By Rebecca Cant
As a community organiser who works daily at the grassroots level in communities of multiple-deprivation, I frequently come into contact with offenders, ex-offenders and young people at high risk of offending. I am therefore increasingly interested in the role that community organising could play in reducing offending as well in working with ex-offenders. Here are some of my thoughts about how community organising principles could be integrated into working with ex-offenders.
For those of you who have never heard of it, community organising comes from a long and radical tradition rooted in the US. As part of the national Community Organisers Programme, I am trained in an approach called ‘Root Solution, Listening Matters’ (RSLM). This approach was developed over 25 years by a charitable trust called Re:generate and blends the approaches of two famous, and very different, radicals: Saul Alinksy and Paul Freire. Saul Alinksy was an infamous rebel organiser, hero to the young Barack Obama, whose work in Chicago’s most notorious slums in the 1930s inspired countless organising movements in the US and the UK. Paulo Freire was a Brazilian populist educator whose critical-consciousness-raising work with oppressed people has influenced activists and educators worldwide. By blending the work of Alinksy and Freire, RSLM uses dialogue as a basis for action.
The first step in my job is to knock on people’s doors and approach them on the street and engage them in dialogue. The questions I ask are designed to raise critical consciousness by linking the person’s emotions to the local community and wider society around them, and their place in it. The questions deliberately use emotional language in order to discover what motivates and triggers each person to the point of taking real action that could connect them to the community, or even transform it. Some of the key questions are:
- What do you love about your community?
- What makes you worried, scared, angry or sad in your community?
- What is your vision for how your community could be in, say, two, five or ten years?
- What ideas do you have for actions or projects that could tackle your concerns or build on your vision?
- Would you like to meet others to talk about your idea?
This process of working with dialogue to get people to think about how they fit into their community and how they feel about it is what Paulo Freire called “conscientization”. Writing in his famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he stated:
To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity.
In other words, we aren’t always aware of our oppression and what or who causes it. This means that many of us live in what Freire calls ‘a culture of silence’, where we fail to notice and name injustice. Only by coming together can we begin to discuss our struggles and what factors have caused those struggles. As one young man in Barton Hill said:
There’s nothing here for young people. They know they’re not gonna get out of here, so they wanna be the ‘big man’ around here, and that means selling weed to get money so that they can eventually buy a car or whatever. Big fish in a small pond, you know what I’m saying? You know what they say, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ And these kids don’t see any way out. Young people round here don’t have any opportunities. What they need is things to get them out of here, get them to push themselves to go further, but nobody listens to them.
The kind of dialogue, however, is meaningless without action. That’s why the next step in RSLM is action. I always try to pin each person down to taking one action – even if it’s just to have a similar conversation with a friend, or think about registering to vote. Where people are more passionate, I persuade them to get a few friends or neighbours together in someone’s home to discuss ideas. My role is then to facilitate them to take action – helping them build a network to support the idea and giving them the confidence to get started. So far in Barton Hill, my RSLM organising work has led to a community arts festival (to be held in the autumn), a youth documentary project, a successful campaign to restore funding to a young people’s project, and a children’s petition to get play equipment in their local park.
When it comes to working with ex-offenders and their families, I believe that the primary benefit of community organising could be an increase in a sense of belonging to and being a part of the community. As stated in the final report by the Riot Panel following the 2011 riots, making everyone feel as though they have a stake in society, and in their community, is crucial in preventing the kind of criminal behaviour seen during the riots. Another element of community organising, listening to others, could develop a sense of empathy for others and build trusting relationships between ex-offenders and those they listen to. Residents who have come listening with me in Barton Hill have told me how much they have enjoyed getting to know people in their area, and how much this has helped them feel safer and more ‘at home’ in their community. Getting to know people also facilitates community cohesion. One young woman, with connections to extreme right-wing groups, said how much her impressions of minority groups had changed by coming listening with me:
Before I came all these different places with you, I had so many stereotypes about Muslims and Asians and Africans. But going round listening to people with you, it’s like, actually they’re so normal.
Building bridges between individuals and groups in a community around common interests and a shared vision for how life could be is at the heart of community organising. The three key words in RSLM are trust, respect and relationships. By fostering these in a practical sense, by actually helping people to build community, I am sure that organising would be a valuable approach for people working to reintegrate ex-offenders into their communities. One project in the US, for example, the Centre for Young Women’s Development in Washington, trains young women leaving the juvenile detention system to go into jobs such as community organising that connect them with others.
From a political standpoint, community organising could be used to bring people together around the bigger, systemic issues affecting ex-offenders and their families: For example, are ex-offenders given adequate support on leaving prison? Are people being imprisoned for minor offences? How could the prison system better reduce recidivism by preparing people for life on the outside? By listening to ex-offenders and their families about the root causes of problems, by naming injustice, and by linking people together who share the same vision for change, RSLM could also be a useful tool in the struggle for real justice here in the UK.
The Community Organisers Programme is still recruiting hosts for trainee organisers and employers for newly qualified organisers. For more information, please contact the programme directly at http://www.cocollaborative.org.uk/content/contact-us.
Questions for discussion:
- Do you use any similar techniques to RSLM in your work?
- How important do you think listening is as a tool for change?
- Can you imagine community organising being useful in your work? If so, how?
- Are you part of an organisation that would be interested in taking community organising forward?
For more information, follow these links:
National Community Organisers Programme: www.cocollaborative.org.uk
Paulo Freire: http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-freir.htm
Saul Alinsky: http://www.infed.org/thinkers/alinsky.htm
The Center for Young Women’s Development: http://cywd.org/staff.html#commorg
Rebecca’s organising blog: www.bristolcorganisers.net