy
In Saul Alinsky’s teaching of organising radical transformation is often not the goal. Alinsky cautions organisers to not spend too much time in the “world as it should be” and keep your feet in the world as it is. Alinsky calls for pragmatism over being principled and to keep your demands at the table small and manageable.
While I respect Alinsky for much of his teaching, my work over the years is increasingly telling me to challenge this idea. We know people are dying because what we need from the systems around us are not fit for purpose. We have all the means, people and creativity to grow what we need. We are told our demands are too high. We need patience. Somehow we can put people on the moon, create cars that run on the sun, vaccines that slow pandemics, but we can’t make everyday transport accessible. Or keep the local youth centre open.
Yes, we must start in the world as it is, but let’s not stop that us from dreaming and building as we work. Pragmatism is the world of organising – we pride ourselves on it. But who gets to decide what is “worthwhile and winnable?”. Who gets to say what is in the reality of the world as it is and the dreams world as it should be?
I fear organising teaches organisers, especially those just starting out, to get excellent at winning what is most probable and to leave too difficult alone. Never forget possibility is as real as probability and that potential should never be trivialised.
Disabled folks, black and brown people, LGBTQ+ , the working classes have all had to act and organise despite the very real probability we will lose. Else we would not be here breathing, surviving, dancing, loving and organising.
Can Organising Offer Transformation?
“Organisers invest in developing the capacities of people to engage with others in activism and become leaders. It is a transformational approach.” – Hahrie Han
Organising is often recognised for its radical approach, especially when we take into consideration its emphasis on building power and leadership in communities. Grapevine chooses the long term transformational view. Wins will always need to be defended and it is organised communities, in relationship with each other, committed to their constituencies that have the best chance of doing that.
The only way I see us ending isolation is through transformational relationships and action. In order for all of us to be seen and not forgotten, we have to do the deep hard work of challenging cultural norms and to heal from the pains we have caused each other. It’s not a quick fix win and we all know it. As a nation the pandemic has shown us that more of us care and can act. We can have tough conversations, make the impossible possible and face harsh realities with loving connection. We are learning together that we are stronger collectively.
“It can’t all be about staying in and working with the world as it is for us. We have to have a vision of a future to fight for, not just a present to fight against. And for that we need imagination, hopes and dreams in our kit bag as well as strategy, tactics and relationships.” – Clare Wightman Grapevine CEO
Systemic transformation is always going to matter to the work of Grapevine and Act Build Change. Grapevine want to get at the root causes of the most difficult problems – not just treat the symptoms. So we work intensively with systems and services like the NHS and local authorities to understand issues together, shift power and solve the real problem for good. This is what organising really is about. It is about shifting power – it is the only job of an organising approach. If the work that is being called organising is not engaging with the discomfort and tension of the types of conversations and actions that shifting power really requires, I believe it can not be called organising.
Learning from the best
All of us will become less able bodied, older, ill, tired, loose loved ones and friends and will be in need of community. Isn’t it about time more of us respect, listen and learn from the folks who have had to weave webs of care and action around them in order to survive because of the world as it is? The best organisers of all of us?
“Yet while we seem to have found the good life we also seem to have lost ourselves. We should be happy, but we are in fact confused, frustrated, resentful, and frightened of the feeling of an ever growing loneliness.” – Saul Alinsky
I find it eerie how much we are still in this place 74 years on from when Saul Alinsky first wrote these words. He said how we get away from this growing loneliness is by returning to the power of people, the power of participation and the power of relationships. As adrienne maree brown states “relationships are everything”.
Grapevine, in the words of Jane McAlevey, are here to raise these expectations. To raise the expectations of what community organising can do. To not only make sure our worlds are accessible and connected, but also work to transform the conditions that created that inaccessibility and disconnection in the first place. This means working with both the urgency of now to meet today’s challenges and also patience to move at the pace of the people you are working with. Or as Deanna Ayres says more succinctly;
This way of organising has always been present in our communities. Every freedom we now enjoy has been through the slow, hard, brutal and joyful organising of the oppressed. The quick win focus, outcome driven “professionalising” of organizing is risking us forgetting what organising really is and what it isn’t. Grapevine uses their organising craft with intentionality. Where no one wants to be “fixed” but all of us get the space to change the world. Our collective work at Grapevine is certainly not the “glossy work” of the sector: It glows from the inside out.
“The answer to all of the issues facing us will be found in the masses of the people themselves, and nowhere else.” – Saul Alinsky
I wholeheartedly believe in this. I believe Grapevine wholeheartedly believes in it too. I dedicate time to organising with Grapevine because they don’t organise for a reactionary moment, funder fashion or the pendulum of media interest. Grapevine organises in the service of love, justice, connection and community. Especially the most isolated of us, the forgotten neighbours and the intentionally segregated members of our society. It is the type of organising that has the potential to transform a city. Honestly, I believe it has the power to transform a nation. It has the power to Connect all of us: For Good.
“This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real” – Ella Baker.
Reflection Questions: Transformational Organising
- Is the impatience for action costing the bravery of the spaces you are trying to create?
- Where are you creating space for imagination in your work? When do you get to dream together with the people and teams you work with?
- What will the legacy of your actions be? What will it provide for the generations who will come after?
- Who else in the UK is raising expectations of organising, relationship building, community action?
- What have you learned in your organising, movement building work that you feel is important for us to hear?
Please share in the comments below, tweet or email.
This blog was authored by Stephanie Wong with support from Mel Smith, quotes from Clare Wightman, wisdom of Hahrie Han, Ella Baker, adrienne maree brown and Saul Alinsky and the work and trust of everyone in the Connecting for Good Movement.