Guest post by Lt Ben Cotterill
After one year of Salvation Army officership (leadership), I’m barely off of the starting blocks! With a background in international development within The Salvation Army I decided to make the jump, together with my wife, to our movements two-year leadership training programme in London. As novice preachers, rookie pastors, and enthusiastic community organizers we were sent to serve an unsuspecting congregation in the Yorkshire town of Keighley, (Northern England).
Our new responsibilities include the operation of one of the largest Salvation Army-run food banks in the country. We were encouraged to assess the effectiveness of the food bank from various people, including our ever humble and helpful predecessors.
And so began a process that resulted in a dream to be ‘beyond a food bank’, the same dream pursued by the Army in the 1889 dockers’ strike in London as described in Marching Towards Justice (p8).
With this dream I would quickly have to cut my teeth at community organization. And so, here are my top 5 tips for community organization (other than praying and reading my bible you understand!).
1) The Salvation Army can win nothing on its own (p11)
Inspired by a project called the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission (thank you Andrew Grinnell) together with the lack of agency partnership in the town we decided in March 2015 to set up the Keighley Food Poverty Action Partnership (KFPAP – The Partnership hereafter).
The aim is to bring the community together to address the root causes and response to food poverty in our town. On the group are business leaders, clergy, social workers, community leaders, a doctor, police, project leaders and other members of the community.
2) Give affected people a platform (p11)
A guiding principle adopted from the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission was to enable people directly affected by food poverty to be central to the life and direction of the group. They use the powerful slogan ‘Nothing about us, without us, is for us’.
One particular individual who had been in food poverty became a key part of The Partnership bringing their invaluable life experience. Overtime, this person began to identify themselves more and more as part of The Salvation Army, and we realized we were even more legitimately fighting issues because “we have people in our ranks who were affected” (p11).
This was evident as we intentionally hosted a lively election hustings (caucus for my American friends) and gave people affected by food poverty the platform to question our prospective candidates!
3) Work out where power lies (p19)
We launched The Partnership with the then Mayor of Keighley, a practising Catholic and strong supporter of The Salvation Army. One day the Mayor lamented to me how he regretted not being able to raise more money for us (in truth he had already raised significant sums).
Once money was off the table, we realized the greatest resource the Mayor had, was right under our nose – his influence – and so The Partnership idea was born. The Mayor would use his influence by publically fronting the group and by so doing draw key people to the table. At that point he was content to allow us to lead and direct the vision for the group.
Knowing the Mayor would soon retire from public office, but was willing to continue as chair in his retirement, we decided NOT to ask a leading publically elected person (MP or Mayor) on to the Partnership. The reason being that we thought we would have more public impact and influence by having somewhere to go with our concerns and appeals.
4) Be willing to risk public reputation of the Army (in pursuit of what you think is right) (p11)
One of the decisions we made at the food bank was to draw a limit as to how often people could come and receive a food parcel. We didn’t take this decision lightly and I can testify to several sleepless nights where I wondered if we were doing the right thing.
Owing to the specific dynamics of our food bank we had to really hold our decision in tension with what appears at a first glance to be conflict with scripture. But after deep reflection we decided that love would be greatest served by focusing on people in crisis and not long-term sole food assistance.
We were worried that the reputation of The Salvation Army would be damaged but felt convinced we were doing the right thing. Of course at the same time, we would concentrate on building deeper relationships outside the context of purely food assistance and enhance the quality of assistance.
5) Have a process when engaging with an issue
This is actually my number 1 tip but it sounds far too boring to headline! Although seasoned pros and intuitive community organisers will instinctively know how to go about understanding and acting upon issues, we used a process to help us called faith-based facilitation (FBF).
This process helped us structure our thinking and exploration with tried and tested methods with which people in the public and private sector would be familiar. However, crucially it allows faith and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to be integral to the process. I recommend you check this out if you are in a quandary over an issue you face (please click here for more info on FBF).
So that’s it, my top 5 tips for community organising!
I am no expert and I do not for a second pretend to have it all sorted. But please feel free to comment and constructively engage with my tips which resonate with much of what is written in the Marching Towards Justice pamphlet.