London Citizens leader responds to Paul Donovan's J&P article

Dr Austen Ivereigh

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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