Part 1: How Community Organising & Community Building can work together: the two-fisted fight

Part 1: How Community Organising & Community Building can work together: the two-fisted fight

New forms of collective action are emerging in the UK. With growing frequency people are taking to the streets to defend the rights of citizens against outside forces; this trend is unfolding alongside an increasing and often jarring rhetoric of devolution and localism. People’s lived experience see that most citizen campaigns are concentrated in looking outside their communities for solutions, or fending off external problems, while agencies and organisations, often quite remote from community life, are telling local residents they will now have to solve their own problems. As a consequence, all too often, local people are left to try to deal with on-going social and political issues such as poverty by ensuring some external cavalry saves them (an outside in strategy), either by getting an unwilling agency to change, or by getting a benevolent agency to fund a predefined programme that has been externally constructed.

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This illustration was part of Graham Ogilvie’s artwork created during Cormac’s session in Aberdeen in October 2014. Our thanks to him and Aberdeen Council for sharing them with us. Read more about this session by going here:

Programmes are artificial constructs that enable the dance between funders and agencies. Programmes do not change lives, people do, and for that change to endure it must come grassroots up and be community-driven. How can we possibly encourage low-income communities to believe they are the primary inventors of a better future, and that the role of the public sector is to support their invention, not demean or replace it, when what they actually experience from external agencies is top-down pre-defined outcomes and interventions?

The major challenge facing communities across the UK is social fragmentation, at the heart of this challenge at a local level is the question: “how can we build inclusive local communities that in turn mobilise the people and assets towards vibrant community life, while also holding external forces to account?” At national level the question is how can we transition from a Government-centric democracy towards a more citizen centred one?    

In short in campaign language we might say, as well as occupying Wall Street, we must occupy our street.

The struggle towards an equal society then is a two-fisted fight. On the one hand we need to ensure that external actors do not harm our communities, On the other hand, we (local residents) need to ensure we discover, connect and mobilise our internal resources to improve our lives with our neighbours. To paraphrase John McKnight, to do one without the other is like fighting with one arm tied behind your back. These ideas come from what we have learnt from thousands of citizens and hundreds of Community Builders and Community Organisers in England and Wales.

Over the last five years in the UK we have noticed a distinct trend emerging in the practice of savvy Community Organisers and Community Builders. A ‘blended practice’ is emerging: theories of people such as Paulo Friere, Saul Alinsky, John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann are being interchanged to fit the given situation and local context; and the techniques of each one of them are present daily in community life. It feels as if practitioners are using all these theories and approaches to support the local residents they serve to define their own priorities, and then figure out and implement the solutions that fit for those local residents.

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This illustration was part of Graham Ogilvie’s artwork created during Cormac’s session in Aberdeen in October 2014. Our thanks to him and Aberdeen Council for sharing them with us. Read more about this session by clicking on the image or going here:

We believe that the reason for this is that Community Building and Community Organising practitioners are operating out of a set of values and beliefs, summed up in the following five shared principles:

  1. That they are primarily accountable to local residents, and that that matters more than a commitment to one approach/model or another.
  2. Those citizens must be the ones leading the change. Paid practitioners are there to support citizen-led invention not replace it.
  3. That the work of practitioners will continue to be unpredictable, non-linear and all the richer precisely because of its emergent nature.
  4. That when looking for a solution, context is key. There is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ solution.
  5. Those in learning and participatory relationships with active citizens, and those who have been pushed to the margins, can trust their instincts and choose which approaches works best in any given situation.

We have also noticed that an increasing number of practitioners have veered away from an exclusive focus on what’s wrong in communities as their starting point. While never ignoring difficulties, they are clearly working with communities to help them figure out how they can use what is strong and unique to their communities, to address what is wrong, what is known as Asset-Based Community Development.

We are delighted to announce that both these movements (ABCD Community Building and Community Organising) will be exploring various ways of collaborating, including the potential of a joint Community Organising & Community Building Accredited Training offer. Next week we’ll be exploring why we believe that, unless Community Building and Community Organising are supported at a grassroots level, all the rhetoric of localism, co-production and ‘Communities First’ will fall flat on its face, and poverty and inequality will increase.


On the links below you will find some stories of citizen-led action that reflect what happens when we make visible all the invisible assets that are already present in local communities.

Nurture Development

The Company of Community Organisers (COLtd)

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  • I’m not sure that we want to frame a change in the relationship between communities and institutions as “a fight”.

    First, we want to engender their cooperation, not their resistance.

    Second, we do want their services from time to time (I think of recent hospital stays).

    But finally, we want them to see us as trustworthy advisors who will help them move to a better relationship with community.

    None of these objectives are furthered by a pugilistic metaphor. 🙂

    November 16, 2015 at 11:44 pm
    • I’m with David on wanting to avoid pugilistic metaphors as far as possible because of the negative baggage they carry. Nevertheless love is opposed to domination and self-interest, and these rule the day and have done so for millennia. So we do have a fight on our hands!

      November 19, 2015 at 9:41 am
  • Tony


    November 17, 2015 at 8:17 am
  • Hi Cormac,

    I vaguely suspect, you are espousing a form of Proudhonist society? Are the aims of ABCD to create a mutualist social infrastructure as a means of rendering the state obsolete? I like the idea of mutualism within a system based on subsidiarity but I also like the idea of a democratic system that protects individuals from injustice and delivers equality. Proudhon never really explained how that works without state intervention, not that he was ever that bothered about individual rights, right?


    November 19, 2015 at 3:12 pm
  • Thanks to David, Roger and Steve for your comments. I take the point re being more mindful of the metaphors we choose. Both approaches are inheritantly non-violent. So we should be clear that that is the case. That said as Roger points out there is season for everything, and albeit peacefully we must sometimes fight for the commons. Not all systems are pro commons as we well know. But not all are against. We do have powerful allies in the journey towards social justice.

    Steve, I fear I disagree with your analysis of what philosophical school we fall into. If forced to label myself (Cormac) I guess I’m wary distributivism, with deep distrust of state socialism and strong resistance to turbo capitalism. To paraphrase Chesterton: using state socialism to address turbo capitalism is like addressing pick pocketing by banning pockets. Still I see so many virtues in socialism in its own right and I am critical of purist distributivism especially its refusal to advocate re workers right and wages. The suggestion that we get rid of capitalism completely just feels naive to me. That said I think I am chastened by your comments to remember that these approaches while essential are not sufficient on the road to social justice, and on that point I totally agree with you!

    many many thank to you all. BW Cormac & Nick

    November 19, 2015 at 6:27 pm
  • Steve, for fear I haven’t answered your question with proper clarity, I would add I believe that ABCD advocate for citizen-centred democracy, not government centred democracy. Which is to say it believes citizens for the most part are the best inventors of tomorrow, the job of the state is to serve and enable that invention not be a proxy for it. A big role for the state therefore is to create a doom of protection around citizen-led invention especially for those most likely to be marginalised by the cut and trust of an u equal society. They also have a vital role in the distribution of wealth.

    November 19, 2015 at 6:34 pm
  • Hence the mention of Proudhon. As you know I work for the state and yet I do embrace the concept of ABCD in my work. It seems that the state may well adopt a non-interventionist approach – maybe austerity will drive public services out of community completely. Whether it will be better or worse for that, we will have to see. I like the principles you frame in this blog but I feel it may be too late now to seek the mutuality envisaged. While I can, I will continue to help and support local groups do the things they want to do and I will keep on doing that until I too become a casualty of the never ending war on local govt. Keep up the great work.

    November 23, 2015 at 1:26 am

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