It started with the price of nappies. When community organiser Terri Overland knocked on doors on a Dudley estate residents told her was how hard it was to make ends meet, when you’re a struggling family with not enough to go round.
If only we could buy in bulk, they said, perhaps we could bring the prices down a bit. ‘Well, that’s a good idea,’ said Terri. ‘But who is going to make it happen?’ they asked. ‘You can make it happen,’ said Terri.
Now, at the same time something else was distressing many people on the estate. A 90 year old man, Bill, was sleeping rough in a nearby park. He did have a house, but his life had gone to pieces, he was no longer looking after himself, and his home had become unfit to live in.
Two problems – and, as it turned out, one solution.
Bill is now back in his house, and Bill is organising the bulk-buying for the estate. Not just nappies, but also potatoes, apples, crisps, wine, tins of beans, and so on. Residents pay up front so they don’t get into debt, and Bill phones round until he gets the best deal. The supplies are delivered to Bill’s house and residents come to collect their goods.
When they come, they help Bill out. They bring him meals. They have done up his house and garden. Bill now has a team of local volunteers, including five lads, known as ‘Bill’s runners’, who take messages and help with deliveries if people can’t get to his house.
This is only one story from our community organising programme. There are many others. But I do think this story embodies the spirit of community organising. Never doing anything for people they can do for themselves, but igniting the impulse to act, helping people realise that if they come together they can make better things happen, on their own terms.
And it embodies the spirit of localism. It reminds us that so much that will improve people’s lives will depend on personal relationships, building trust, making unexpected connections, not writing people off.
Remote target-setting monolithic agencies, however well intentioned, will always struggle to respond to the complex reality of the individual human being and to the fine grain of the individual neighbourhood. Without the initiative awakened by community organising what would have happened to Bill? I suppose social services, or police, or ambulance would have intervened, and perhaps he would have ended up in care or hospital. At great cost.
Community organising, community organisations, neighbourhood action, can’t by themselves solve all the problems we face. But as Locality has been saying in our recent report on ‘local by default’, this surely must be the best possible starting point.
Image thanks to Stephanie Chapman under Creative Commons licence