Universities in the UK Are  Becoming a New Catalyst for Community Power 

“In terms of people, money and relationships, universities are by far [one of] the powerful pillars of civil society – but too often they are just another inaccessible building for local people.” 

- James Asfa, Organizer with Citizens UK

Tuesday, January 30 - Preston, England 

The modern practice of community organizing was born 85 years ago in the stockyards of the Chicago meatpacking plants; a neighborhood made infamous in Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle: 

"The buildings… were old, dilapidated, and unclean. The streets were generally very narrow, the shops along them dirty and gloomy looking. The whole district was mildewed, and the atmosphere oppressive."

Here, in 1939, a young sociologist named Saul Alinsky worked with residents to build a new type of “people’s organization.” They called it: The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BNYC). In a community sharply divided between Polish, Lithuanian, Slovak, Bohemian, German, Irish, and Mexican residents, this organization became the first to successfully unite people as a single powerful constituency. 

Where unions and political parties had tried and failed to do exactly this for years, Alinsky’s model succeeded because it worked through the few neighborhood institutions that people already held in common. In an area that was 90% Catholic, the most important of these was the Church Parish.

The strategy worked. Over 100 of the neighborhood’s major associations (many church-based) pledged their support in the organization’s founding assembly. Confronted for the first time by the united people of Back of the Yards, meatpacking companies quickly gave in. Within days of the organization’s founding, neighborhood residents won their very first union contract and local banks quickly caved to pressure demanding residents be able to access funds for mortgages and building upgrades.

Building on this success in Chicago, Alinsky would go on to build similar “people’s organizations” across the country using the same method and model. Organizations like BYNC eventually became the first chapters of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) – the oldest and largest Community Organizing network in the US today.  

Neighborhood organizations  (many Catholic) from the Back of the Yards rally together to demand better living and working conditions.

Now, over eight decades later, faith based institutions (churches, synagogues, and mosques) are still the glue that hold many communities together, and so they remain at the heart of the community organizing tradition. But a new generation of community institutions are coming onto the scene, and innovative Organizers at Citizens UK are taking note. 

Just as the Catholic Church was at the center of the Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1940s, today it is universities that represent a crucial new institution for community power

King’s College London has been at the forefront of this work with Citizens UK for the last decade. Responding to the issues they saw affecting families in the neighborhoods around their campus, leaders at King's College began working with organizers to bring together working-class parents from local boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. 

Rather than develop a set of programs that they predicted would be useful to struggling families, staff at Kings College called on community organizers at Citizens UK to help them ask parents what they needed. Despite representing an extremely diverse population, parents overwhelmingly agreed that they wanted to break down two of the main barriers that still kept their children from attending university: the cost and quality of private tutoring (which is seen as a necessity for attending good universities), and the huge application fees for British Citizenship. 

Soon, this parents group had pulled in other members of the community that were connected to Kings College and built a campaign that both successfully reduced the citizenship application fee for children and created an interest-free loan program so that parents could avoid taking out risky debt to finance applications. 

Because tutoring programs already existed in the university for community members, parents formed their own organization (“Parent Power”) dedicated to training more families in how to access these resources. In 2019, this organization received national recognition by winning the Guardian’s Social and Community Impact Award.

Meanwhile, two and a half hours north of London in the city of Birmingham, student, faculty, and admin leaders of Citizens UK at Newman University held their own campaign to identify the pressures of facing families in the community. As a smaller, public university that fills a similar role to Community Colleges in the US, Newman was perfectly positioned as the same kind of “linking institution” that the church had been in Saul Alinsky’s Chicago. 

In a community-wide listening campaign, organizers heard story after story of the lack of mental healthcare for older teens. Acting quickly, the Newman team learned that 16 and 17 year olds fell into a service gap for local healthcare providers. 

Mobilizing with the other member institutions of Citizens UK across the city, leaders worked with those same healthcare practitioners to close this gap. The result was an astonishing array of new mental health services that impacted approximately 4,000 young people in Birmingham

These are two stories among many. In Wales, Cardiff University has worked with Citizens UK to win pay rises for thousands of low-paid workers. In 2019, students at University College London organized with high-school students, teachers, and parents to ensure that kids could no longer be denied free school meals because of their parents’ immigration status – a game changer for tens of thousands of children across the country. 

Cases like these demonstrate that not only does the community benefit when universities are woven into our civic alliances, but just as the Catholic Church had a vested self interest in improving the living and working conditions of its parishioners, these universities need not engage out of sheer altruism either; they benefit.

Too often, Universities are turned to by community organizations as an altruistic and aloof benefactor rather than a partner that has an equal need to live in a flourishing community - after all, it’s hard to attract new students to a university rooted in a struggling community. In an increasingly competitive market, King College London, Newman University, and Citizen UK’s other higher-ed members have seen their work in the community attract new investment, applicants, and acclaim.

Citizens UK leaders from University College London and local schools celebrate winning free meal access for the children of immigrants. 

Alinsky first organized around Catholic parishes in the Back of the Yards because those were the institutions that linked people together. Today, that role is increasingly being shared by small, regional colleges and universities. The work done by some talented and innovative organizers Citizens UK has shown it is possible to integrate this next generation of institutions into our existing civic alliances with impressive results. As a result, we have the exciting opportunity to ask: what would it take for universities in the United States to follow this lead and become active in the democratic life of their communities?

In 2023, for the first time, Citizens UK brought together Student Government leaders from across the country to learn about community organizing and strategize how to take it forward on their campuses in years to come. 

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