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Hopeful Stories of Communities Organizing

Citizenship requires more than being spectators

A Citizens-UK meeting in London culminating a campaign regarding healthcare. photo by Citizens UK

by Cameron Conner

Cameron Conner has moved to England with his year-long Watson Fellowship examining community organizing.

What if we told stories where citizenship wasn't relegated to a spectator sport? 

What if we stop reinforcing the narrative that only charismatic, seemingly superhuman individuals change history and start seeing the world through stories that shine the spotlight back where it belongs: on communities of clever, persistent and well-organized people?

My recent encounter with a man from the National Health Services (NHS) in England makes the point.

The buzz of conversations grew as 500 people turned from the front of the auditorium at King's College London to face one another. A blond man in a blue-striped button-up shirt next to me was a NHS employee and a colleague of the well-dressed man who had just been on stage delivering a series of commitments.

In front of community leaders from Southeast London, he had pledged, as the CEO of the NHS for South London, to fulfill two commitments: 1) pay all employees of the South London NHS a living wage (£4 per hour above the city's minimum wage) and 2) create a pathway to dismiss the high fees that undocumented residents were being charged for health care.

These milestone commitments and others made that night were the culmination of a long and hard-fought campaign led by the South London chapter of England's largest community organizing network, Citizens UK.

Most of the people in the room had waged the campaign: parents and teachers from Oliver Goldsmith's Primary School, pastors and parishioners from Corpus Christi Catholic Church, members of the Lewisham Mosque, Bromley Football Club, students from King's College London, and dozens of other community institutions.

Among the leaders was a small delegation of NHS workers who would carry out the pledges, including the man next to me.

We introduced ourselves. I asked how he felt about the evening so far. Instead of the energetic response I expected, his answer was prefaced with a lengthy exhale that filled the silence with a thoughtful pause.

"I've worked in the NHS for 20 years," he said, "and it feels good to see things get done. It makes me realize that we don't have all the answers. Sometimes the best solution is to just help people solve their own problems."

There was a note of frustration in his answer, as if he was grappling with the tension between the clear pride in what his organization was doing, and discouragement that after 20 years he had failed to deliver it himself.

He was impressed, but at a loss for words, as if he had just seen something he hadn't thought possible. This stuck with me. When walking home from the bus stop to my flat in West London, I realized that what caught my attention was the surprise in his voice.

This was the same reaction I'd had when seeing the results of neighborhood organizing in Nou Barris, Barcelona.

It was the same surprise I had seen on faces of police chiefs when 270 community members in Dallas demanded improved safety protocols against gang violence.

The realization finally put words to a question that had been growing in my mind since I left Dallas and six months ago: "Why are we so surprised?"

As Jane McAlevey, a national leader in the U.S. labor movement puts it: "We have a narrative in our head that people can't win change. That is a shame, because people win things all the time."

As the cheers of a packed auditorium demonstrated that night in King's College, people are more than capable of fighting and winning their own battles if they are smart about it. These Londoners had just won better healthcare, better wages and public recognition from Britain's largest public sector employer.

We don't hear these stories often. Instead, we hear that change is made by highly motivated and talented individuals. We are taught to wait for superheroes or saviors—the right politician to fight for our values, a philanthropist to fund a silver-bullet social program, the new CEO to build a factory in our community.

If these are the stories we tell, is it any wonder we react with surprise when people do something themselves and demand sovereignty instead of salvation?

Imagine if we told stories about the Dallas residents who re-wrote the city's housing codes to take down the city's slum lords, about allied communities in Central California  building a job-training program to make high-paying work accessible for their families and about 500 community leaders in Southeast London going toe-to-toe with the NHS.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February 2024