Community Organising: Personalising and Polarizing

Lord Maurice Glasman  came to De Montfort University on 31st March to talk about a wide range of issues encompassing Big Society, faith, research and community organising.  Glasman is known for his critique of the relentless march of the free market in his book, Unnecessary Suffering,  a point of view which has been echoed in the analysis of the recession in our book From Recession to Renewal   

I was particularly inspired by Lord Glasman’s lessons, in the talk at DMU, on community organising and the links with my own ideas on the co-production of research with minority groups.  The grass-roots approaches to solving the problematic shortage of accommodation (particularly for Gypsies and Travellers) through community land trusts is an area of current research, specifically examining one new pilot project in the South West.

Lord Glasman has already neatly outlined the important lessons in community organising in his own blog  examining the secrets of Obama’s success.  Some of these lessons were key in the Citizens UK  fight with banks and other organisations to get a living wage for employees.  In his talk to DMU, Glasman referred to the rules of ‘personalise’ and ‘polarize’ taught by Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals (1971).  There is a need to ‘Always work inside the experience of your people’ (personalise) and to ‘Wherever possible go outside the experience of your opponents’ (polarize).  A short film on Citizens UK  explains how in the early 1990’s one man (Mr Abdul Durrant) put the Chair of HSBC (Sir John Bond) outside of his own experience when he explained that although they worked in the same office (one as a cleaner on less than a living wage, the other as head of the bank in line for millions of pounds in potential bonus) they lived in different worlds.  The result of this personalising and polarizing technique was a living wage for all employees in this bank, and then later in other banks and organisations.  Having had success in the university sector too Citizens UK  has its sights set on the big supermarkets now.

Working with community groups, particularly the Gypsy and Traveller communities who are often marginalised in society and who do not have enough places to live, or sufficient access to healthcare and education, I am particularly interested in engaged research co-produced with the community.  This is so that problems are truly understood, and community members are empowered as part of the research process – rather than having research ‘done’ to them.  Lord Glasman’s speech on the importance of independent community action gave renewed meaning to this approach and provided fresh confidence that ‘academic’ researchers do have a mandate for getting involved in communities rather than attempting to maintain a distance.  Practitioner academics (or as Kevin Orr  might say ‘pracademics’) have a role to play in the co-production of ideas with the communities they aim to help. 

Glasman’s speech also reminded me of why I got into ‘housing’ in the first place.  As a senior year student in the United States 20 years ago I volunteered for a brief period with an organisation called New York City Relief  to help the homeless in New York[1].   This was a faith based charity providing food, clothes, some medical treatment, plus housing and employment advice to the very neediest people in New York society; it was community organisation in action and the project is still growing in capacity and reach.  My involvement with New York City Relief prompted me to think about issues of social exclusion, community, housing need, poverty and discrimination – it is refreshing after a time in academia to remember this sense of purpose and to inject this into my ‘pracademic’ work.

Written by Jo Richardson


[1]This was before the time of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his punitive policies on homelessness in New York.

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