What is community organising and how can I get involved?
By Dale Cranshaw, Head of Food for Life Get Togethers.
‘Get Togethers’ is a four-year UK-wide programme, funded by the National Lottery Community Foundation and led by the Soil Association, which builds stronger connections in communities through food activities that are good for our climate, nature, and health.
Want to learn more about ‘good food’, forge a more tight-knit community, and help the planet at the same time? Then community organising might be just what you’re looking for. At Food For Life Get Togethers, we harness the power of community organising to improve relationships with food and strengthen communities across the UK. Learn all about how it works below: including what community organising means, what the benefits are and how you can get involved in a programme near you.
What is ‘community organising’?
There are a lot of different definitions for community organising, but I think it’s best described as an approach which builds communities’ power to act on the issues that matter to them. With the urgency of the interrelated crises of climate, nature and health that are currently facing the planet, it has never been more important to build power in our communities so that we can tackle them together.
At Food for Life Get Togethers, we use community organising practices to develop connections, relationships and networks, as well as inspire leadership: principally helping communities to feel empowered with, and to come together over, food. Through the programme, we organise and facilitate regular community activities that connect people from all ages and backgrounds through growing, cooking and eating good food.
Along with community organising, we also use a ‘mobilising’ strategy to make Get Togethers a success. Mobilising is all about building power by building membership or engagement: essentially, encouraging as many people as possible to get involved in a community organising programme near them. By both mobilising communities and helping them to organise great programmes, we help community organising initiatives across the UK to experience sustained levels of civic engagement, and the proof is in the pudding. Get Together activities expected to reach 66,105 people since the programme began. That's about 1 in every 1000 people in the UK!
Working together! Credit: Unsplash
What does community organising look like in practice?
Every community organising initiative is different, but those that get involved in a Get Togethers programme benefit from:
- Campaigns run by the Soil Association and its partners that encourage people to get involved in local community organising efforts, as well as resources and tips to help local organisers to become ‘good food leaders’ or champions
- Events and inspiration to help community organisers across the year put together fun activities for their communities. This includes ‘Plant and Share’ in spring, ‘The Big Lunch’ in summer and ‘Cook and Share’ in autumn
- Support in creating the civic or community infrastructure needed for organisers to create a vibrant and engaged local food culture, including providing access to networks and finances, and building trusted relationships. (For more about the importance of this kind of infrastructure read this literature review commissioned by the Local Trust.)
Why is it important to focus on ‘connections and leadership’ in community organising?
Encouraging connections is a vital part of any community organising initiative, and one of the key things we aim to cultivate in Get Togethers. We see community power as resulting from people coming together within their communities - sharing their knowledge, skills and resources, and taking action on the issues they care about – which is made so much easier, effective and enjoyable on a foundation of friendship.
Leadership is important too. In fact, leadership development is the focus of our new service, My Food Community. This is a network for good food champions to learn, connect and take action on food that’s good for our climate, nature and health. We will take a cohort of up to 50 community organisers through this programme starting in September 2021, and will run this again next year, so do take a look at our information pack if you or someone you know could be interested in getting involved.
Fundamentally, we see our work to support and promote community power and leadership as being our lasting legacy in communities across the UK.
A community organising case study
Perhaps the best way to explain what community organising looks like in practice is through a real-life example. Jude from Cardiff graduated last summer with a degree in Electronic Music Production, and has a background in mental health, teaching, finance and creative arts. She has lived in her local area for 40 years, and at the start of the pandemic, decided to start a food project to help those in need of support.
After attending a retail workshop run by Food Cardiff in the hopes of meeting like-minded people who’d be interested in setting up a project, Jude found out about our Get Togethers programme, and through it, started helping families with their shopping, bills and more. The local food pantry wanted someone who knew the area and could hit the ground running, so Jude set up a food project for a local organisation, and also struck up a partnership with other food projects in Cardiff East.
All of this experience brought Jude to wanting to start her own community growing project… beginning in her very own front garden! ‘Plant and Share’, one of the seasonal programmes we run through Get Togethers, provided an opportunity to do just that, and Jude successfully applied for one of our £150 small grants to get started.
She first ran a competition to mobilise people in her community to get involved in growing. “The funding we received from the Soil Association to run our planting giveaway was so well received by the community,” Jude told us. “I ran the event off my driveway, and two members of the community came to help out. People were so happy that something was finally happening in Trowbridge!”
Growing, sharing and cooking as a community - bringing together community groups, the local church and school - has now become more of Jude’s focus than the pantry. One of her central motivations is to help people access more fruit and veg locally, which improves health and a safe climate. Nature is important aspect of Jude’s project too, and she runs sessions on how to make bug hotels and bird feeders, as well as various other wildlife-focused arts and crafts.
Now, Jude has trained as a Veg Advocate for the Food Foundation’s ‘Peas Please’ initiative, and hopes to join My Food Community to build on the success of her action locally, by leading and inspiring others to take action on good food.
“I am just one person trying to make a difference in my community,” Jude said, “which has been forgotten about for many, many years. Who'd have thought that a year ago when I signed up to set up a food project what that would lead to! Despite COVID, it’s been an amazing year, and I’ve met many wonderful new people on the journey.”
Planting great things. Credit: Unsplash
Getting involved in community organising near you
You don’t need a load of skills to get involved in community organising (or to become an organiser yourself) - just enthusiasm for making a change and a desire to bring people together. If that sounds like you, here’s how you can jump in:
- Connect your community together through cooking, growing or sharing good food by running your own Get Together: https://www.fflgettogethers.org/get-involved/
- Find out more about Food Sense Wales: https://www.foodsensewales.org.uk/
- Organise a ‘Big Lunch’ in your community: https://www.edenprojectcommunities.com/stuff-to-do/organise-big-lunch
- Sign up to ‘Peas Please’: https://foodfoundation.org.uk/sign-up-to-peas-please/
- Learn more about community organising, and other routes for getting involved: https://www.corganisers.org.uk/
If you’re interested in community action but working the land is more your thing, you might want to find a local community supported agriculture (CSA) scheme. CSA brings farmers and citizens together to manage farms: tackling obstacles and sharing successes. It’s a great way to get to know where your food comes from. Check out the CSA playlist on our YouTube channel to learn more.
For more information about Food For Life and its various initiatives (including Get Togethers), follow the programme on Twitter.