Two weeks ago 1000 people of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicity and faiths joined together at the Tyne Theatre in Newcastle for the launch of Tyne and Wear Citizens.
There was a real buzz in the room but along with the majority of people there I wasn’t sure what to expect. I am still processing all that I saw, heard and felt, but for the many people who couldn’t make it and wanted to know more here’s my two penn’orth.
Tyne and Wear Citizens is made up of oganisations from across Newcastle, Sunderland and Durham and includes churches, schools, mosques, charities, and universities – they were all represented at the launch.
Over the last 9 months these organisations had been listening to their communities to discover the issues that concern them. These were then brought to the Delegates Assembly where the priorities were decided, Mental Health, Safer Cities and Poverty. Small groups then worked on these priorities to come up with winnable issues that will improve the lives of people in the North East.
At the launch individuals shared stories of how their lives were impacted by poverty, safety and mental health.
Poverty – The North East has largest number of children receiving free school meals, highest number of employees on zero hour contracts and lowest number of real Living Wage employers. Young people from Kenton school shared their concerns around children on free school meals receiving their entitlement.
Safer Cities – Hate crime is increasing and is affecting people of all ages from all our communities and public transport is where people feel most vulnerable. We heard how Muslim women are avoiding using public transport. Primary school children from Sunderland performed a little play to demonstrate how safety fears, from cyber bulling to domestic violence, worried them.
Mental Health – The Listening Campaign also heard that people in our region are suffering from profound mental health challenges, particularly young people. The lack of ongoing support and unacceptable waiting times was a particular concern. Jack from a school in North Shields told about how access to mental health services had impacted on his life and the lives of his friends.
The sharing of personal stories was powerful and moving; individuals making themselves vulnerable in front of the large audience but as I listened I was reminded of the words of Barack Obama (who was a community organiser before entering politics):
“One voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it change a state, it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world” Barack Obama
Standing on stage listening to these accounts were the representatives from organisations that have the power to influence change in each area. They were asked clearly and directly to work with Tyne and Wear Citizens on the relevant issue. This is where the process became really exciting and I understood why the event needed to be so public and why having 1000 people there was so important.
The relevant partners agreed to work with Tyne and Wear Citizens to-
- ensure children receive the free school meals they are entitled to
- encourage more employers pay the real Living Wage
- develop hate crime policy and deliver effective training for staff on public transport
- address specific local community safety issues
- provide appropriate mental health services for young people
- commission a Citizens Inquiry into Mental Health in the NE
I came away like most people there excited, empowered but still with a few questions (which I guess is a natural response after having spent years trying unsuccessfully to effect change).
However after much thought I am putting my energy and faith in this process for many reasons
- Community Organising has been tried and tested over decades and across the globe and resulted in change for local communities.
- Citizens UK is working across the England and Wales and I have met people from different groups from across the country and heard their accounts of real change.
- Working as a community development worker I hear stories of injustice and struggle on a daily basis and like many others I feel sad, angry and powerless. I have marched, signed more postcards and petitions than I can remember and I am not convinced it made much difference. I believe that Community Organising is an effective way to tackle some of these injustices
- Building new relationships between faith groups, charities, schools and community groups is important and enriching. We have very few opportunities to get to know people outside of our organisation and Tyne and Wear Citizens gives us all a wonderful space to listen to our neighbours and stand together on issues for the common good.
- Finally, and for me most importantly, was the young people who were involved in changing things that concern them and their peers. Giving them the opportunity to learn from a young age that they can change things, whether it is mental health services or the road crossing outside their school, is an invaluable experience which will hopefully continue to empower them. The Listening Campaign within the schools was also an important exercise for students and teachers. My biggest hope for Tyne and Wear Citizens is that more schools will join to empower the next generation.
We are now following up on the promises made at the launch with research and actions to keep our issues on the agenda. When relationships have been built and change has been made, the cycle begins again with another listening campaign.
You may still have questions about Community Organising but please keep an open mind and watch this space!