Residents take over! Community organising in Haringey

Imagine strong and lively communities, and control over our own lives and neighbourhoods...

An account of setting up residents' groups and community organising in North London

The world is in a terrible mess because we're not running our own lives, directly controlling the resources and decision-making for the benefit of all. Currently governments and big-business boss everyone around for their own benefit. So what can people do to get back control? Obviously we can't expect someone to jet in and liberate us, or wait for some cataclysmic 'collapse' of the system in some way off future. By patiently building up grass roots solidarity and mutual aid, we can sow and grow the seeds of the new society within the shell of the old. We have to act for ourselves, in the here and now.

Here and now? We need to focus on where there is a real need, and a real untapped potential to fight back, where people can empower each other and spread alternative ideas. This means here - within our local communities, and now on a day to day basis in our everyday lives.

I'm involved in Haringey Solidarity Group, an open anarchist/libertarian/socialist collective which grew out of the huge and successful anti-poll tax campaign 13 years ago. We produce leaflets and newsletters, and support a whole range of activities going on in the borough. But in the last few years I've put most of my efforts into being involved in street level activity in my local neighbourhood.

Street Level

The front line of politics is outside your door. And also in workplaces but that's another matter. If we base our political activity around where people actually are, we can achieve a lot. That doesn't mean we can't get involved in other things, but at the end of the day we have to have a strategy to actually change the world, for people to take over all the decision-making themselves. After all, everyone is an expert about their own lives and their own street.

People have concerns which may be surprisingly similar to those of other people in their neighbourhoods they want more control over their lives, to be part of a safe and friendly community, in a decent environment with good local services and facilities etc. The ruling system only wants obedient consumers and workers, where all the decisions are made from on high in their own selfish and greedy interests. People are not encouraged to feel that they can band together and make changes themselves. There's always someone else claiming to 'represent' people or act for them politicians, Council officers, the media, professional NGO's that pay people to organise campaigns and publicity... even direct action groups can be seen to be a specialist lifestyle choice that most people can't relate to or take part in. All of which takes the power away from the people that really count the majority, in particular working class people and other oppressed sections of the population.

The real challenge is how does this translate to action on a street level that can be taken up by millions of people? For me, the answer is to try and build up grassroots action groups and associations that are open and relevant to everybody in the community. It may not always be easy, but unfortunately no-one's yet found any successful short cuts from here to the revolution.

The proof of the pudding

Residents groups have often been seen as linked to the council, or as just complaining bodies with limited concerns, or with only a couple of people running the show. But they can also be solidarity organisations in which people support each other and take up a range of local issues important to improving the conditions and quality of life in the neighbourhood. The potential is definitely there for all kinds of street level residents' action groups, associations and networks.

For about five years I was involved in a residents network where we built up a membership of 250 on an estate of about 1500 homes. We organised regular meetings, usually in each other's homes every three weeks, covering a huge range of issues. They were always minuted and all the members got these minutes so you are building up a network of people that are well informed and encouraged to take part in any way they want to. We succeeded in getting a million pounds for traffic calming, a youth club, and helped get environmental improvements to a local park. We organised an annual 'Home Is Where The Art Is' exhibition of residents' creativity, a local history day and various public meetings. It really brought people together, especially the 20 or so who were most involved.

In 2003 I moved to another part of Tottenham and helped set up a residents association which now has 80 members out of 230 homes. We meet every 3 weeks, and leaflet every house in the area every six weeks encouraging people to come along. There are about 8-10 regulars. We also have an internal email list. We've got the Council to agree to plant more trees in the streets, we monitor street lighting and rubbish dumping, and are about to get traffic calming measures put in. We campaigned to save the local pub from being demolished for yet another block of flats, and mounted a strong campaign to try to save the local sub-Post Office - including holding a 100-strong march round our local streets. Both campaigns failed to win, but were successful in helping to galvanise people into action. The council recently tried to quadruple the rent of a popular café in the local park, but as a result of protests and pressure they've backed down.

In May this year, we and other nearby residents groups helped organise our second annual community festival in the local park it was bloody fantastic, and attended by about three thousand people. About 20-30 of us worked together on quite libertarian lines, organising it collectively with people volunteering to take on different responsibilities. I helped set up a 'speakers forum' tent, and there were stalls, music, crafts, treasure hunts, sports and a carnival-ish procession.

Its not all positive. Anti-social behaviour can also be a big problem in some neighbourhoods. It needs to be addressed because if we can't come up with solutions that we can do ourselves, people are going to say we need more police, we need more CCTV etc. It's good to support anyone harassed, and to campaign for more youth facilities etc - but sometimes groups of people that are causing the problem may need to be challenged.

Digging in for the duration

If you're going to start something new its good to concentrate on positive stuff, things that can build up community strength and empower people. Then you can try and tackle the difficult stuff that takes a long time to make progress on. If you just focus on that at first it can demoralise people and that's when you might become just a moaning group. There can be different ways of doing similar things, some of it is empowering and some of it is frustrating, so patience and persistence are real virtues. After all, its your neighbourhood so get stuck in!

Every area is different differing size neighbourhoods (from a single block of flats to a whole 'ward'), differing geography and populations, and differing issues that are relevant. Build up a list of contacts/members. Try to make every meeting open to everybody, with open agendas, minutes circulated etc. That way your activities are accountable to your community, and its more likely the group will be strongly supported and become a real influence.

Don't moan - organise

The fundamental challenge for any residents' group is to be active and well-supported, but to not get sucked into the way the authorities would like it to be. They want you to have low expectations, limit your agenda, leave it to 'professionals and experts', and think that politics is about voting in elections and talking to Councillors. What I like about people involved in residents groups is, if you say to them: 'we should be independent, build up community spirit, support each other and co-operate, we are all equals, we should make all the decisions about our area together, with the decisions based on our community's real needs', nearly everybody would agree its all common sense! In fact, such common sense ideas are actually a radical basis for alternative politics, for a real counter-power and a new society if acknowledged and built on. Yet if you were to ask the same people what their ideological or political beliefs were, they would cover the whole range of parties, beliefs and religions etc. Somewhere along the line we've allowed our common sense to be suppressed, or hijacked.

Throughout this whole process, the most important thing is local people coming together as equals with a common interest in the local neighbourhood, meeting in each others houses, getting to know each other, spreading a positive atmosphere because a lot of people are very demoralised and think they can't change anything. But when they come together, they start bringing out their own experiences, their own skills, time and resources, their own views, and they start feeling that there are ways of changing the world and supporting each other based on different principles from profits and power. Working together, face to face, and respecting each other generally works because as neighbours you have common interest with people of all ages, all backgrounds, all colours in a crazy, unjust and alienating world.

A movement of millions?

In Haringey alone there are 120 residents associations, 20 'friends' groups of local park users, as well as local action groups campaigning for traffic calming measures or against various urban and commercial developments, mobile phone masts etc. This involves a membership of thousands, and annual distribution of tens of thousands of leaflets and newsletters. Across the whole country this amounts to a self-organised and independent movement of millions of people speaking and acting for themselves and their communities. In this way people are able to directly challenge, influence and potentially eventually make all the decisions which affect them and their communities. Anarchists should be fully involved. At the same time as building up people's self-confidence, solidarity and mutual aid, we should be encouraging people to demand not just a few crumbs off the table, or even the whole cake, but the entire bakery.

DIY Community Action

In almost any community a whole range of positive, practical things can be organised and encouraged which bring people together, build up community spirit and improve our local neighbourhoods.

Some examples of things you could do that are already going on in local areas around the country:

· encourage lots of informal discussion and communication on the street and in each others' homes · do local door-to-door leaflets and newsletters · hold public meetings on topical issues · organise street parties and other events · set up skills and resources sharing schemes · campaign for youth facilities and activities · demand traffic calming · set up housing solidarity and action groups · resist obnoxious development schemes · defend useful facilities threatened with closure · promote recycling projects · develop informal gathering places (in or around local shops, parks etc) · organise picnics and other activities in local parks · set up parents' groups in schools and playcentres · do residents' opinion surveys · organise local art and creativity exhibitions · plan community murals · set up local clubs/interest groups (gardening, music, sports etc)

The possibilities are endless...

Kicking off

The trick is to get organised and active! By encouraging neighbours to get involved, being as friendly as possible with everyone, and avoiding getting bogged down with bureaucracy or politicians of any stripe, it is amazing what people can achieve.

Why not get together with a couple of neighbours you know and start meeting regularly in each other's homes or in a friendly local neighbourhood centre? Give yourselves a name. Discuss what people feel are the important issues, and things you can start to do together - post reports of these discussions to all interested neighbours. Encourage initiative. Gradually build up a list of more and more contacts. Organise public meetings and events, local campaigns and so on. Leaflet door-to-door. Most importantly, stick at it...

In this way we can patiently build up a strong and vibrant grass-roots movement in every neighbourhood.

By Dave, from HSG