Inspired by Obama's organising

By Jessica Elgot, March 17, 2011
More than 20,000 supporters of Citizens UK protesting in Trafalgar Square in 2009 - now the community organising charity is setting up a branch with Jewish groups in north London

More than 20,000 supporters of Citizens UK protesting in Trafalgar Square in 2009 - now the community organising charity is setting up a branch with Jewish groups in north London

Barack Obama has consistently attributed his political success to his experience on the streets of Chicago as a community organiser, training church leaders, youth groups and activists to use their combined influence to affect political change.

The US President was trained as an organiser by the Industrial Areas Foundation, founded by a Jew, Saul Alinsky, who is recognised as the father of community organising. The system is popular in the US but has only recently began to gather steam here.

This month will see the launch of North London Citizens, a community organising group which aims to apply Mr Alinsky's techniques to modern communities.

Its founder members include Finchley Reform Synagogue, a group from New North London Synagogue, Masorti youth movement Noam and Marom, Masorti's young adult group. But North London Citizens will also involve 1,000 leaders from over 30 community and faith institutions, including Jews, Muslims, Christians, students and trade unionists.

The north London branch is part of Citizens UK - a community organising charity which came to attention during the general election campaign after the three main party leaders addressed a large meeting of its members. Local groups have previously been set up in south, east and west London, and Citizens UK founder Neil Jameson recently addressed Leeds Limmud, sowing the seeds for a community organising group in the city.

Other faiths are involved and it’s a way to engage with them

One of the group's main successes has been the Living Wage Campaign, signing up more than 100 employers including Barclays and KPMG to commit to paying an hourly wage set by the Greater London Authority to reflect the true cost of living.

Cantor Zoe Jacobs from FRS is one of the new group's trained community organisers. She first came across community organising while at cantorial school in New York. Returning to the UK, she wanted to get involved in organising here, but found that although other faith groups were involved in Citizens UK, "the silence from the Jewish community was deafening".

Now she says many more synagogues and movements are keen to hear about it, "but it can be a bit scary, it's political, it's activism.

"At FRS now we are focusing all our social action committee work on London Citizens and community organising techniques"

Matthew Bolton is heading the team setting up the north London branch, which will have its founding assembly on March 30. A staff team of around 25 will start by working with around 15 local organisations. "Community organising is about training community leaders to work together and harness their collective influence," he says. "We try to give them practical solutions to what they might be campaigning for. This works for synagogues, schools, for youth groups."

New North London's Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg was drawn to North London Citizens by the interfaith aspect of its work. "They are building strong ties between different faith communities on these core ethical issues. How can we work together?"

Ms Jacobs agrees: "It's one of the most appealing things for me. At FRS we have often tried to do interfaith work and found churches are very keen to engage but we have had little success with any other groups. But these other faiths are involved in London Citizens and that's a way for us to engage with them."

The collaborative nature of the group has caused some controversy, particularly with the charity's east London branch, Telco. A founder member is the East London Mosque, which has come under scrutiny for inviting Islamist speakers, and the controversial Islamic Forum of Europe, whose links with Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman were among reasons he was sacked by the Labour Party.

But Ms Jacobs said: "I'm not worried about that, although I know that there are organisations within Citizens UK where if I tried to talk to them as a Jewish professional, they wouldn't talk to me or they would have opposite views. That will continue if we don't engage with them.

"The only way to change their opinion is a situation where you are forced to have dialogue, and North London Citizens can do that."

Last updated: 11:31am, March 17 2011