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Transforming Coventry with biscuits, cuppas and megaphone actions

Can community organising really transform a city?

Stephanie Wong | 13 May 2021

An image of a megaphone on a table with teas and biscuits.

Biscuits, cuppas, megaphones and action. Image credit: John Whitmore.

Two and a half years ago, Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire (Grapevine) and Act Build Change collaborated 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 the organising work with Grapevine, it felt both a meaningful and almost impossible collaboration. I was told I would support 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, and shared their wisdom. 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

Radical transformation is often not the goal in Saul Alinsky’s teaching of organising. Alinsky cautions organisers not to 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 has increasingly taught me to challenge this idea over the years. Somehow, we can put people on the moon, create cars that run on the sun, and 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 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 world as it should be?

I fear organising teaches organisers, especially those just starting, to get excellent at winning what is most probable and to leave everything else out of scope. Remember possibility is as accurate as probability, and that potential should always be considered.

Disabled folks, black and brown people, LGBTQ+, and the working classes have all had to act and organise despite the genuine probability we will lose. But we kept going and dreamt big, or 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 emphasising building power and leadership in communities. Wins will always need to be defended, and organised communities committed to their constituencies have the best chance of doing that.

For all of us to be seen and not forgotten, we must do the deep, hard work of challenging cultural norms and heal from the pains we have caused each other. It’s not a quick-fix win, and we all know it. The pandemic has shown us that more of us care and can act than previously thought. 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 must 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, strategy, tactics and relationships.

— Clare Wightman Grapevine CEO

This approach to systemic transformation will always matter to the work of Grapevine and Act Build Change to get at the root causes of the most challenging problems – not just treat the symptoms. This is what organising is about. It is about shifting power.

Learning from the best

All of us will become less able-bodied, older, ill, tired, lose loved ones and friends and will need community. It’s time more of us respect, listen and learn from the folks who have had to weave webs of care and action around them to survive because of the world as it is.

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 that we are still in this place 74 years from when Saul Alinsky first wrote these words. He said we can get away from this growing loneliness by returning to the power of people, the power of participation and the power of relationships. As adrienne maree brown states, “relationships are everything”.

In the words of organising legend Jane McAlevey, Grapevine is here to raise these expectations. To increase 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 the urgency of now to meet today’s challenges and having the patience to move at the pace of the people you are working with. Or, as Deanna Ayres says more succinctly,

Urgency has to be paired with respect for the capacity of ourselves and our communities.

— Deanna Ayres

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 organising risks forgetting what organising is and isn’t. Grapevine uses its organising craft with intentionality. No one wants to be “fixed”, but we all get the space to change the world. Our collective work at Grapevine is undoubtedly 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

Grapevine organises in the service of love, justice, connection and community - alongside the most isolated of us, the forgotten neighbours and the intentionally segregated members of our society. It is the type of organising that can potentially transform a city. Honestly, I believe it has the power to transform a nation. It can 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

  1. Is the impatience for action costing the bravery of the spaces you are trying to create? 
  2. Where are you creating space for imagination in your work? When do you dream together with the people and teams you work with?
  3. What will the legacy of your actions be? What will it provide for the generations who will come after?
  4. Who else in the UK is raising expectations of organising, relationship building, and community action?
  5. 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.

Stephanie Wong authored this blog with support from Mel Smith, quotes from Clare Wightman, the 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.

This is the final in a series of posts 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