15 May 2018

An introduction to the community organising framework

Back in 2012, I was moving away from being a neighbourhood busybody toward becoming a professional community organiser, during the initial assessment of organiser hopefuls, a test of our listening skills was given to see if we were right for the job.

You didn’t need to be a natural listener to start the training, but I was and it helped. That was my starting place in organising, I’m good at listening in the way that is required for the rest of the framework to snap into place. I’m so good at listening, I can almost hear someone saying, ‘I got ears, listening is easy!’ Yes, some of us have the tools for hearing, but listening, really listening deeply is a skill, and for some people deep listening is not a very developed skill. I suspect everyone reading this {Hi Mum!} knows at least one person like that. Note: saying Hi to my Mum because she’s probably one of the 2 people who read this, not reflecting on her listening skills.

Community Organising framework

The image featured here is the community organising framework matrix developed by the Company of Community Organisers. It is a tool which organisers can use to help explain how we go about our ultimate goal to assist local people in creating the changes they want for their community. Over the course of this blog series I will explore each piece of the framework to the best of my ability. Today I will discuss ‘Listening’.

So why ‘listening’? In last month’s introductory blog, I quoted ‘Community Organising is the work of building relationships and networks…’ A great way to build a relationship of mutual respect and collaboration is by getting to know people and letting them know you. The act of deep listening creates the space for that to happen. With the use of the word deep I’ve alluded to there being different levels to listening.

If you do an online search for ‘Levels of Listening’ you’ll see 3,4,5 or more levels of listening. What is important is that they all show an arc of listening that moves from superficial to deep. I believe that all levels of listening are useful, but in the context of organising listening deeply is a requirement. I have a word count limit which won’t let me explore many levels of listening, but I will try to touch on listening on the less deep side of things and the previously mentioned deep listening for contrast purposes. I’m going to call the less deep level ‘confirmation’ listening. The practice of ‘confirmation’ listening is deeper than nodding and going over your shopping list while another person is projecting noises your way. 

A confirmation listener will be looking out for key words to confirm ideas already held, or words that can be thrown back at the speaker to force the confirmation they require. I’m guessing it’s good for debates or a career as a spokesperson. These listeners aren’t looking to gain knowledge or grow from what they hear, they have an agenda which they need to push. 

In the world of community organising, listening when you know the answer you want or listening for the answer you want will not support the framework of organising, or even a good friendship, it only shows you are paying the minimum amount of attention required to get your way. Community organisers don’t come into an area knowing what the local people need, we come in seeking to learn.

A community organiser listening deeply has that genuine interest in others and they will also share some of their own stories and motivations when appropriate. We do this to develop trust in the community. We don’t come into a community to take information, go away, to come back later and deposit change on a community.

I’m not staying that is a bad model of creating change, there is no judgement here. That way of doing things isn’t the community organising model. Supporting community led actions through collaborations developed from trust is how we facilitate change. None of the other pieces of the framework will work without trust, and that comes from showing the speaker that, as a community organiser, I hear you, understand you, and I see the possibilities in you and in other local people. That’s a lot to deliver in community conversations, but it is the sunlight needed to feed the seeds of a new future which the community collectively creates. This is what Nationwide hopes to do through my work around the Oakfield Campus Development.

Episode 2: The Iron Rule of Community Organising

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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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