Our Building Local Activism programme, funded by The Big Lottery Fund, is supporting communities to develop their capability to instigate and sustain local activism, gaining power and influence over the decisions that affect them. One aspect of Building Local Activism is scaling up models of community activism that have already proven successful, to promote them across a wider scope.
As part of this programme, we are currently working with three community organising groups across England – Church Action on Poverty,Citizens UK and People Can. Although these are distinct organisations running their own programmes, they have a common goal: to train local people who are not part of the conventional decision-making process so that they can make a real difference in their communities and tackle the issues which affect them. We’ve been spending time with each of the organisations over the last few months, and have been impressed and excited at the real change and action that they elicit in their communities.
We took a trip a few weeks ago to visit Thrive, an arm of Church Action on Poverty. Their campaigners are award winning, and have been endorsed by the Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd. We went along to their Annual Assembly, to celebrate their successes and hear about their growth. There, we heard stories of empowerment and real change. Recently Thrive has been looking at the rent-to-own market, which often plays a major role in the lives of low-medium income families. Rent-to-own services allow customers the use of goods (for example, televisions or furniture) while they pay for them in instalments. Through their research they identified that rent-to-own organisations don’t share information between themselves about their clients – yet, from a customer point of view, information sharing would allow these organisations to offer a preferential and cheaper rate to customers who do not default on payments and help build credit ratings. But how can you impact this market? What Thrive did was to make a spoof advert to highlight this issue, which asked for some changes to one of the major rent-to-own providers. The impact of their humour-based campaign spread, and Thrive are currently working with the big names in the rent-to-own market to facilitate information sharing, including Brighthouse, Equifax and Perfect Homes. Thrive now aim to create a code of practice for the sector. By bringing consumers and rent-to-own organisations together, what started as a small community-based action now has the potential to affect thousands of customers across the UK.
In Bristol, People Can are growing as well, running a wide variety of new services. We met with their community organiser, and she told us success stories of how they have set up reading groups with pre-school age children, training those who were originally unable to read themselves to host the sessions. We were also told of sessions being set up to teach young women karate and self defence, and coaching sessions for those looking to become involved in community organising.
In Nottingham, Citizens UK have just launched a ground breaking and innovative report called “Homelessness and Hope.” The report highlights the unacceptably high numbers of failed asylum seekers in their local community who are left with no support and face destitution. Through peer-led research, they launched a commission drawing together a mix of experts, service users and members of the community to engage with hundreds of people, many destitute. The goal was to issue a range of practical recommendations to improve the life chances for those seeking asylum. We visited the launch of this report, and were met by over 200 members of the community who were all there to hold those in power to account for the mistreatment of those seeking asylum. We witnessed powerful testimonies from immigrants stuck in the purgatory of the asylum process. In one case, a mother of two had no recourse to public funds and was forced to survive on £5 per week, feeding her sons only toast and tea, and going without so they could eat. Another gentleman shared his story of escape from the Middle East, where upon arrival he was then forced to sleep in a graveyard. Representatives from the UKBA and G4S were also present, as these organisations are entrusted with the provision of support for these people. Citizens UK facilitated a successful negotiation with them, ensuring that some of the key recommendations of their report will be taken up in everyday practice. This was a stark example of citizens taking power into their hands and effecting real and long term change.
Although all three organisations are all focusing on different projects, their common goal to create lasting improvements in their communities by pressurising institutions, businesses, governments and those in positions of power to change. At a time when our communities face unprecedented challenges and pressure, these organisations act as a vehicle to make sure that that issues faced by citizens are met head on, with real solutions. Most importantly these organisations give ordinary citizens a voice and a real sense of empowerment, and we’re proud to help them do so.