27 March 2018

Nationwide Community Organiser pilot introduction

Hello! My name is Keith Brown. I am the Community Organiser for Nationwide Building Society. I am the first qualified community organiser hired to work as an organiser in a local community.

Employing a community organiser is a small part of a larger pilot initiative, the housing development on the Oakfield Campus in Swindon.

The Oakfield development is one of our core Social Investment projects, that are a part of the Nationwide Social Investment Strategy, which says 'Everyone deserves a place fit to call home'. We hope to create a model that helps address the housing crisis in the UK in a way that adheres to our mutual model. I am just a small part of that difference.

That said, some people out there may still not see how community organising fits within a building society, so I would like to use this blog to explore community organising and the foundations and history of Nationwide Building Society to show how much commonality exists between them.

First off, I want to start with a definition, building a common language, so when I say community organising, you will know what I mean when I type it.

The definition of community organising from the Company of Community Organisers Ltd website is:

'Community Organising is the work of building relationships and networks in communities to activate people and create social and political change through collective action.'

I used this definition, because it is the school of organising from which I come.

Community organising is a 20th century creation, but its roots go back over 100 years to early community enterprise, cooperatives, and tenant's movements. These are the very same seeds that today's building societies spring from!

Oakfield campus

Now I'll share my understanding of the start of the building society movement. This may be a myth (since I heard it from a woman who heard it from a man, who…), but it fits with what I want to say so I'm going with it!

There once was a group of working men in a pub or an inn, which has got to be in Birmingham, because it is known to be the birthplace of building societies. These men were meeting to relax from the stresses of work and venting about their living conditions while lamenting on never being able to buy a house of their own. Since the inn was their 'regular', the innkeeper was repeatedly subjected to their concerns, as bartenders and hairdressers are the original agony aunts and uncles.

The innkeeper listened and the men were clear about their issues. After some time and reflection a bright idea surfaced in how to create change. What if they could pool their resources, organise into a club or… society, and put aside a little money each week? That way, over a few years, they could save enough capital to purchase land and build a house for each member.

The strategy and membership was set and once deposits started, no new members could join. Each time the kitty reached the amount needed to purchase a house, lots were drawn so one member would get their house. The members would continue to pay into the society until all members were on the housing ladder. At this point the society would have dissolved or could start-up again with new members.

That is the origin story of building societies, as I know it. It may not be the exact truth in the details, but it does illuminate some of the values that still exist today in both Nationwide and in community organising. Values like people putting their finances together to achieve something they couldn't do individually, developing a collective strength. The sharing of stories, of personal truths and concerns until a solution to the problem is developed locally. These are also ingredients needed in telling a community organising story.

As this blog evolves, I plan to share bits of the framework that underpins community organising and look at bits of Nationwide's long history, to reflect the connections and share how these practices work on the ground. I am hoping to be informative and entertaining. I hope you come along and read about my adventure bringing these two worlds together. Wish me luck!

Next episode, Episode 1. An introduction to the community organising framework, with a focus on 'Listening'.

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About the author

Keith Brown Community Organiser

Keith Brown is the community organiser for Nationwide. He has been working in organising for 6 years. Keith hails from Baltimore, Maryland, USA, and he’s been told he has an accent, but he doesn’t believe it.

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