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Exploring the edge ...

A Leeds co-operator explores the pleasures and perils of Community Organising ...

ImageMy tummy tightens as I stand up for my turn.  'Why I am here'.  120 faces turn to me.  I take the microphone.  Shit.

I remembered to print all the agendas, the register sheets, I knew who should be there, I'd sorted out the IT/AV and music, I made sure the tea and coffee was happening and 90-odd chairs and tables were set up as planned.  I'd just forgotten to prepare this one little bit, this moment of inspiration and explanation, each advisory group member saying something significant, profound, that speaks to their constituency, that resonates with everyone in the room.  No pressure, then.

I'm still buzzing from the previous 20 minutes, as more and more people arrived.  'Hi, you must be Andy, nice to finally meet you... Ah, Lindsey, Lindsey from Beeston?  Good, I heard you were coming... Hi again Kane, Anna, Dolf, Inderjit, Mark, Eamonn, Norah, so glad you've come, great to see you...' Names and faces we've been working to get into this room for months.  More chairs – pupils from the host school sent for ever more chairs, we're squeezing them in round the edges, still more arriving.  As we settle down, I scan the room, trying to memorise new faces – faces attached to names I've heard for months and to ones who've come in over the last fortnight of frenzied activity, meetings, phone calls, reminder emails and texts, messages from diocesan secretaries and school PAs.

Sean has kicked off the rounds with references to catholic social teaching and papal quotes.  How do I follow that? Why am I here?  Probably a bit premature to refer to anarchist analyses of power or my agenda for ecological revolution.  Shall I go with the co-op angle? I could refer to really specific values and principles – but not without preparation.  Why am I here?  Dozens of reasons...

“I come from Chapeltown.  I want the people in my neighbourhood, my community, to have agency over their environment, to start having opinions over what could be better, because they know they can make it better.”  Quick, stop. Before I get carried away on a rambling anti-capitalist rant.  Pass on the mic, sit down.  Stick with the Chapeltown identifier – it's rooted, it's about other people, but is still heartfelt and hints at my personal frustrations with trying to organise in my community. Breathe.

Why am I here? I'm here because I'm scared of a future where individuals and communities are scared of each other and dependent on a divisive, exploitative system. I'm here because we need to find ways of creating working relationships and get used to collective action to cope with the next few decades of capitalism's collapse and the ecological crisis.

But I'm in a quandary. Will this version of Community Organising actually do what I want it to?  Various speakers give examples to convince people to join Leeds Citizens.  'Nottingham Citizens have won a commitment from their Police and Crime Commissioner to reserve more than 30 interview places for BME candidates applying to the police'.  Hmm.  That is most definitely not why I'm here. I keep my expression carefully blank.  Why am I really here? I'm here because, even though the project has changed since we set out to create a community organising body, if I leave now it would set it back just when it's about to become reality.  Because there's nothing else doing what this will do.   Because I'm loyal to the people I've been working with – new friends from religious and political groupings beyond my safe anarcho-ghetto.  And, let's be honest, because I care about my reputation.

I feel constantly torn – I am drawn to Community Organising: to starting where people are at, working in the world as it is while desiring the world as it should be, to giving people a taste of collective power.  But I am also repelled by it – by the lack of ambition for a different world, by the shoring up of representative democracy, by the reinforcing of liberal desires and hierarchies. 

'Hold the tension' – another Community Organising principle and a valuable lesson. This constant testing of my political boundaries, repeatedly deciding where to draw my 'means v. ends' line in the sand is keeping me focused on the endpoint.  Exploring the edge of where I'm willing to go – dangerous, but it's where the action is.