On a drizzly afternoon in east Bristol, a young women walks down the street with her jacket hood firmly over her head. She looks in no mood to be stopped by a stranger. This doesn't deter Rebecca Cant, who quickly introduces herself as a community organiser for the Barton Hill area.
Within minutes, she discovers that the young woman lives in a nearby council tower block and is being harassed by three other people living there. She won't say why it's happening, but wants it to stop. Cant suggests that she holds a meeting of friends in her flat. The idea goes down well and the two agree to speak by phone the next day.
The hooded young woman appears to be happy to have met a community organiser. "It's nice to speak to someone one-to-one," she tells Cant. "I've been to community meetings, but they tend to be dominated by the same people."
Cant is one of the first trainees in a Cabinet Office-funded programme to put 500 full-time community organisers and 4,500 part-time organisers through a year-long foundation training programme by March 2015 (see panel, opposite). When trained, they will encourage local residents to set up community action projects, social enterprises and other initiatives to tackle social problems from the bottom up.
So far, 47 community organisers have started training and a similar number are due to start by Christmas. The trainees are following the Root Solution, Listening Matters training programme, devised by the charity Re:generate and inspired by, among others, the work of educational theorist Paulo Freire and citizen movements in the US.
Cant and three other recruits from Bristol are being trained by Stephen Kearney, chief executive of Re:generate. During one of the sessions, he tells them that their role is to earn the "respect of the community, listen to their needs, build trust and support people to take action". He adds: "It's not about going out and asking a few people some questions. It's about having a dialogue and deep listening."
In the past, Kearney says, there have been lots of consultations with and surveys of residents, but much of the information gathered has been used to inform broader policy, rather than put to use in the local area. "When people take that information out of the community and do things with it, we call that 'data-mugging',"he tells the trainees. "We don't like data-mugging because we believe that information should be used in that community."
So community organisers will approach residents on the streets, knock on doors and visit places such as pubs to gather people's thoughts about their communities. They'll be expected to speak to between seven and 15 local residents each day and write up a record of the issues raised.
Residents will then be encouraged to set up meetings in their homes and other venues where they can bring together people with similar concerns or project ideas and try to get their ideas off the ground. A 'community holding team' comprising representatives from the projects created in the area will also be established.
Judging by the trainees' efforts on the streets of Barton Hill, this approach appears to win over some residents who are initially sceptical. They quickly open up to the community organisers, sharing their fears about local parks and white people being "bred out of the community". What's less clear is how this will translate into action. Only the young woman approached by Cant feels strongly enough to provide her mobile number.
Kearney says the approach does produce results. In Bath and North East Somerset, he says, a similar Re:generate scheme has led to a substantial reduction in crime and offending after encouraging residents to set up their own initiatives and social enterprises.
The programme does have its critics. Kevin Henman, a youth and community worker and a member of the trade union Unite's youth and community workers national committee, questions the logic of training a new generation of community workers when he says "thousands of highly experienced community workers have been made redundant over the past year". He says it seems bizarre that these workers appear to be getting replaced by community organisers, "many of whom who will need to develop new and trusting relationships within communities before anything tangible is achieved".
There is no guarantee that the organisers will last more than a year in their communities. The government funding covers only their foundation training; after that they are expected to approach grant-making trusts and other sources to fund their work. But Kearney is convinced that the organisers are here to stay. "In Bath and North East Somerset, the work of the network in partnership with public agencies has reduced crime by an enormous amount, which is saving money," he says. "If you're making such savings, then there's a strong reason to keep you."
HOW THE PROJECT WORKS
The community organisers programme has been set up by the Office for Civil Society to give local people a greater role in improving the communities in which they live.
Locality, the network of community-led organisations, was awarded the £15m contract to run the programme in February, and the charity Re:generate has been tasked with training 500 full-time community organisers and 4,500 part-time organisers before March 2015.
Full-time community organisers will receive a £20,000 bursary in their foundation year, but will have to seek further funding when their training finishes.
The organisers are placed with established community projects that manage them from day to day, but their performance will be closely monitored by Locality and Re:generate. They will be judged ultimately on how many community projects and other initiatives such as social enterprises are created in their areas.
MEET THE ORGANISERS
REBECCA CANT, Community organiser for Barton Hill, Bristol
After graduating from university, Cant moved to South Korea in 2003 and lived there until last year, spending her spare time in the country volunteering for domestic violence projects and other causes. Last year, she moved to Bristol and found a job working with refugees. She applied for the community organiser role after the funding for her existing post ended. "I thought that the role would fit me really well," she says. "It would allow me to tap into links that I'd already made in the community."
STEVE CROZIER, Community organiser for Easton, Bristol
Originally from Birmingham, Crozier has spent most of his career working in youth and community development. Most recently, he worked with young people considered at risk of exclusion in the Bristol area. Although he was working full-time previously, he sees the community organiser programme as a way of advancing his career. "A lot of what the programme is doing is working in similar ways to what we've already been doing in communities," he says. "It's about listening to people and trying to create action."
RICHARD PARKES, Community organiser for Southmead, Bristol
Bristol-born Parkes was unemployed for 14 months before becoming a community organiser in August. He previously worked for the City of Bristol College as an apprenticeship accreditation assessor and before that was a key skills development worker, a role that involved liaising closely with community groups. He's working as an organiser in Southmead, the area of high deprivation where he grew up. "It's an area that I know quite well," he says. "One of the things that appealed to me was going out into that community and listening to the people."
LEO SINGER, Community organiser for St Pauls, Bristol
Singer was a community worker in his native Slovakia for seven years before moving to the UK. After struggling to find a job in community work, he became an interpreter and combined that with volunteering. However, he found the 'tick-box' approach used by the project frustrating. He sees the community organisers programme as an opportunity to do the job properly. "The approach is very similar to Slovakia, where funding will come from grants, foundations and private sources," he says. "That gives you a lot of independence."