Let’s talk about deep and transformative organising

It’s pretty hard to read any ‘post-mortem’ on the Labour election defeat without someone telling us that Labour needs to re-engage with working class communities. That this is so is obvious, but sometimes this is meant as little more than a suggestion that we should use focus groups to study ‘the working-class’ as if it is a different species. The idea, that sees people’s opinions and values as fixed, is also part of the narrative about finding an ‘electable’ leader. But this perspective negates the fact that through deep and transformative organising, we can change the experiences, expectations and world-view of a community and, in so doing, make Labour electable with good social democratic, or even socialist, policies.

The reason that we need to organise communities, isn’t just that ones that are strongly and deeply organised are more likely to vote for a progressive set of social policies, but also because more organised communities are inoculated from the fear and isolation that makes them vulnerable to narratives of hate and division. The more atomised the working-class and the more unequal society, the more we become susceptible to the allure of inhumane policies, whereby policies promise, but don’t deliver a ‘quick fix’, and actually make our lives, and the lives of people we care about, worse.

Deep organising transforms communities and resets their values – and this is what is needed. For many of us, the idea that we need to re-engage with our communities means just this – deep organising that builds strong networks, relationships, capacity and victories. In the aftermath of the general election defeat, ‘community organising’ has become a buzzword, and a default tactical approach for building the movement outside parliamentary structures.

But how do we define what ‘organising’ is and how can we develop our skills to organise communities and workers to win when the political process has failed? Let’s talk about what we mean by deep and transformative organising.

In case you haven’t heard about us, we are The Ella Baker School of Organising, and organising is something we have lived and breathed for many years. We were formed by a diverse group of people who had experience in a range of workplace and community settings including:

  • trade union studies tutors who have spent decades teaching workers how to organise

  • one of the country’s leading trade union race equality organisers

  • a former trade union Assistant General Secretary

  • a co-founder and previous National Organiser of ACORN UK

  • organisers with experience of working for Citizens UK (although not uncritically), Momentum and the IWGB

  • a leading academic who studies both trade union and community organising and who has been/and still is an organiser

  • people from the team at a leading anti-racist organisation that had built community resilience within communities faced with provocations by the far right.

We came together determined to not only share the lessons we have learned, but to crowd source and open source lessons learned by other organisers, both past and present. Our training materials are all available free to download, they are currently in high demand and we support anyone to form a team and organise trainings locally.

We at The Ella Baker School of Organising believe what is needed is transformative organising, by which we mean if you are not transforming, then you are not doing the deep organising that can have lasting impact. What needs to be transformed is the relationships of power within workplaces and wider communities (sign up to download our unit on ‘power mapping’), but equally importantly, people themselves are transformed in the process of engaging in organising practice.

The person who complains, for example, that their area has changed and that they don’t know their neighbours any more can see and feel the transformation once their community is organised. They will then say; ‘the best thing about living here is that people look out for each other’, and with that change comes a willingness to get involved. People then feel more confident about challenging dominant narratives about asylum seekers, ethnic and religious minorities, the unemployed etc., and most importantly, they believe that people with power need to be held accountable for the decisions they make. The same is true in workplaces.

Organising is transformative because people who previously didn’t believe they would ever be listened to, discover that by building new relationships, alliances, skills and capacity, they develop new forms of power that can’t be ignored. Winning shows what is possible.

Unfortunately, much of what is called organising within the community, trade union, and political sphere is often less than transformative. Despite the ‘turn to organising’ there’s still a dominant practice in many unions whereby organisers are set recruitment targets, but without a priority focus on achieving a high collective participation in pursuing justice in the workplace for themselves. Likewise, there are some great organisers working within the Labour party whose success is judged not on how many streets within their patch had a ‘co-ordinator’ who would organise their own street, but by how many already existing supporters would attend a rally. Not a bad activity, but almost certainly preaching to the converted and not building a bigger movement.

To organise, you have to work with people you don’t agree with. As long-time effective organiser and now scholar and author Jane McAlevey points out, deep organising starts with a definition of a ‘structure’ with a ‘constituency’; this could be a workplace, a housing estate, an administrative ward or other definable and reachable social structure. She then asks how us to consider how we organise these structures so that we have a ‘super majority’ of the constituency on our side? Of course, the first, preliminary, step is to find people within that structure who already agree with you, but the real objective is to reach and work with people who currently don’t agree with you.

This is how transformative change occurs, and it is the only way to make it happen.

A great example of this deep organising was against the growth of UKIP in the South Wales Valleys. Tragically, these once proud former mining communities have been broken by the closure of the pits and the deliberate, and brutal decimation of jobs. Isolated, atomised and hope deprived people are more likely to look for someone to blame in an even worse condition than themselves, rather than demand change, because there seems little hope. The South Wales Valley had the highest rate of prescription anti-depressants use in the country, as well as serious problems with drug and alcohol addiction. To defeat the growing narratives of division, the organiser (who had been born and brought up in that community) decided to tackle division by organising around mental health in the community, demanding more resources and action. It wasn’t long before people who had been active in UKIP began to attend the meetings saying this is more important than their former concerns about migrants. Today we have a whole course on defeating the far right (sign up to download it).

At the core of deep and transformative organising is a belief in the inherent goodness of people. A person may have been taken in by divisive or negative narratives, or the slander against Labour, but at heart they most likely care about the people around them and their wider community and workplaces. Indeed, how many racists have you heard when asked if they actually know anyone black, tell you, ‘oh yeah, I know Dave, he’s fine’. The ‘other’ that they have projected their fear and loathing onto is not a real black or ethnic minority person, but a stereotype constructed by the media. This person can often, through transformative conversation be easily dissuaded. The fear is real, but the projected targets are not.

Organising involves a degree of reflecting on the forces at work in our communities and workplaces, and identifying what we need to do to rebalance them. Stereotypes can be evaporated when you u