Through 16 citizens’ alliances in England and Wales, Citizens UK teaches community organising skills to local people. “Our mission is to build the capacity of people from disadvantaged areas to participate in public life,” explains CEO Matthew Bolton.
Knowledge & Learning Manager Zoë Anderson speaks to Matthew, and local leaders Fiona Tasker and Salma Ravat, about their work during the pandemic and Citizens UK’s iron rule of community organising: “never do for others what they can do for themselves.”
Getting comfortable with power
By identifying and training local leaders “we’re helping them work together to identify common problems, and to have the power and confidence and skills to tackle those issues,” explains Matthew. “You need to have some power to make change […] to understand how power is working, how decisions are made on the things you care about,” but people can be nervous about power, particularly when they haven’t had much of it in the past.
In her life, Fiona Tasker has faced “some really dark times.” She was supported by Citizens UK member organisation ReCoCo, a college that offers peer-led mental health recovery, and she now helps to look after their student group. When she was invited to take part in Citizens UK’s leadership training, “I didn’t think it was for me. I prefer to be in the background.” But when the trainer said, “‘Being a leader is having followers.’ I knew I had two or three. If I was to go out to an event that was trying to make a difference, they would come with me. So the penny dropped that perhaps I was a leader.”
That realisation “gave me a bit more confidence and belief in myself. On the back of that, I joined Tyne & Wear Citizens’ mental health action team, and started going to all those meetings.”
The trainer said, 'Being a leader is having followers.' I knew I had two or three. If I was to go out to an event that was trying to make a difference, they would come with me.Fiona Tasker, Citizens UK
Listening to the community
Her involvement helped her gain the knowledge and skills to take part in the listening campaigns that are central to the work of Citizens UK. Their member organisations and networks use this method to identify and understand local people’s priorities. And as people like Fiona come forward and grow in confidence, Citizens UK helps them work on campaigns that matter to them.
“You speak to the people you support, who are members of your organisation,” explains Salma Ravat, manager of homelessness charity One Roof Leicester. “It’s very much about the other person talking and you listening, letting them tell their story,” Salma says. “‘What motivates you, what are your concerns, what are your challenges? What issues are you really passionate about, and want to change?’ One of our volunteers was frustrated that, during Covid, parks were closed between 5 and 7pm. That’s when the children are coming home from school and want to let off steam. So they’ve been looking at how they can influence their borough council around that.”
Other campaigns can grow to become major initiatives for social change. The Living Wage campaign was founded by Citizens UK in 2001, and has gone on to win over £1.3 billion of improved pay for hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers.
Matthew explains that, when the pandemic began to hit, they ran a rapid listening exercise to understand what was on people's minds. “Because we’re quite responsive, because the listening campaign is so baked in to how we work, that kind of adaptation was just automatic [and] so relevant to the crisis we’re in.
“Our model is place based,” he adds, so “in places where we had been working for a while, and there were good relationships of trust between our members and our staff, it was an acceleration of activity.” They found that the messages of the living wage campaign chimed with care workers, “who were out in very difficult circumstances, without the right PPE, but still not being paid enough.” And “we saw so many schools stepping up to provide food, and welfare support, to the people in their areas.”
However, in new locations, or where there had been recent changes of key staff, “adapting rapidly to the changing issues was much, much more difficult.” Whilst the pandemic brought new interest in volunteering and community work, like “the sudden development of mutual aid groups – good motivations, lots of people, lots of energy. From our experience, unsurprisingly, the great majority of that has dissipated.”
Matthew feels that the solution is about balancing new voices and existing work. “It’s so important that there are sustainable local associations and organisations that can keep the hard work going. If they’re able to be porous, and to welcome and connect to some of the new energy that comes and goes, then that will keep them fresh, and keep them effective.”
He offers the example of a primary school working with its local mosque, women’s centre and university and argues that the pandemic helped awaken “something that’s already there: a drive to see schools as engines of social change in their area, as well as a place of learning and tests and exams. The potential for schools as hubs of civic activity and wider services is a massive opportunity for us all.”
During the crisis Citizens UK have found it important to look across networks as well as within them. Seventy-five primary schools are members across England and Wales. “What have they got in common? What if we brought them together to talk about how they’re using organising to develop young people’s confidence, how the free school meals thing is affecting them. We’ve started to share learning across our network, by sector. That’s going to have a big long-term benefit.”
Salma acknowledges, “Pre Covid, we weren’t involved much at national Citizens level,” but has seen real benefit in taking part in more national meetings, because “you realise that you’re not the only one facing those issues – there are people up and down the country with the same or very similar challenges.
“You get that opportunity to find out how they’ve found a solution, how they’ve brought different members of the community together, how that action from the people it affects has had a lasting change,” says Salma. “For me, it’s really empowering. I just love the fact that it’s people and their stories being told, and it’s that that’s having the impact.”
You realise you're not the only one facing those issues - there are people up and down the country with the same or very similar challenges.Salma Ravat, One Roof Leicester
Balancing responsiveness with focus
Matthew’s keen to point out that, “one of the flipsides of the listening and responsiveness ethos – it's important to prioritise. Where people are at, what they care about, what they’re experiencing – there are so many different angles to it. Looking back on it, we probably could have done a bit more to focus efforts on a few key areas, rather than maybe trying to do too much, too many different things.” And while Citizens UK is a big partnership of members, he thinks they could have done more to partner with outside organisations during the crisis.
He’s also aware that organisations that can be “responsive, put people in the lead, that are able to listen and adapt, will be better placed as things change. But it is about financial resilience too.”
Citizens UK is fortunate as it has a substantial earned income stream from a diverse membership base, including mosques, churches, charities, and schools. They also received independent grant funding, “I think because of the responsiveness and nimbleness, making sure we are tuning into how this crisis affects people from disadvantaged backgrounds” those relationships, and quick responses, “set us in a good place to receive funding and support.”
Crisis mode has got to stop
Even from this position of relative strength, the risk of burnout is very real. “With the first lockdown, March to August, adrenaline, urgency, crisis meant that everyone worked at full pelt,” Matthew says. “We’re recognising now, that’s unsustainable.”
Listening to staff and volunteers, it was clear that “crisis mode has got to stop. It’s not possible. We may still be in a crisis as a country, as a society, but you can’t carry on in crisis response mode as an organisation and as an employer. We needed to hear that as an organisation.”
Member organisations have mental health champions, and are encouraged to link up with mental health trusts to inform their Covid response. Internally, the organisation has a wellbeing action plan, and employee assistance programmes include counselling.
They’ve offered plenty of practical help too, including helping people to prioritise work and being flexible about working hours, so that staff can do school drop-offs and take exercise outside in daylight. It’s also about “recognising that people are under quite different pressures. Those with kids are experiencing it very differently to those in house-shares or living on their own.”
“We’re also finding it’s really the constant communication, engagement with people. You can create all sorts of positive initiatives, but actually it’s about the human beings, what they’re hearing, how they’re feeling.” Matthew emphasises, the importance of modelling the right behaviours. “What the director says in an organisation, and how they say it, does really count.” He would normally start team meetings by praising the work and raising the energy. During the pandemic, he’s been “starting off with a little bit more vulnerability and slowness.” Feedback was enthusiastic, with new starters amazed to find staff wellbeing first on the agenda. “I think the more that those at the top give it airtime then everyone’s got permission to talk about it. It can flow from there.”
For me, it’s really empowering. I just love the fact that it’s people and their stories being told, and it’s that that’s having the impact.Salma Ravat, One Roof Leicester
Citizens UK, Living Wage campaign
Matthew Bolton, Salma Ravat and Fiona Tasker spoke to Zoë Anderson on 11 and 12 November 2020. This page was last updated on 24 February 2021.