Charlotte Philby: Re-organising civil society

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The Independent Online

By 8.30am, the Old Committee Room at King's College's central London campus is buzzing with conversation. Among the 20 faces seated around the meeting table there's the chairman of the Congo Support Group of South East London, a Church of England minister, a sixth form college student, and a representative of the East London Mosque Association. From the sidelines, a number of others join in the debate, raising their hands before they speak.

This is the latest progress meeting for the grassroots charity London Citizens, the largest part of Citizens UK, which brands itself as the national home of community organising. For 13 years the organisation has been bringing together people from some of the most deprived parts of the city in a campaign for "socio, economic and environmental justice". London Citizens prides itself on finding out what communities really want, and giving them the voice to lobby people in power on these issues; creating a series of strong, joined-up neighbourhoods with a sense of accountability for local people and their needs.

The most successful of the dozens of public assemblies they have held came just three days before the election, when David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and Nick Clegg were held to account in front of two and a half thousand people in Methodist Central Hall. That all three should have attended, in what was billed as the unofficial fourth debate, is some indication of the influence the organisation now wields across the British political spectrum.

Today, those seated in the inner circle are the volunteer community leaders, each of whom represents one of the 150 organisations including schools, trade unions, businesses and religious groups which have now signed up to the charity. Behind them are the community organisers. These are the paid staff members (18 full-time), whose job it is to build relationships on the ground, creating a network of people who work together to improve life for themselves and their neighbours. To this effect, once the morning meeting is over, they will be heading off to different parts of the city to continue their day's work.

Cameron was recently photographed shadowing a couple of community organisers on the streets of east London. Taking his lead from Barack Obama - who speaks regularly of his own time as an organiser on the streets of Chicago before becoming President - Cameron has seized on the idea of introducing full-time community organisers, 5,000 to be exact, across the streets of Britain. Last week, when announcing their plans for the 'Big Society', Cameron and Clegg made this training scheme a centre-piece of their plans, alongside a National Citizenship Service.

One of the London Citizens organisers showing Cameron the ropes earlier this month was 26-year-old Matthew Bolton, the lead organiser of the charity's hugely successful Living Wage Campaign. Launched in 2001, calling for a rise in pay for the lowest-paid workers in London, taking account for high living costs in the city, Living Wage had its first breakthrough in 2004 when Ken Livingstone was persuaded to make a non-obligatory official basic wage of £6.70; that same year the pledge was introduced in four hospitals in London for all its workers, and the Olympic authorities agreed to build the promise only to use companies who paid all staff the Living Wage into their bid.

Over the years a number of other businesses have continued to sign up - approximately 100 in total - and all Whitehall contracts will now respect the Living Wage, which is currently at £7.60. This morning Ed Miliband, who is emerging as the unlikely leader of the Labour Party, is launching his own campaign for the Living Wage at a Citizens UK event. Miliband is close to Citizens UK; he also put their idea for a local community bank into the Labour manifesto, of which he was the author, and last week told a national paper that his vision for Labour was that they were "like London Citizens". He is now campaigning for all local Labour parties to adopt the Living Wage as a foundation of their commitment to the poor.

But there's still much more to be done, and once the crowd disperses from their weekly meeting this morning, Bolton heads to Waltham Forest to talk to street cleaners about their council contracts."It's about creating a confrontation between the ones who are suffering and the ones at the root cause who can do something about it," Bolton says.

Meanwhile, a few of his fellow community organisers, accompanied by the charity's executive director and founder Neil Jameson, head to the college canteen across the hall for a planning meeting led by 23-year-old Ruhana Ali. She is organising a two-hour pre-election assembly for this Thursday (April15) in east London's Tower Hamlets, bringing 350 members from 23 member groups face-to-face with four of their local candidates. (This year all the parliamentary hopefuls in Tower Hamlets are Bangladeshi - a first in Britain)

Bringing all these people together has taken some work, yet this is just a fraction of what Ali has been doing in the past few months. Ali has a dual role as a full-time employee at London Citizens. As a community organiser for Tower Hamlets, she is responsible for 24 member organisations; on top of this she is also a senior organiser at Citizens UK (the umbrella organisation of which London Citizens is a central part), in charge of coordinating relations with the Muslim community across the country, liaising with 16 Islamic institutions on a daily basis.

Raised in a predominantly white, middle-class part of Luton where hers was the only Muslim family at the local C of E school, Ali says she understands the importance of participation and mutual understanding between different cultures: "I've seen how detrimental divisions within a community can be," she says.

On the dot of 11am, Ali heads off to her third appointment of the day, a one-to-one with a representative of the London Buddhist Centre, one of her latest signed-up members. At the same time, Ali's colleague, Zimbabwe-born Emmanuel Gotora is off to a one-to-one with Alvin Carpio, a local community leader representing the Philippino community. The pair talk about the east London branch of London Citizens' anti-crime scheme City Safe. With the backing of Boris Johnson, the local Met chief and MP, City Safe was developed to tackle crime and fear in Newham by listening to and bringing together young people, teachers and youth leaders, Gotora explains.

He and Carpio discuss relations between young people in the area and where crime hotspots lie; once these are identified, they can go about creating safe havens in the right places. Designated safe havens operating an "open door policy" already exist in a number of restaurants, cafes and businesses across east London. Carrying the City Safe sticker in their window, these are spots where, if in trouble, young people can seek refuge.

Emmanuel Gotoro got involved with London Citizens when it first started more than a decade ago, through his own local pastor, working as a community representative before joining as staff. Now 37 years old and a new father, he was closely involved in the Living Wage campaign as a volunteer, doing field work and stints of administration, before deciding to pursue this work full time. "I spent time interviewing cleaners on Liverpool Street about their working conditions," he explains. "Two months later I saw the impact of our campaign on the news and in the papers and it made me realise the things that we can do."

After his meeting with the local leader, Gotora heads to a branch of Starbucks in Stratford where Jacqui John, a youth co-ordinator for the Christian-led organisation Transform Newham, is already waiting. Starbucks, Gotora explains, is London Citizens' first corporate partner in the City Safe scheme, signalled by the sticker in the window. "There's a lot of talk about corporate social responsibility," he says, "and we're giving companies the opportunity to practise those ideals." Talks are currently being held with John Lewis and Westfield shopping centre about signing up to the scheme.

Jacqui John and Gotora are here today to discuss how their respective charities can work together in the future. Transform Newham isn't yet affiliated with London Citizens but they are building links and in order to do so, the pair share their back-stories and hopes for their communities. Johns soon arranges a meeting between her local pastor and the community organiser, to continue the network.

The pair are met here by fellow London Citizens employee, 32-year-old Lina Jamoul who recently returned to the UK from Chicago where she worked for four years with Industrial Areas Foundation, the sister organisation of Citizens UK. Lina says she finds it curious that David Cameron, the would-be future prime minister, is so keen to pose for cameras with this grassroots charity who've been struggling for funding for more than a decade, so close the general election.

Nevertheless, she shrugs, increased interest at national level could mean more recognition, and ultimately more cash to roll out its projects in other parts of the country, and that can only be a good thing. Even if it is possible that some politicians are more interested in the halo effect of standing in close proximity to a group like London Citizens than they are genuinely committed to the devolution of power.

Jamoul was born in Syria and her father, a political exile, fled to Britain when Lina was seven years old, taking his family with him. This personal history has been a motivating factor in her involvement in London Citizens, Jamoul reflects; after all, you can't complain about not having proper political representation if you don't use the opportunities you have to be involved. "In Syria I saw sacrifices being given to ideals which didn't have an impact," Jamoul concludes. "Here we have not just a voice but the chance to make things happen, and see the results. This is what democracy is about".