TELCO celebrates 20 years of driving local change

By: Judy Ann Masters

London's first Citizens organisation - The East London Citizens Organization (TELCO) - celebrate their 20th anniversary this year. Last Thursday, they held a small celebratory Refounding event at Our Lady of Assumption RC Church, at Victoria Park Square, Hackney, followed by a massive TELCO Founding Assembly at York Hall, Bethnal Green just down the street.

TELCO has brought together faith, school, work and community groups - working together to build a better world. From marching with thousands of locals through the streets of the East End, pressing for the dignity of a Living Wage, to pioneering genuinely affordable housing via Community Land Trusts, TELCO has driven change nationwide. The model of community organising has now been replicated throughout the UK, under the umbrella of the Citizens UK network.

At the Refounding event, different founding members spoke and told their stories to a selected audience of dignitaries and press. Seventy-five invitations went out and 200 people showed up. And like the loaves and fishes account in the Bible, everyone had their fill of sandwiches and pastries with leftovers to spare. It was a heart touching event.

When TELCO first started in 1996, their first Citizens action was led by Bishop John Armitage, then a parish priest, against the pet food maker Pura--who had a fish factory in Canning Town that produced cat food. The factory produced a horrible smell that hung over many streets in Canning Town. The factory happened to be in Fr John's patch. He led a neighbourhood group to the factory to complain. He told them "the cat food may be good but the smell isn't good for us!" After negotiations, Fr John and the group were able to convince Pura to put "odour eaters" on the offending apertures. Problem solved!

Sister Una McCress, also a founding member, gave a brief history of the LivingWage campaign which she was deeply involved in. Other founding members like Bishop Peter Hill and Dr. Mohamed Abdul Bari shared their experiences and challenges of building the fledgling organisation of TELCO into the powerhouse it is today!

TELCO's achievements of the past 20 years, include: Founding and sustaining the Living Wage campaign with marches through London's East End in 2001; Demanding as far back as 2004 that 'The People's Guarantees' be incorporated into the London 2012 bid, guaranteeing Olympic Living Wage jobs, a pilot Community Land Trust, and an Olympic legacy of affordable family housing, construction skills training, and leisure and health facilities. Pioneering urban Community Land Trusts to secure truly affordable renting and home ownership for local people [a case study is included below]. Starting the Good Jobs Programme with apprenticeships for local 16-19 year olds, with nearly 100 so far benefitting from jobs or training through the programme. Creating the Refugee Welcome programme which began as 'Strangers into Citizens', with local communities helping refugees resettle into their area. This is now a Citizen UK national programme.

Citizens UK executive director, Neil Jameson, said: "TELCO brought together across east London, a wide and diverse grouping of congregations, schools, community groups, and local associations by reviving the tradition of community organising in the East End. This formed a new civic organisation that encouraged members to act as one on the issues and concerns they shared. One of the most pressing issues was the low pay of many local people who, although working full time, were trapped in poverty and poor housing. Their wages made it impossible to make ends meet. Poor housing too was and continues to be an issue around which diverse community and religious leaders feel able to organise together, with a shared vision for better provision."

The efficacy of the organising is evident through TELCO's shaping of London 2012 into the 'First ethical Living Wage Olympics'. Their pursuit of 'dignity through a Living Wage' since 2001 has now spawned 3,000 accredited Living Wage employers, lifting more than 150,000 people out of poverty.

TELCO continues today supporting local communities and refugee families, and urging London's wealthy football clubs to pay all staff the Living Wage. Its dogged pursuit of land for housing, and its use of innovative models to help accommodate lower paid Londoners, is bearing fruit through the Community Land Trust initiatives which are now spreading throughout the capital and elsewhere.

Emmanuel Gotora, Lead Organiser for TELCO said "In 2004, our members backed the bid for London 2012 on condition that it delivered a true legacy for the people of east London. Our demands ranged from paying everyone a London Living Wage to including a genuinely affordable housing legacy through the pilot Community Land Trust at St. Clements.

"TELCO's legacy is one of local people coming together to make a difference in some of the most deprived areas of the city and winning change despite the odds, to create the change they wanted to see."

Fr Michael Copps, priest at St Francis Church, has been part of the campaign since 2004. His Parish is barely a mile from the first Olympic development at Chobham Manor. He is now pushing to get started on a bigger Community Land Trust project on the East Wick and Sweetwater development. He said: "We were asked to forgo CLT homes on Chobham Manor so we're very pleased that the London Legacy Development Company have included a requirement that at least 20 homes on the Eastwick and Sweetwater neighbourhood should be CLT homes. Nevertheless, TELCO will continue to push for the first 100 CLT homes, as originally agreed by the Olympic authorities."

The Assembly was attended by more than a 1000 TELCO members, well wishers and dignitaries like the Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs and the Head of Redbridge Council Jas Athwal, plus many others. Tributes to early social justice heroes was made and included Cardinal Edmund Manning who foreshadowed the Living Wage amongst his campaigns.

Trinity Catholic High School Wind Band gave several performances that evening, as well as The 20th Anniversary Choir had 120 children from the following schools: St John the Baptist Primary School--Hackney. St Angela's Ursuline School--Newham, St Monica's Primary School--Hackney, St Anthony's Primary School--Newham, Hackney's Chidren's Choir--Hackney, Led by Choir Director Tom Daggett from St Paul's Cathedral.

Bernadette Farrell's moving hymn, Longing for Light, was performed by the Choir and was quite moving. While learning the song, the Choir Director reported that many of the children expressed strong spiritual feelings about the lyrics that deal with the need for social justice. Bernadette wrote the song when she was a member of TELCO working in the East side of London for many years.

TELCO gave their history, their institutions marched with their identifying banners as their names were announced at Roll Call and a review was given of their Current Campaigns: LivingWage, CLTs, building relations with Local Authority leaders and building a relationship with David Goldstone, Legacy Development Corporation to gain the target of Olympic Park CLTs.TELCO also launched two new campaigns on Health and Energy.

The evening ended with a BIG BANG! As balloons, confetti and poppers filled the air as everyone held hands and sang Auld Lang Syne! It was a spectacular end to a spectacular event.

Christians member groups include: Catholic Association for Racial Justice; Cardinal Pole School; St James' Hackney; Stratford and Canning Town Methodists; St Stephen's and St Nicholas' Parish, St James' Hackney, Shpresa Programme, Ursuline Convent, Caritas Anchor House, Salvation Army, Stepney, Salvation Army, Ilford, St Paul's Shadwell, Jesuit Refugee Service.

Read more about Citizens UK and TELCO here: www.citizensuk.org