Basics of organising #1 – Researching the issues

Researching the issuesThere are basic tools and principles to community organising, but they are not templates. They must be evaluated and adapted to meet the needs of your local situation. The success of your organising drive will not depend upon this article – only your hard work and dedication to organising will make changes happen.

 

Researching the issues: Door-knocking

We go out into the community knocking on doors to find out what the community is thinking and feeling. What do people feel or think about the community? What do they want to see changed? Improved? Most organisations have found that door-knocking is the best technique to obtain that input.

When you are door-knocking, you are basically either ‘fishing’ or ‘pushing’, or some combination of the two. When door-knocking you have about 30 seconds to identify yourself, state your purpose and convince the person behind the door that you are not a debt collector, selling bibles or casing their home for a break-in. Recognising this, you must immediately identify yourself and try to mention some organisation which the people will know.

“Hello, I’m _____ and I work with the [local community action/campaign group etc.]. We are talking with people in the area to get their ideas on how the community can be improved.”

 

Fishing — This is when you are attempting to find an issue. After the introduction, you might say something like:

“If you could change one thing in the community, what would it be?”

“What do you think should be done to improve the community?”

If this gets no specific response, you might suggest something you have seen in the area.

“I noticed the house on the corner is boarded up, do you know who owns it?”

This should shift the discussion to a specific and what might be done about it. When fishing, you will usually get general responses such as:

“The neighbourhood is run down.”

“The neighbourhood is so dirty.”

“The neighbourhood isn’t like it used to be.”

Your job is to make these general responses into something specific by asking questions:

“What do you mean by dirty?”

“Can you point to one specific spot that is particularly dirty?”

Once you get a specific issue, then you ask:

“Would you be willing to come to a meeting about the empty house on the corner?”

Depending upon how strongly you think the person feels about the issue, you may even ask if the meeting could be held in his or her home next Tuesday (depending on space and the numbers expected). If the person agrees to hold the meeting, then you will probably stop fishing and start pushing when you move to the next door.

 

Pushing — This differs from fishing in that not only do you have an issue already, you have a date, time, and place for the meeting. After the introduction:

“A lot of the neighbours are complaining about the empty house on the comer. We are getting together next Tuesday at 7:30 above the pub on the corner. This is a good time to get something done about the house once and for all. Will you be able to come?”

If there is interest, repeat the date, time and place, give a flyer and ask if there is anyone else they can talk with about the meeting. If there seems little interest:

“Well, there will be time to discuss other issues. What would you like to see something done something about?”

The trick is to get people out and discussing their concerns with other neighbours.

 

Hints

• You may want to ask for a phone number. This depends on how comfortable the person feels with you. It can be a threat to some people.

• If you take notes in front of people, tell them what you are doing so they do not think you are taking notes about the make of their TV. “I’m making a note that you brought up the problem with the rats so I don’t forget it.”

A good method is to carry little cards in your pocket, and as you are walking to the next house merely write down the address and the issue.

No. 43 – rats

No. 44 – hates the organisation

No. 45 – promised info on an underhand councillor

When you get back home, you can see what follow-up you must do. Also, the next time you go to the area you can take your cards so you have a point of reference to begin talking with people.

• If you promise information to people, make sure you get it to them.

• If you are asked a question for which you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know. Honesty is better than making a fool of yourself.

• If you are met with hostility, don’t get into an argument. You won’t win anyway, and you will merely turn the person off to your organisation. Simply offer thanks for the time and move on.

• Dress in an acceptable way for the community.

• Do not wear badges other than an organisation button; the person behind the door may not support your particular concern.

• Remember, you are an intrusion into the life of the person behind the door.

 

Researching the issues: Questionnaires

A less intrusive method of finding out people’s concerns (albeit one with a lower response rate) is a questionnaire. This can be posted door to door around a neighbourhood and could ask questions like:

“What issues affect you and your family?”

“What would make your neighbourhood a better place to live in?”

“If you could change one thing about your city, what would it be and why?”

Also ask for a name and address or some other form of contact. Without the pressure of a stranger on the doorstep, the resident may give a more honest and detailed answer. These can then be posted back to your organisation or an arrangement could be made with the local shop or pub to have them dropped into there and collected regularly by you.

 

This text was originally published by National Training and Information Centre, USA 1985 and written by Shel Trapp. Large sections have been edited or otherwise omitted.

Hereford Skatepark: Built by the community, for the community

Skatepark 01The beginning of April saw the launch of the fourth development phase of Hereford Skatepark, and crowds flocked to what has become one of the premier skateparks in the west Midlands.

Entertainment was provided by the excellent 2 Faced Dance and Hereford’s award-winning Beefy Boys.

The official opening of the floodlights and boom box is the newest step in this community driven project. A project whose success should be used as an example to inspire other groups around the county.

Unlike most skateparks Hereford’s is neither a money-making business nor the property of the local authority. It is run by Wheeled Sports 4 Hereford, a charitable company with a committee of dedicated members, who work closely with the people who use the facility.

The roots of the park go back 11 years when 50 young people turned up to a council meeting to lobby for a skatepark in the city. You can only imagine the fear on councillor’s faces when confronted by 50 ‘youths’.

That initial enthusiasm, along with the determination of people like Brian Stevens, culminated with the old Denco car park on Holmer Road being earmarked as the site for the park.

“That council meeting got the ball rolling,” Brian told the Heckler. “Skateboarders across Hereford were fed up with being stopped by the police.

“At that time skateboarding was seen as top of the list of anti-social behaviour.”

Through the financial support of various organisations the first stage of the skate park was opened in 2009. Since then it has grown in size and popularity. Its continued success is due in no small part to the volunteers who run the place on a daily basis.

One of the most striking things about the park is the close-knit community that has grown up around it.

Regular users Will and Lewis told us that, “Everyone here is friendly and watches out for each other. We have some simple rules that we’ve all come up with, but they are mostly about respecting each other.”

It is clear from what they told us that Hereford Skatepark is open to anyone who wants to use it as long as they don’t take the piss. This has meant that unlike most skateparks Hereford doesn’t have a curfew on the flood lights, meaning that hardcore addicts can BMX, skate or board all night if they fancy it.

Hereford Skatepark is leading the way, not only in its modern design and construction, but also with its organisation.

We look forward to the opening of phase five and the continued growth of this fantastic project.

Luther Blissett

Photos by Ed Deacon at Shooting Reels

The estate we’re in: how working class people became the ‘problem’

Lisa McKenzie on St Ann's estate, NottinghamI am the daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter of Nottinghamshire miners. My mother worked at the Pretty Polly hosiery factory her whole life and I followed her at the age of 16 after leaving school in 1984 during the miners strike. We were a striking family and, to be honest, apart from following in the footsteps of my mother and aunties I hadn’t thought much further about what life might have to offer me. We needed the income that I would bring in as the strike hit my family hard and devastated my community forever.

I left Sutton-In Ashfield, the mining town where I grew up in 1988, as many young people started to do. As the mines, the factories, and hope left – so did we. I moved into the St Ann’s estate in the inner city of Nottingham and I had my son when I was 19.

Returning to Nottingham last week to launch my book Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, has been difficult. Although I have been happy to see my friends and family, returning as a local woman made good has been unsettling. Being held up as “beating the odds”, “done good”, or “escaped” does not make me happy. It only compounds what I know about the brutal stigmatisation, and the devaluing process of working class people.

Unfortunately, offhand and casual comments relating to class prejudice and snobbery are very common. Now “I have made it”, I am not supposed to react angrily to it, I am supposed to know my place, and be grateful for getting out. However, I am angry and so are other working-class people when we have to deal with and hear these simplistic and stigmatising views of our lives. I have written about how working class life is misunderstood, and reduced to simplistic one-dimensional narratives from both the prurient poverty porn, but also the middle class do-gooders. We are not expected to attempt to defend our choices, become angry, or resist. Getting By was written to tackle this type of prejudice, and stereotype, and to explain the complexity of working-class life, and life on council estates.

The Sutton-in-Ashfield estate I grew up in, a mining town a few miles from Nottingham city centre, was a tight-knit community where almost everyone on the estate worked and lived in close proximity. I didn’t know that we were no good; I didn’t know that living on a council estate devalued you as a person. I understood my position in society as working class but I thought that was the best class to be. The middle class were boring, and the upper class were cruel – they hurt animals and sent their children away. This is how I thought about my family and my community during the 1970s. I was really thankful to be a working-class child.

During the late 1980s I felt very differently – almost ashamed of who we were. We were ridiculed, we were old-fashioned, poor, and didn’t know what was happening in the cool world of the “yuppie” and “loadsamoney” – a catchphrase made up by a middle-class comedian about working class people made good. I managed to get a council flat in St Ann’s because I had a baby and was homeless. Around the same time, John Major decided that young, working-class mothers were having babies purposefully to get a council house – this didn’t make me feel any better.

After my mother’s death in 1999, I knew that I wanted to do more with my life, perhaps be able to work in my community and give something back. Like many working-class women my community was important to me. I knew the difficulties of getting somewhere to live, negotiating the housing system, the benefits system, and the prejudices you can face. Especially from sometimes well-meaning authority figures working in these structures who can hold deep prejudices about working-class women. I remember meeting housing officers when my son was a baby and I needed somewhere to live and being told I should have thought about that before having sex. A midwife asking me what I had ready for the baby seeing as he didn’t have a father.

Eventually, aged 30, I enrolled on an Access to Social Work course. It was free because I wasn’t earning much money (now it would be £3,000). After a few months, I realised that I loved the learning. Instead of sitting at the back of the classroom messing about, which I had done at school, I was on the front row putting my hand up every five minutes. I went to the University of Nottingham because of a book I had found in the library: Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman, by Ken Coates and Bill Silburn – a community study carried out by the University of Nottingham’s adult education department with students in the mid 1960s. I didn’t know you could go to university to study the place where you lived, especially the places where I lived. To cut a long story short, exactly 10 years later, after an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree, and a doctoral thesis, I had told the story of working class families in St Ann’s from a working-class perspective and in our own words.

Getting By is the outcome of eight years’ ethnographic study, based on both theory and practice. Working-class people, and the communities where they live have been devalued to such an extent that they are known simply as “problematic” and in need of making better. It is the deficit model that working class people have something wrong with them, which needs putting right by intervention, by carrots and sticks. They are misrepresented and devalued. This is damaging and painful at best, and dangerous and vicious at worst.

I have seen, experienced and written about how thought becomes action. How the Thatcher government’s rhetoric of “underclass” and “the enemy within” became an attack on working-class communities, despising them, destroying families and identities. New Labour did little better with its social exclusion model, where it took the concept of social justice from France that tried to explain how groups of poorer, working-class people were becoming excluded from society. New Labour subverted it into something about how poorer families were excluding themselves with their “wrongness”, their bad culture and bad practices. This led to almost 13 years of top-down middle-class philanthropic social work culture.

The consequence was an open door for the Centre for Social Justice thinktank and my nemesis, its founder and now work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan-Smith, to walk through and justify cruel austerity measures that are devastating and hurting poorer families. I see the Tories laughing as they argue in Westminster that “the free ride” is over for the “shirkers”. I am now a 46-year-old working class woman with a PhD. Although I have lived in council housing for all of my life and I have relied upon welfare benefits at many points in my life, and probably will again, I have never had a free ride.

My estate in Nottingham is in decline. The one Co-op supermarket has gone and in its place are corner shops that sell no food – only cheap alcohol, electric cards, and lottery tickets. There isn’t one single pub left on the estate, and local people sit on the walls where they once were with cans of cheap cider. This is perhaps one of the saddest things I have seen.

My estate in the mining village where I grew up is devastated; no work, no hope, pound shops and charity shops have replaced the local bakers, butchers and toy shop I remember as a child, although there is an enormous Asda superstore. And London, where I have lived for the last 18 months, is truly terrifying because of the callous ways working class people are treated, at any time you could become street homeless.

Even now when I have supposedly made it, I know that even a small rent rise on my privately rented ex-council flat in Tower Hamlets will see me out of the capital, where the super-rich and the politicians who bow to them are not even aware that we are here. A Labour council and a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government all seem to have the same opinion – that the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society are worthless.

However, my research, my book, and my own journey as a working-class woman who has earned a career at the London School of Economics, shows how wrong the mainstream politicians have got this. I have fought hard to get to a place with the networks that will allow me to have a platform to speak and to be heard. And I will continue to fight.

Lisa McKenzie

The Future of Live Music in Hereford

We spoke this week to Ivor Porkbelly from Hereford Live about the groups plans to give the music scene in Hereford a kick up the arse.

Hereford Heckler- Can you give us the background to how the idea of Hereford Live evolved?

Ivor Porkbelly- I moved back to Hereford this year, 35 years after leaving the old Teacher Training College in 1978 when it finally closed down. Much as I love Hereford I’ve quickly noticed the lack of live music in the town apart from maybe covers bands playing in pubs. When I was here back in the 70’s there was a thriving music scene, not only at the college but in places like the Flamingo Ballroom in Redhill. There was also the legendary Buzz Music in Widemarsh Street which was a magnet for punters and musicians alike.

Shortly after moving back I was chatting with Chris Adcocks, who runs the ‘Old Hereford Pics’ facebook page, and we were bemoaning the lack of musical variety and reasonable sized venues in the city. I went away and set up a facebook page called ‘A New Venue for Hereford’ to see if there was any support for the idea. This did attract a large following in a short time. We quickly turned words into actions and by holding meetings and discussing how we could change things we came up with the idea of Hereford Live.

HH- So who are targeting with this idea?

IP- Hereford Live plans to encompass all musical styles and genres for all ages under its umbrella. We hope to get loads of venues involved and some have already agreed to do so. The launch night on Wednesday 25th September at the Jailhouse is on from 7 till 12 and is free. There’s five bands playing plus some acoustic acts outside. We hope the launch will create strong interest for future gigs.

HH- What level of interest are you getting?

IP- The Art College are being really supportive, and we’re inviting a variety of people to come to the launch in the hope of increasing interest and support, not only from punters but also venues not already involved.

HH- So how will this work? What will bands and venues get out of Hereford Live?

IP- Future gigs in participating venues will be advertised under the Hereford Live banner. Adverts will be posted on the website and the facebook page. We will also have flyers and posters to publicise gigs. We will try to ensure that dates for gigs don’t clash so as to maximise audience numbers.

As I mentioned, the Art College are behind our plans and, ironically, are soon to move to RNC campus which was once the College of Education. We hope that the main hall that holds up to 600 people will be available for gigs in the future, if so, this will be a 360º moment for myself and others who enjoyed music there in the past.

HH- Exciting times for the music scene in Hereford then?

IP- It’s a bold project and one that deserves the support not only of the wider community but the council as well, who may be open to grant funding.

So watch this space. Look out for flyers and posters, join our facebook page, come to the launch night and come to our meetings and get involved. There’s no reason to stay at home moaning “There’s nothing on the Hereford” You can now make a difference.

 

 

Lime trees not limelight

The fight to save the Edgar Street trees continued this week with a demonstration of local residents and activists. Those who attended made their feeling known with music, song and the redecoration of the trees. It was a good turn out for the first demo, but almost inevitably it was hijacked by politicians. In the resulting video that was produced from the demo (which can be viewed here) these politicians feature heavily.

All residents of Hereford have an opinion on the trees, politicians included, but why they have to be thrust to the front of the campaign is unclear. Councillors from the ‘It’s their County’ party in particular have a bad record when it comes to community led organisations. Lets not forget that they destroyed the anti-Edgar Street Grid campaign in order to get themselves elected. And since when did the Tory party give a shit about the environment. Clearly for these individuals the limelight is far more important that the trees.

The people who really matter are those directly affected by the planned road widening scheme. Local residents like Anne-Marie Dossett who are working tirelessly to ensure that the public are listened too. These are the people who are driving the campaign, and should be commended for doing so.

What matters is the opinions of local people who feel passionate about saving these trees. Let hope their views aren’t ignored in favour of self serving politicians

The fight continues.