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London Citizens leader responds to Paul Donovan's J&P article
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Dr Austen Ivereigh
Paul Donovan makes a plea in his article, ( Viewpoint: Justice & Peace activism in need of formation ) for Catholics involved in justice and peace work to receive a more solid formation. He praises Citizens UK / London Citizens for their campaigns and achievements, rightly noting that it has become a key means for Catholic parishes to engage in work for social justice. But he thinks community organising is "more of a method than a process", and no better than others at providing "a process for the formation of people".

I'm astonished by this, because what Citizens UK / London Citizens does, day in and day out, is provide formation for its leaders. Those leaders are (almost all) ordinary parishioners, teams of people who belong to the parishes (as well as schools and charities) in membership of London Citizens. The formation they receive is precisely in the skills and methods of political negotiation. "Ordinary" people, who naturally consider themselves powerless to change society, discover they have the capacity to bring about change. They learn this, first of all, in theory (on the workshops); then in practice (seeking to persuade a local employer, say, to pay the living wage); through constant evaluation (in the company of a community organiser and other local leaders); and taking on leadership roles -- by chairing assemblies, for example.

A key principle in community organising -- one taught and practised obsessively by London Citizens -- is what Catholics call subsidiarity: "never do for someone what they can do for themselves". It is the parishes themselves -- brought together and encouraged by community organisers -- who seek the meeting with the local business or council to persuade them to pay the living wage; or who develop a relationship with the councillor or the MP which will allow them to invite them to the next assembly, and so on. Community organising is only effective to the extent that it increases the "power" of civil society - the capacity of people to act, in concert with others, on their own initiative.  

Concretely, the formation consists of one-day, two-day and five-day leadership training workshops, which are free to people in member
organisations. It consists of reading and reflection around those workshops; regular meetings with community organisers to consider how to develop as a leader; retreats and study days; invitations to lectures and talks. It is hard to imagine a more thorough process of formation -- but one adapted to the demands and needs of busy, working people.

True: you will not learn, on a London Citizens workshop, the principles of Catholic social teaching (CST). It is up to the Church -- the parish -- to train people in CST. Community organising teaches you how to bring about the vision of CST -- by expanding the power of civil society to hold the state and the market to account. For more on this, see the book I published earlier this year: Faithful Citizens: a practical guide to Catholic social teaching and community organising (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2010)

But for Catholics to bring about a living wage, an end to the detention of children in immigration centres, safe streets - these are all signature achievements of Citizens UK / London Citizens -- they need to learn to work with others, of different denominations and faiths, for the common good. That is what London Citizens, almost uniquely in modern Britain, enables. It is, precisely, the vision of CST, which was never designed to be a confessional form of politics, but to provide a means by which people of different traditions and beliefs can work together for the common good on the basis of core universal values. London Citizens, which was created in the 1980s by Bishop Victor Guazzelli and Bernadette Farrell, has CST at its heart.

Paul's portrayal of London Citizens is not one that anyone who belongs to it would recognise. He says, for example, that the organisation "targets people in parishes with control of the purse strings". Actually, community organisers aim to meet parish priests, pastoral assistants, and parish councillors because theirs is the decision to join and pay the modest membership costs; but it's the parish’s "leaders" -- people with passion, drive and commitment, not money -- whom organisers will try and arrange meetings with.

"Once signed up, a few people are selected for leadership sessions", Paul goes on, making out that there is a strict filter applied. Yet any member organisation (parish) can send any number of people (within reason) on a two-day training, free of charge: the more the merrier. London Citizens has trained thousands of people over the years. They think -- and they're right -- that their training is transformative; and they want to give it to as many people as they can.

Paul then criticizes London Citizens for operating "in a very disciplined, hierarchical way" which does not seem to me a criticism at all, although it is intended to be. He goes on: "Member schools and parishes are summoned to fill out big halls for assemblies that are incredibly stage-managed affairs, with no questions from the floor allowed."

What Paul deplores is precisely what London Citizens members love about it. They know they don't have to sit through hours of tedious discussion while someone exercises their "democratic" right to be heard on a subject of no interest to others -- the kind of modus operandi which has killed popular participation in politics. London Citizens meetings are geared to decision and action; the issues being discussed are already ones in which organisations have expressed an interest. But there is plenty of debate, decision-making, and voting. But these take place at smaller meetings prior to the big assemblies -- in strategy meetings, delegates'
assemblies, and so on.    

The big London Citizens assemblies are, indeed, highly stage-managed, precisely so they are effective, efficient, engaging, and dramatic. It's why people enjoy coming to them. And why politicians -- recently, at the 3 May Citizens UK General Election assembly, it was David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown -- agree to appear at them. And why they result in categoric, clear gains.

But it doesn't mean that what happens at the assemblies is imposed. Prior to that big assembly the key decisions -- which issues to focus on, whom to invite onto the stage, who should chair, and even the choreography and timings -- are taken by the leaders of the member organisations. Because all this has been agreed before the big assembly in small meeting -- precisely so the big assembly will not get bogged down in narrow or irrelevant or utopian obsessions -- the assembly is effective and enjoyable. At the assemblies themselves, it is the London Citizens leaders - -in other words, ordinary parishioners, not the professional organisers -- who chair, time-keep, quiz politicians, hold people to account, and so on. And it is they who determine what happens. It is "stage-managed", in other words, by ordinary parishioners.

I agree with Paul that too much J&P work now is "like running around like headless chickens wanting 'to do' all of the time without any reflection or analysis". In London Citizens, reflection and analysis - -constant evaluations, after every 'action'; workshops, trainings -- are built into the very process of community organising and campaigning.

That is why so many Catholic parishes and schools -- more than a third of London Citizens' 150 members organisations -- belong to it: because they recognise it as an embodiment of both the ideals, and the way of acting, of Catholic social teaching.

 Austen Ivereigh is a leader in London Citizens through his parish: Holy Apostles Pimlico.

 See also: Viewpoint: Justice & Peace activism in need of formation

and London Citizens
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Tags: London Citizens. Austen Ivereigh, Paul Donovan

Members Opinions:
October 25, 2010 at 2:32pm
Paul Donovan writes:

Response to Austen Ivereigh's polemic

I do not want to get into some big debate with Austen Ivereigh about the merits or otherwise of London Citizens. I have always been a supporter of London Citizens, long before Austen's own association with the work. Suffice to say that much of his diatribe underlines some of my own concerns.
My original piece actually began celebrating the massive amount of work done by people involved in the work of social justice, not least those at the extraordinarily successful National Justice and Peace Conference last July. My central concern is that first the institutional Church undervalues the work of justice and peace and second the lack of emphasis on formation.
Austen's response seems to be suggesting there is only one way to do formation and that is London Citizen's way. This is the main thrust of his own book Faithful Citizens. The London Citizens model has much to recommend it, whole parishes and schools become involved in the work. It gets round the funding issues that effect other forms of J&P by charging member organisations an annual membership fee - the top rate is £1800. Leadership training is offered, it is all very laudable but it is not the only way of doing social justice.

Austen lauds the democracy and subsidiarity involved in London Citizens but nothing is perfect.

Prior to Austen's involvement with the organisation, there was a London Citizens Assembly in 2004 held at the Tower Hotel which brought together The East London Communities Organisation (telco) and South London Citizens for the first time. There were seven issues to be voted on, the top four were to be worked upon. When the votes were counted the Olympics came out at number seven, yet miraculously within a couple of months the Olympics had become the number one priority. A very astute move in retrospect, given that London won the 2012 bid but hardly a victory for democracy and subsidiarity.

The assemblies are great occasions and do bring the leading political players of the day. This is no doubt because they see the importance of an organisation that represents so much of civil society.

However, the formulaic nature of proceedings with no intercessions from the floor makes for an easy evening for politicians. They know what is coming and can respond accordingly. The inflexibility of the format can also cause problems, as was clear with the London Mayoral hustings in 2008 when candidates were asked to sign up to a number of London Citizen's pledges. One concerned content of the London Paper. Conservative candidate Boris Johnson could not sign up because his manfiesto involved scrapping the paper, this though did not stop the chair on the evening continuing to press the point, despite its obvious absurdity in the circumstances.

These are minor points but underline my central theme which is that no one way of doing things is perfect and should be advanced at the cost of all others. I have always found London Citizens an organisation open to criticism as well as praise. Any points I have made have always been offered in a constructive vein - they have done fantastic work, particularly with their campaigns for the living wage and the regularisation of undocumented migrants. Austen has contributed hugely to this work. They have my full backing with their goal to extend the work out beyond London but lets remember there is more than one way to the mountain top, utopian or otherwise.
October 25, 2010 at 4:11pm
Austen Ivereigh responds:

In the article above I was responding to Paul’s claim that London Citizens doesn’t offer proper formation; that claim was wide of the mark, as I showed. Nowhere in the piece above, which Paul oddly describes as a “diatribe”, do I remotely even hint at suggesting that there is “only one way to do formation and that is London Citizens’ way”. Nor, obviously, do I believe that, which would be (a) silly (b) against all my experience. And the idea that the “main thrust” of my book Faithful Citizens suggests as much is grossly untrue, as any reading of it will make clear. The argument of Faithful Citizens is that, in the contemporary plural European city, community organising offers an “ideal vehicle” for the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. But the book gives plenty of other examples – not least, Cafod, J&P groups, and so on – of CST principles being put into practice.

Incidentally, it is nonsense to suggest that because London Citizens assemblies don’t have questions from the floor, this gives a politician an easy ride. Politicians can easily answer questions from individuals from the floor; they usually have an answer for questions, or can rely on riding it out through blather. At a Citizens assembly, on the other hand, they will be pinned down by a Citizens leader who is tasked with holding him or her to a specific commitment to an agenda which has been agreed by the 2,500 people watching them. If the politician is not delivering, they’re in for an uncomfortable ride. Which is why most of them, by the time they choose to appear at an assembly, have usually decided to agree.

Of course London Citizens is not above criticism. It is a self-critical organisation, and after every action or assembly goes in for a good deal of breast-beating about what it could have done better. But not every criticism is well-informed or just. And that’s why I’ve responded to Paul.

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