Organizing for Short-Term Solutions & Long Term Change

This is a guest post by George Gabriel, former Lead Organizer with Citizens UK who also helped to build Safe Passage. 

The day I started community organising in Nottingham there were just three foodbanks, the day I despondently left there were twenty three. So why do I now consider it a success? By building constituencies organising delivers change in a way which is both fast and slow.

“So, how many people do you want at your first action?” asked Jonathan Lange, a veteran IAF organiser, “1,000” I said, because I was young and had a lot to prove. “Helps if you know them all,” he replied.

That thousand might not sound like a big number for activists used to turning out other activists on social or mobilising into crisis, but for community organisers that thousand is not a crowd but an organisation – a collective of members (these can be individuals or institutions like a church, a union branch or a school) who democratically decide on their joint campaigns and pay the funds needed for them to pursue it together.

A crowd can be gathered in a moment and dissipate the next, they tend to principally empower the person with the megaphone, and because of their short time horizons they tend to be best for expressing protest and knocking things over. Organisations have deeper roots and so are more persistent, capable of developing complex agendas, negotiating terms, and of building lasting participation among those shut out from public life.

Community organisers build these organisations through one on one conversations – really getting to know people and what they care about, developing and uncovering webs of relationships, and using these interests and connections as a foundation for action.

So as I set out to build Nottingham Citizens – what would become a broad based organisation of 40 something faith groups, unions, schools and more – these one on ones were the tool I had to hand. Sounds like slow work, and it was. Over the 11 months between moving to the city and Nottingham Citizens’ first action I met a thousand people one on one.

We’d done the whole thing by the book, before even these conversations began senior leaders from major civic groups in the city had been meeting for 18 months and together raised £60,000 to fund the organising effort without a single shared campaign agreed – just the promise that together they could be more powerful.

It was now January 2012, I loaded my beaten up blue Citroen and moved to Nottingham away from family and friends to try and build Nottingham Citizens. For the next few years, as austerity bit across the country, I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked trying to apply the rules developed by Saul Alinsky to take a single city and try to make it more just.

Police Crime Commissioners were introduced by the coalition government and first went up for election in 2012. The public response was…lukewarm – with just 15% turning out to vote.

In contrast to that portrait in apathy, one dreary November night in Nottingham over 1,000 people turned out in our first action, to put an agenda they had developed to the candidates for PCC in Nottinghamshire:

In the end, despite the thousand 1:1s I didn’t know everyone there that evening – but the numbers, the money, the commitments from the candidates to be PCC to act on our agenda were all there; it had been slow, but it was also fast.

Over the next four years Nottingham Citizens would take action again and again, training and turning out thousands of people. There was the time we occupied Tesco in Beeston for a Living Wage, the time we filled the Theatre Royal, the time we broke fast in the Market Square. 

And yet, after five years of intense organizing, I left Nottingham knowing that the day I arrived there had been just three foodbanks in the city. The day I left? Twenty three. All the organising I could manage, by the book every step of the way, and the city hadn’t become more just – at best we had just slowed the rate at which things got worse.

I looked back at the time, at the assortment of small wins, and wondered whether all the people, all the participation, had just been a show – a glorified civics program that may have helped us feel better but wasn’t a serious effort at social change. I moved on from Nottingham and to national work and drawing on tools beyond the simple one on one to do it.

Four years later, I went back to Nottingham for the first time, and was blown away by what I found.

We had challenged the police that Stop & Search disproportionality of 12/1 for black men to white was unacceptable. Back at that first Assembly, Bishop Paul Thomas told the candidates about being stopped and searched while trying to get into his own car one night and called for receipts to be introduced for Stop and Account too.

The Police refused, but over coming years and leveraging the pressure we helped create, the Police Crime Commissions Paddy Tipping moved them onto electronic receipts for Stop & Search. With that it became possible to performance manage officers on the basis of their stop rates, disproportionality dropped to 3/1. Today Nottinghamshire has the lowest rates of Stop and Search in the country, and the highest conversion rate from stops into charges brought – proof the power is being used intelligently to tackle criminal behaviour rather than being used to punish and bully whole sections of society.

After a slew of incidents targeting Nottinghams’ Kashmiris, we had set up a Commission to understand hate crime in the city and make recommendations to tackle it. I’ll never forget sitting with Mel Jeffs, from the Nottingham Women’s Centre, asking her to serve as one of our Commissioners and inquiring if she had ever experienced hate crime on the basis of being a lesbian. “I’ve had a bunch of hassle,” she said, pausing, “but I think most of that’s just because I’m a woman.” We sat there in silence a moment, before I asked, “well why isn’t that illegal?”. 

Local agencies refused to set up the integrated hate crime services hub as we had proposed, but instead we pressured the Nottinghamshire constabulary to become the first in the country to police misogyny as a type of hate crime. Today, a dozen other constabularies have followed suit and the House of Lords has voted to make this national policy.

We had worked to help Nottinghamshire Police recruit more candidates from black and asian communities (at the time the force was 3.4% non-white while our city was 34%). We got to grips with the ins and outs of the recruitment process and found that candidates didn’t apply because they didn’t think they’d have a chance. Meanwhile those responsible for diversity in recruitment said minority candidates were mainly screened at the written application stage, but that few took up the offer of a preparatory course to help them succeed.

Our intervention, where the police guaranteed an interview to minority candidates recruited through our institutions who went through the prep course, bumped the numbers to 3.7%. Again, hardly a result to inspire. Yet, over the following years and  in continued partnership with Nottingham Citizens members Notts Police created the UK’s first apprenticeship route into working in the police – and over 50% of those coming through it were from diverse communities. Next year Nottinghamshire will likely become the first police force anywhere in the country to actually reflect the ethnic makeup of the communities they serve.

Any one of those changes is a substantial and potentially nationally significant development – radical, scalable, real. I had been so focused on the specific outcomes of the small, “winnable” campaigns I had been trained to run, that I missed the role of organising in building durable constituencies that create sustained pressure for change and what can come of that over the longer term.

The real success of those years organising in Nottingham were the relationships built between the city’s Afro Caribbean, Kashmiri and LGBTQ+ communities, and the culture of organizing that grew in their institutions through repeated cycles of campaigning. Try getting a cab the night of our first action – nightmare, because 100 black cabs arrived in convoy to make their ask. Need a gospel choir for an event? Afraid you’re out of luck – the four main pentecostal churches had all turned out too.

The success with communities and their institutions was itself underpinned by the development of leaders with the public narratives and capabilities to continue pursuing change over time – and it is to them, and the teams of secondary leaders behind them – which they patiently built through listening, action and evaluation – that any credit for these wins is due. 

Leaders like Pastor Clive Foster, now MBE for the incredible work he went on to do to support the Windrush generation. Leaders like Mel Jeffs, whose legacy at the Women’s Centre is likely one day to be national legislation to protect women and girls. Leaders like Sajid Mohammed, who tirelessly turned out the Kashmiri community again and again - and who had shown up at my apartment one night at 2am after his wife and children had suffered a racist assault in Asda. That night Sajid asked me, with tears running down his face, “is it winnable?”. Was it possible to build a just and inclusive city in which he could safely raise his family? “Yes, perhaps,” I replied. What I should have added is “it will be slow, but it will also be fast.”

I want to mention, as a last word, that in the intervening years the context changed dramatically. The murder of George Floyd, the blooming of the Black Lives Matters movement and more. No doubt this broader context also played a role in catalysing some of the changes above. 

Sanjiv Lingayah, a friend and profound voice on race in Britain today (check out describes us as living in an “abolitionist moment”, when we are called to explore dismantling systems of oppression as much as reform them. 

Community organisers often see their work like eating an elephant, take a mouthful at a time and build the power needed to finish in the process. I personally believe that a healthy movement ecology needs both: realistic Radicals prepared to compromise driving day to day progress and building power, and, prophetic voices whose searing critique helps see the full extent of the injustices we need to overturn and whose vision can anchor whole new paradigms at moments of great transformation.

This piece is intended principally as a reflection on the power of community organising and the way it delivers change – rather than as an argument for how racial justice can best be realised – but it’s important still both to recognise the role of this broader context, and situate the reflection within it. In future pieces I hope to explore how organising can scale into crisis, which is a further part of this picture.

This story was origonally published on The Iron Rule, a blog about power, organising, institutions, faith and social justice in the UK. To read more stories like this one, visit

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