What is it you do?

Why NEF organises to build power in local communities

For a very long time, I have been used to explaining what an organiser does. A number of people — a surprising 100% of them men — think my job title means I am a secretary. Lots hear the word Foundation” and think I’m there to give them money. People who have come across NEF in the past don’t tend to know what organising is, and vice versa. Then there are those who have heard of NEF and know what organising is but are baffled that anyone is attempting an overlap. In this blog, the first of a series on NEF’s organising, I’m going to share why NEF is organising.

NEF is a think tank, or rather, it started life out as one. It looks at what problems need solving in our society, gathers the evidence to highlight them and then works out what policies might solve them. So far, so simple. 

The tricky bit is making those ideas a reality. The bog-standard way of doing this (to pull back the curtain for you a little bit) is for a think tank to take their evidence, ideas and policy into Westminster and talk earnestly, at the right time to the right people; politicians and the people who work to advise them. Lots of these people will have gone to the same university (or maybe even the same fee-paying school), traditionally few will come from working-class backgrounds. If the idea and the evidence are accepted, the policy is put in place, and everyone chalks it up to having built power. But none has really been built; it’s only been used. 

It’s not that we can’t win significant changes this way, but progressive politics being run like this has added to clear crisis of power gripping the UK and most of the world: just as wealth is unequally distributed in our country, so is the ability to change anything. True power is concentrated in a few already privileged hands — rather than being distributed so working class people around the country have more control over the course of their lives. 

In a world where neoliberals are relentlessly growing and spreading their own power, while the world is burning, this is no way for us to carry on — either in think tanks, charities, unions or NGOs. Not only does it exclude most people at the sharp end” of inequality, or on the ground in left behind communities” — both terms you’ll find floating round Westminster and the third sector like the lumps in our rivers — it narrows demands to the issues the people who get to make decisions feel are important, and the solutions to those they feel are palatable. 

The power to change things isn’t just in the wrong hands — when it comes to progressive ideals, it is barely in anyone’s hands.”

Ultimately, no-one wins — neither those at the sharp end, who find themselves crowded out of decisions made about their own futures, nor those advocating for them, who find themselves with a diminishing ability to change anything which wasn’t already on the cards. The power to change things isn’t just in the wrong hands — when it comes to progressive ideals, it is barely in anyone’s hands

So what’s the answer? The answer is to try to create change in a different way, and for that, we look to organising. While the already powerful organise money and capital, those seeking to build power have to organise people. That’s what I and the rest of my team at NEF, do. 

Organising is fundamentally about building relationships and structures for people to organise their resources, knowledge and abilities collectively — and use that to demand change on an issue that affects them.

It has won change for centuries — from the Suffragettes to the School Strikes. It has won change large and small — from the Equal Pay Act to stopping library closures. All good, significant change, ever, has started in an organising meeting — over biscuits in a staffroom, beers in a sports club, tea in a community centre. 

But we also organise because we don’t just want to win individual campaigns or solve individual problems. As Jane McAlevey, an organiser from the US, says, organising is about replacing yourself”. Organisers try our best to develop the self confidence, skills and abilities of everyone we organise, and leave behind strong relationships and new structures in their communities and workplaces — so that they can organise themselves, lead themselves, advocate for themselves, and make their own decisions about their campaigns, communities and lives. Those relations, knowledge and resources translate to power. It is almost immaterial if we win individual campaigns, because if we organise properly we have already won — we have fundamentally altered the balance of power in a community, and eventually, across a country. 

That sounds huge, fanciful, utopian. But it is utterly sensible, because it is how any big, progressive change has ever really come about. They all start in those magic spaces you only find when an organised group of people gets together, and has big ideas grounded in the big problems we all have. Really, our jobs as organisers are about trying to create that magic, as much of it as we can. Over the next few months we will be sharing stories about just how we do that — and asking other organisers to do the same.

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