Shared by Adela Belecova, EFA teacher-organiser + Campaigning & Community Organising Lead
‘This is Community Organising, working together to build power: Together, we are powerful! Together, we can get better conditions! Together we can change the world for the better and improve our lives!’ exclaimed student leader Pedro as he concluded an interactive presentation on community organising for a room of 100 people.
Last Saturday, English for Action (EFA) classes based in South London came together to build relationships, share ideas about what EFA means to them, learn about community organising, and discuss campaigns around issues ranging from housing to access to ESOL. The event took place at St. John’s Waterloo (thanks for being brilliant hosts!).
The day was co-delivered and co-planned alongside a group of student leaders — that is, EFA students who have been heavily involved in EFA’s community organising and campaigning work.
The development of student leadership is important for EFA’s community organising because our aim is to work with our students to build their capacity to take action on issues that matter to them, in order to bring about positive change for themselves and their communities. We recognise the importance of having those with lived and unique experiences participating directly in local change-making.
It’s also key to students’ personal development in its own right, as once people have developed these critical thinking, communications and negotiation skills, they will be able to use them in other contexts to bring about change.
Student leaders take on a variety of roles at EFA. They negotiate with power-holders, speak to journalists; engage in theatre performances, produce video interviews, podcasts and videos; organise photo exhibitions; and, as on this day, share their experiences and knowledge with other EFA students.
After connecting with each other over a warm lunch, Noua, one of EFA’s student leaders, introduced the ‘EFA word flower,’ a participatory activity we used to share ideas around what EFA means to us.
‘Solidarity’, ‘family’, ‘power’, ‘changing our life together,’ and ‘have our rights’ were just a few of the feelings expressed by students.
Next, student leaders taught the group about community organising:
‘Community Organising is a method of changing the world for the better. As it is a method, it is done in different steps,’ began Pedro, who then went on to explain that to start the process, we needed to find people to engage with.
As he explained, it ‘can be done in our communities, neighbours, schools, parents, friends, families, ESOL classmates, co-workers, and in this case in our audience.’
‘Today, we are here to build relationships. And, maybe you ask why? The answer is simple, to be powerful,’ Pedro continued.
To demonstrate how relationships are built in community organising, fellow student leaders Maria Elisa and Yousouf modeled a one-to-one meeting:
‘Hi Yousouf. How are you?’
‘Hey Maria Elisa. I am OK. How are you?’
‘Yeah, not bad. How is living in London for you? Do you find it hard or easy?’
‘You know, I have a problem with my house.’
‘I am sorry. What kind of problem is it?’
‘Well, the landlord doesn’t want to get rid of the mould that’s growing in my flat…’
Following the presentation, Pedro added, ‘A one-on-one meeting is a communication tool that people use to speak privately. One-on-ones help build trusting relationships, so that they can know more about their problems and how this is affecting them.’
Participants of the community day were invited to find someone they didn’t know and to have a one-to-one conversation with them. Soon, the room was full of people meeting each other’s eyes, walking towards each other, and sharing their experiences of living in London.
When Pedro asked what problems people talked about, he learned that housing, immigration, language, work, and health-related problems were the most common.
The next stage of the day focused on solutions. Students worked in groups made up of those experiencing the same issue, to work out a demand that could later on be presented to student leader Lian, a.k.a. the ‘mayor of London.’
‘Will you build more 3,4,5-bedroom council houses?!’ demanded the housing group.
‘Yes, I will. It is important that families have a good place to call home,’ agrees the ‘mayor.’
And so it continues… demands were accepted one by one, and Pedro concluded this part by saying, ‘The magic word is power. It’s not easy to get it, but when you have it, you can do almost everything you need. Everyone has power and when people join and share a common concern, they can solve issues easily, quickly and effectively.’
Student leaders have been involved in campaigns around these different issues — housing, ESOL, health, worker’s rights and immigration related problems — and the next part of the day was dedicated to learning about their work.
Campaign representatives rotated between the tables of participants to explain what the campaigns they’re involved in are all about, to explain how people can get involved, and to answer any questions.
They were very motivating! Many participants joined campaign WhatsApp groups to take part in the work to make change.
About the #LoveESOL campaign, for example, student leader Lian said: ‘I’ve been involved in the campaign since its start. I’m very proud to be part of it. Once, I went to City Hall. I also attended a big Assembly. I also took part in a video talking about my experiences.’
‘Sometimes we don’t know where to look for ESOL classes. We asked for an ESOL website. The mayor listened and responded to our requests. But, there are still problems with the website.’
Another student leader, Mohana, shared her experience of the #LoveESOL campaign: ‘My first experience with the campaign was on the 11 Feb 2020 in City Hall. Lots of teachers and students were there. I had to speak. This experience helped me learn English, and I also feel more confident. I also took part in the campaign video.’
About our housing work, student Adiam shared: ‘I had a problem with house overcrowded. I bidded for four years, but they ignored me. We contacted an MP and a GP. EFA & HASL (Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth) helped me. I got a new house after one year.’
‘If you have one stick, it can break, but if you have more sticks, they won’t — it’s the same with people. It’s good to have a big group, because if there are a lot of people, the government or council can listen to you.’
Student leader Zongxian spoke about access to healthcare: ‘We talked about problems with healthcare in our classes and this is what people have told us:
1. There is a language barrier – we can’t understand the doctor and they can’t understand us
2. It is very difficult to have a phone appointment
3. Some people can’t see a doctor because they don’t have papers.’
And another student leader, Aldija, continued: ‘Safe Surgeries is a campaign led by Doctors of the World. They ask GPs to make sure that:
1. Everyone can register with a GP
2. Everyone can understand the GP
3. Everyone feels safe in the GP surgery
Do you have to have a passport and a proof of address for the GP to register you?
The answer is no! The UK law says that people don’t have to have a passport and a proof of address to be registered with a GP.’
We ended the day with an evaluation, during which one participant expressed, ‘I think this day was very important for us to meet each other and learn about the work to change our problems. I think we should meet again and again.’