Being the change we want to see

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Community organising offers a fantastic chance for Christians to join with others in their areas to make a difference both where they live and in the wider world. The Revd Tim Norwood spent his sabbatical reflecting on how powerful a tool this is proving to be in Milton Keynes.

Barack Obama, one of the world’s most famous advocates of community organising. Photo: Shutterstock

The Revd Tim Norwood, the Area Dean of Milton Keynes. Photo: Jo Duckles

I remember sitting at an airport on a damp morning. It was like any other airport pick-up, but we were waiting for three Syrian families who were just arriving from refugee camps in the Middle East. There was expectancy and excitement, and then our new friends came through the door.

This was only the first time I would get to meet new refugees. In Milton Keynes we have now welcomed 12 families and there are more on the way. It’s hard to express what a real privilege this has been. In a world where so many bad things happen, it has been wonderful to do something positive – however small.

This has been one of the many good things that community organising has brought into my life and ministry. Community organising is a way of helping groups of people to build enough power to achieve goals for the common good. It’s a set of principles and methods which have been developed over the past 80 years or so. It began in America with a sociologist called Saul Alinsky, but has been shaped by Catholic Social Teaching and a desire to reinvigorate democracy. (Catholic Social Teaching is about Catholic doctrines on matters of human dignity and common good in society. These ideas address oppression, the role of the state, social organisation, social justice and issues of wealth distribution.)

Barack Obama is the most well-known former-organiser, but the influence of organising has been significant in both the US and the UK. We launched a “broad-based community alliance” in Milton Keynes back in 2010. The member institutions include churches, schools, Muslim associations and an LGBT+ group. Each institution pays annual “dues” which pay for a Community Organiser who provides training and support. We’re also part of Citizens UK – “the Home of Community Organising in the UK”. There are now ten similar “chapters” from Tyne and Wear to South London and Wales.

In Milton Keynes we have an annual cycle, where big problems are identified, teams work on SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achieveable, Relevant, Time limited) goals and we then work together to put hope into action. The big highlight of the year is the annual Accountability Assembly when we meet power-holders who can help us make a difference.

The process is important. It’s about building relationships (lots and lots of one-to-one conversations) and then setting clear priorities. In a sense, there’s nothing new about it, but following an agreed process ensures that we get somewhere. Some of the highlights from the last few years have been:

  • Working with local businesses to promote the Real Living Wage. We now have 48 companies signed up in MK.
  • Working with the Council and the Red Cross to welcome nearly 80 Syrian refugees.
  • Running Weaving Trust events that have brought together diverse groups like the police, the synagogue, churches, mosques, school children, students, businesses,
  • LGBT+ people and prisoners (not all at the same time!)
  • Working closely with people from other faiths on common issues that have helped us to become genuine friends.
  • Helping with a Fight Against Hate day which celebrated our amazing young people.
  • Lots of opportunities to train new leaders and help them develop. This has included members of Citizens MK, young people, and lay people in our churches. Canon
  • John Robertson has launched a brilliant course as part of the Mission Partnership’s training scheme which uses community organising to build-up lay leaders.

If I sound like a bit of an enthusiast for community organising, it’s because I am. It’s an approach which is working for churches and dioceses around the country and it has certainly made a difference in Milton Keynes. I’d love to see more Citizens groups spring up in the Diocese of Oxford, and I think it’s worth a bit of investment. Organising is fundamentally a way of helping us to make a difference in the world – to act as heralds of the Kingdom.

In the words of that famous American Community Organiser and former president: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

The Revd Tim Norwood is the Area Dean of Milton Keynes.