“The relational-meeting approach is selective. Unless I get fooled, I have relational meetings with leaders only. First, a leader is someone with relationships who can deliver his or her (*their) followers… If you get caught with a follower, there’s an easy way out. Just say, “take me to your leader.”
– Ed Chambers, Roots for Radicals

The purpose of listening in organising is to identify leaders. What makes you a leader is if you have a following. Do people follow your words, actions, ideas? The organisers job is to identify those leaders to act with many others, developing more leadership capacity and action. It is argued that following is something we all can do and it is a practice we all can learn. It is a liberating idea – a leadership that no one is excluded from. In reality however it often leads to working with people who we have always worked with, the same folks who always have showed up and/or those who have charisma and positional authority to take up space.

What if you are organising with people who are systemically isolated? What if your movement is led by people who have said to you “I haven’t spoken to anyone in months” or “I used to have a friend but I don’t anymore?” What if your mission is to ensure not only that isolation is tackled, but is led by the very people who are at the heart of the issue?

Grapevine is challenging the norms of inaccessible organising methods that exclude people because they don’t bring followers or institutional power. Following is not ignored but is not the only focus. The organisers at Grapevine focus on people’s strengths and what matters to them first. By drawing in a range of people from all walks of life the aim is to ensure more of us are capable of building relationships. With this approach emerges leadership where those most affected by the issue get to take charge. This work is hard, we are not always getting it right but are trying.

For example, 1 in 3 disabled young people get to spend 1 hour outside on a weekend. Grapevine is challenging this norm and having the young people who experience this lead in building campaigns and relationships to challenge this statistic. From fighting for their right to party to tackling Disability Hate in the media, their efforts have received both local and national recognition. Young people with learning disabilities and autism who are holding their audience to listen, engage and act for their best interests. The city is listening to these young people in ways they weren’t before and there is still plenty of work to do!

A speaker stands on the stop of some steps, addressing the crowd via megaphone, in Coventry city centre. One person in the crowd holds a sign reading 'CREATIVE KINDNESS - TACKLING ISOLATION'

It is not just about the social justice gains. Grapevine and our team at Act Build Change are just as interested in “how we win” and “with whom”. Our purpose is to build our power as and with people who are segregated in society. To push back against the margins imposed on us by powerful systems and institutions who act in ways that say “we do not believe in your value and potential”. We centre love and power in our practice of organising. As syrupy as that may sound it is the only way we will all be able to live in this world with dignity. That you are of value just by existing. That’s what Grapevine has always done. How it has always worked. This is what makes this work sustainable and a legacy for those who will carry it forward.

“In addition to identifying leaders and working with them, is working for their actual development so that they become recognised by their following as leaders in more than one limited sphere.”
– Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals

The focus on leadership development has always been what has drawn me to community organising over any other method of change. It is a pillar of our work as organisers, to develop and be developed by all those we work with. And sometimes I see us saying it matters but acting like it doesn’t. And the excuses for why we struggle to be representative aren’t often reasonable or as complex as they are made out to be. Grapevine and others show it can be done. Even when there is instability and difficulty they keep going to get to a place of transformation with an individual. A place where their power surfaces. Power that is always there, but sometimes in the words of Ella Baker “needs light to guide the way”.

“This work is life saving, I wouldn’t be here now if I wasn’t part of CfG”
– Joe.

We support leaders to do this through a storytelling approach. For example, through our listening we met Rose, passionate about bringing about change in her local community. Rose now co facilitates the storytelling session of Changemaker University and has gone from leader to paid organiser. With others Rose is fighting to transform her local area taking on issues of food insecurity, fly tipping, to opportunities for young people.

“Storytelling is a crucial part of leadership; it is the vehicle by which we can communicate our values. Our life lessons can inspire others to have the courage to act.”
– Rose, Community Organiser Grapevine

A member of Coventry Youth Activists speaks through a megaphone held by another person to a crowd in the middle of the city centre.

“When we first met Tom he said ‘I had a friend once but I don’t have one any more’. Eighteen months later and he’s an active member of Coventry Youth Activists, their latest campaign calls out the Facebook hate crime reporting process. He is also a key player in the Collaboration Station team. He doesn’t take no for an answer and isn’t afraid to hold you to account – as Stephanie will tell you. He also now has a group of people he can call friends. We could all learn so much from Tom.”
– Mel Smith, Deputy CEO Grapevine

It is not only about individual leadership. Collective leadership in action looks like local people fronting up initiatives that help other community members to develop happier and stronger relationships with one another. In the past year over 180 sessions have taken place including film screenings, quiz nights, audio & visual DJ sets, social suppers, campaigning, creativity workshops, family discos, litter picking. Each initiative is lead by a core team of local people and they are accountable to each other on what they want to achieve by when. It is also ensuring people from the movement are present in meeting opportunities with positional power and authority. Be that a meeting with a funder, a journalist or a politician.

The co designed community leadership programme Changemaker University helps the movement to grow by equipping people with the skills and confidence to act on what they care about, taking power into their own hands to make the change they want to see in our communities. 45 local people have been trained over 3 cohorts, each cohort is asked to help train the next cohort. Fifteen people are now helping co facilitate sessions as well as helping to reflect and evaluate the programme. The latest cohort is made up of local people, those working in the public sector, artists and people with long term health conditions, learning disabilities and autism. This isn’t happening anywhere else in the city.

Following will always have a place in community organising but actually I am as interested in how we make space for more people to show up, participate and take responsibility for shaping their places. Or as Hahrie Han puts it “Leaders are distinct …because they take responsibility for outcomes, as opposed to merely showing up.” Fundamentally many more of us could be leaping into a more inclusive, accessible and humble practice of organising. Grapevine has taught me that.

Reflection Questions

  1. How do you demonstrate trust in your organising? Could your trust be braver?
  2. How seriously do you and the teams you work with take accountability? What does this look like in practice? Could accountability be clearer?
  3. How are you unlearning the habits of “charismatic leadership” when it shows up in yourself or in others? How are you ensuring you are investing in the collective mission not an individual?
  4. Our gifts thrive in different circumstances – how do you make space in your organising for a multitude of circumstances for people to lead in?
  5. In what ways are you providing opportunities for leaders to shift and share power for systemic change?

This is the fourth in a series of blogs about our work with Grapevine:
1. How do we connect each other for good?
2. Building powerful relationships
3. I heard it on the grapevine
4. Who is really leading?
5. A lesson on how to build the institutions we need for the futures we seek
6. Reflection as radical
7. Biscuits, cuppas and megaphone actions

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