Citizen's UK: The biggest and most diverse people-powered alliance in the United Kingdom 

“It is not hope that gives rise to action, it is action that inspires hope."

- Neil Jameson, Founder of Citizens UK

I arrived in London at 4pm on a Thursday afternoon. As the bus dropped me off on a street corner amidst the gray expanse of the outer city, it started to rain. Staring out at the dozens of dark-suited businessmen hurriedly walking by, collars turned up against the cold, I was immediately struck by how different this was going to be.

After three months spent building my home in Barcelona I had figured out a way of doing things. Now I had to start all over again. 

I was used to the warm mediterranean evenings, the long lunches over a cafe con leche, and my morning run past the local market hall where the vendors had come to know me by name. 

In Catalonia, people took to the streets by the hundreds and thousands when something was wrong. Here, that type of action is something that needs to be deliberately taught. But that’s why I came; because despite lacking the seemingly natural inclination of Catalonians, communities in the UK have built one of the most powerful and stable networks for community organizing anywhere outside of the US. And with it, community leaders have won significant change on the local, regional, and national level.

In Catalonia, my focus had been on understanding how community institutions like cooperatives, ateneus/atheneums, community centers, etc. could inspire us in the US to think more creatively about the types of institutions our families build and organize around. I was working with folks whose work could be interpreted as community organizing, but was also linked with movements for the Solidarity Economy, anarcho-syndicalism, and plain old community building. 

Now, in England, there would be no ambiguity. For the next two months, I would be doing straight-up Community Organizing, working with the United Kingdom’s largest people-powered alliance and sister-organization of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF): Citizens UK


In 1996, 1300 residents of East London crowded into the auditorium at York Hall to take back control of their community.

For centuries, East London had played host to the “noxious industries” of England’s capital. Chemical manufacturers and sugar refineries that wealthy neighborhoods didn’t want near the city-center were placed here, where residents were less likely to complain. When 85% of the area’s housing stock was destroyed during WWII, cheap and quick highrises were constructed in its place which rapidly deteriorated. 

By the late 1990’s, generations of disinvestment along with other issues had compounded to make East London neighborhoods some of the most low-income, low-life expectancy, and low-employment areas in the UK. 

Framed by this history, the 1,300 members of the 1996 assembly gathered for a clear and specific goal: to found a people-led organization with the power to change their community’s future. The assembly represented 30 community-based institutions, ranging from schools and faith-based congregations to unions branches and social organizations – all bound by a shared feeling that it was time for things to change.

They had already won their first battle, which was announced that night to wild applause. Plagued by the smell and pollution of a nearby lard factory, the members of the fledgling alliance had used their wide-spread public support to get the culprit to invest £1.5 million in new infrastructure that would put an end to the problem. 

It would be the first of many impressive victories across East London by the alliance launched that night in 1996, but it also marked the beginning of what would become a nationwide movement of community organizing. 

The organization they created was named The East London Community Organization (later changed to the East London Citizens Organization or TELCO for short). And as it began winning more and more concessions from key employers and public officials to pay a living wage to all workers, help settle new immigrants, and improve healthcare services, other communities began to take notice. 

Soon, new neighborhoods began to ask for help organizing around the issues affecting their community. As people began to see that it was possible to take power back into their own hands and actually have an impact, the model of community organizing grew: In 2004, South London Citizens was founded, followed up a year later by West London Citizens. 

27 years after that first founding convention, TELCO is now the founding chapter in what is the UK’s largest, most diverse, and most effective people-powered organizing network: Citizens UK.  

Today, Citizens UK is composed of 18 chapters ranging from London and Birmingham to Leeds, Peterborough and beyond. Though they focus on local issues, their uniting principle is the belief that “everyday people have power. And that by bringing people together across their differences, we can find common ground and make change.” That they have certainly done.

Over the decades since that first founding convention, TELCO and it’s sister chapters across the UK used these tools to put over £2 billion into the pockets of workers through their living wage campaigns, passed a national law ending the detention of children for immigration purposes, protected communities from gentrification with Community Land Trusts, and much more.

While this history and track record had been part of my motivation to come and work with Citizens UK, another motivating aspect had been where their practices originated.

The catalyst for TELCO and the methods of community organizing that Citizens UK used to achieve these victories did not come out of thin air. The process started several years before the founding convention, when Rev. Tim Stevens, Neil Jameson, and other community leaders had visited the United States to learn from the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the oldest and largest community organizing network in the country (and the organization which I organized with in Dallas). 

Impressed by the IAF’s method of winning social change, which was based on the philosophy that the people most affected by an issue should be the ones in charge of developing solutions, the delegation brought these practices back to England and made them their own.

27 years later, the IAF and Citizens UK remain sister organizations and collaborators, but thousands of miles and several decades has enabled Citizens UK to develop its own unique style of the work. 

Ever since I began organizing with the IAF in late 2020, I have wanted to learn how these different dialects overlap and stay distinct. In particular, their success organizing with universities, childcare centers, and other community organizations beyond faith institutions shows that they have lessons to teach all of us back in the US.

From now through until the holidays, I will be working with Citizens UK to learn from the incredible work these colleagues of the IAF have been able to accomplish. My time will focus on collaborating with their North London Organization as they develop a campaign around climate issues. But I will also be shadowing organizers and traveling to different chapters across the UK as they take on issues ranging from affordable housing and refugee settlement to improving mental healthcare and expanding the living wage campaign.

It marks a dramatic shift from Barcelona, where people took to the streets as a natural expression of their civic responsibility. England, like the US, doesn’t have that habitual reflex. But the fact that a movement of 1,300 people has grown to tens of thousands and sustained itself over the past 27 years shows that even in one of the most individualistic, high paced, and competitive cities in the world, people still have an appetite to come together and organize to change their community’s future.

As of publishing this post, I have actually already been here three weeks. I have slowly adjusted to the cold and wet weather, successfully transitioned back to speaking English instead of Spanish, and gotten my bearings in this city of nine million people. Though there is a lot I miss about Barcelona, these Brits are good organizers, and they’re putting me to the test. 

The next stories about the UK are coming. But in the meantime, as the transition unfolds, I would like to know what you think of those stories I’ve already written. If there are themes that have particularly resonated with you, ideas that have been sparked, questions raised, or critiques, please send me an email at These discussions, like organizing, are of no use in a vacuum. 

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