Communities in London are Winning Big Changes - Why are we Surprised?

“We somehow have a narrative in our head that people can’t win change. And that is a damn shame, because people win things all the time.” 

- Jane Macalevey 

Tuesday, January 19 - London 

I turn to the man seated next to me in the auditorium as one of the Co-chairs for the Assembly instructs us to take a few minutes, find someone we don't know, and discuss our reactions to the evening thus far. 

The buzz of conversations and creaking seats grows as 500 others likewise pivot from the front of the auditorium at King’s College London to instead face one another.

My companion has straw-blond hair, thinning in middle age, and a forehead beaded with persperiation in the warm air of the packed room. 

As we introduce ourselves, I am surprised to learn he is an employee of the National Health Services (NHS), and a colleague of the well-dressed man who just minutes before had been invited up on stage and asked to deliver a series of commitments.

In front of the assembled audience of community leaders from across South East London, this colleague had pledged, as the CEO of the NHS for South London, to fulfill two weighty commitments: 1) Pay ALL employees of the South London NHS a living wage (£4 per hour above the city’s minimum wage) and 2) Create a pathway to dismiss the high fees that undocumented residents were being charged for health care. 

These milestone commitments and others made that night were the culmination of a long and hard fought campaign led by the South London chapter of England’s largest community organizing network, Citizens UK.  

Most of the people in the room were those who had waged the campaign: parents and teachers from Oliver Goldsmith's Primary School, Pastors and parishioners from Corpus Christi Catholic Church, members of the Lewisham Mosque, Bromley Football Club, students from King's College London, and dozens of other community institutions. 

Co-Chair of South London Citizen's Assembly asks Richard Douglas, Chair of NHS for South London, if he will commit to the people's agenda. 

"A packed house of 475 people and powerful example of what can happens when communities have the power to shape decisions that impact them" - Citizens UK

Among the community leaders, however, was a small delegation of NHS workers whose responsibility it would be to carry out the pledges made that night. My neighbor with the blond hair just happened to be one of those. 

As the tide of voices grew louder I asked how he felt about the evening so far.

Instead of the energetic response I expected, his answer was prefaced with a lengthy exhale, which puffed out his cheeks and filled the silence with a thoughtful pause. “I’ve worked in the NHS for 20 years,” he said… “and it feels good to see things get done.”  

I let the pause beat on, curious to see if he would continue: “It makes me realize that we don’t have all the answers,” he said. “Sometimes the best solution is to just help people solve their own problems.” 

There was a note of frustration in his answer, as if he was grappling with the tension between the clear pride in what his organization was doing, and discouragement that after 20 years he had failed to deliver it himself. 

He was impressed, but also somewhat at a loss for words, as if he had just seen something he hadn’t thought possible – or hadn’t contemplated much at all. 

The conversation continued on, but this part of our exchange stuck with me. 

Later, after the assembly ended and as I was walking home from the bus stop to my flat in West London, I realized what caught my attention in this exchange: it was the surprise in his voice

It struck me that this was the same reaction I’d had when seeing the results of neighborhood organizing in Nou Barris, Barcelona

It was the same surprise I had seen on the faces of Police Commanders when confronted with 270 united community members in Dallas demanding improved safety protocols against gang violence.   

The realization finally put words to a question that had been growing in my mind ever since I left Dallas and began the Watson six months ago: Why are we all so surprised? 

As Jane McAlevey, a national leader in the US labor movement puts it: “We somehow have a narrative in our head that people can’t win change. And that is a damn shame, because people win things all the time.”

Citizens UK leader from Harris Girls' Academy in South London shares the success they have had organizing around bringing mental health care to their community. 

As the thundering cheers of a packed auditorium demonstrated that night in King’s College London, people are more than capable of fighting and winning their own battles if they are smart about it. These Londoners had just won better healthcare, better wages, and public recognition from the largest public sector employer in Britain. 

But, we don’t hear these stories very often. Instead, we hear that change is made by highly motivated and talented individuals. So we are taught to wait for superheroes or saviors - the right politician who will fight for our values, the next philanthropist to fund a silver-bullet social program, the new CEO to build a factory in our community. 

If these are the stories we tell, is it any wonder my neighbor (and the rest of us) react with surprise when people do something themselves and demand sovereignty instead of salvation?

Imagine if, instead, we told stories about the residents of Dallas who re-wrote the City’s Housing Codes to take down the city’s slum lords, about allied communities in Central California that are building a job-training program to make high-paying work accessible for their families, about 500 community leaders in South East London going toe-to-toe with the NHS. What if we told stories where citizenship wasn’t relegated to a spectator sport?

It's time to stop reinoforcing the narrative that only charismatic and seemingly superhuman individuals change history. Let us start seeing the world through stories that shine the spotlight back where it belongs: on communities of clever, persistent, and well organized people. 

The NHS delegation stands on stage under their final committment of the evening with a signed poster. 

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