In Luton and Hastings, "organisation workshops" let communities build their land & property projects from scratch

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Our ambition for a Citizens’ Action Network - concisely explained here, but also referenced throughout our archive - is a structure and a process which can contain all the various and diverse desires for power and agency in a community. A CAN connects what people are already doing to what they dream of doing, by means of technology, new ways of organising and participating, all glued together by arts, conviviality and cultural practice.

So we are open to unusual forms of mobilising people - especially ones which fuse together elements not often thought about in the same space.

Therefore we were delighted to be informed about two successful experiments, one in Luton and Hastings, whose surface story seems one of sheer empowerment. These are communities invited into to develop land and property - but they’re left entirely to organise themselves to make it happen.

The result isn’t chaos, but a cascade of positive outcomes: not just the restoration of a place, but the revival of a spirit of enterprise, cooperation and ambition among those participating.

The key to this seems to be a method taken from the developing world, particularly Brazil, called an “organisation workshop”. The Independent newspaper reports on the Hastings project:

Simon Kempthorne had never heard of an Organisation Workshop when it was suggested to him by the job centre in Hastings. Kempthorne had quit his job in catering nine months earlier, desperate to get out of a profession that left him feeling run down and depressed.

Though he had been working sporadically since, he found the time between jobs a drain on his mental health. The workshop sounded like a chance to try something different.

“I thought, what have I got to lose?” he remembers. “I was just sitting at home. I could go for weeks without anything to get out of bed for.”

That’s how he found himself at the derelict Observer building in May alongside 59 strangers, most recruited from the job centre. At one time 500 workers would pass through the doors of the building to go to work on the daily Hastings Observer newspaper.

The concrete floors were reinforced with steel to hold the hot metal press and offset litho printing equipment. From the top of the building, workers could see Hastings Castle overlooking the ocean.

The building had been boarded up for years. The 60 recruits were there to take place in a social experiment that would be the first step in bringing it back to life. They were handed three contracts: to build 12 workpods on the site, to document the process, and to cater for the group over the month-long exercise.

They were shown tools, materials and the expertise necessary to carry out the work safely, such as health and safety assessments and food handling certificates. Then they were left to themselves.

“A lot of people looked very confused,” Kempthorne remembers. By the end of the first week, half of the people had abandoned the project. But those that remained began to make headway on the tasks. “We were in a building site with not much knowledge about what was to happen, but it became clearer. We were in control of our own destiny.”

The Organisation Workshop model is based on the work of Clodomir Santos de Morais, a Brazilian sociologist. In 1954, de Morais observed the way a large group of activists self-organised around a specific goal in his native Recife.

He subsequently developed a method of gathering large groups of unemployed or underemployed people to work on an enterprise of some kind, without telling them how to achieve the task. The idea was for people to learn how to organise and execute the work themselves and to take these skills with them at the close of the workshop.

Since the sixties, hundreds of thousands of people across the world have participated in Organisation Workshops. The model was used throughout Honduras as part of an agricultural reform programme between 1973 and 1976, in which 27,000 Hondurans participated, leading to the creation of 1,053 new enterprises including palm oil processing plants that are still in operation. 

In 2015, Organisation Workshop was first used in the UK by the residents of the Marsh Farm estate in Luton. They recruited 45 people, many of whom had been unemployed for a long period, and gave them the task of turning a derelict field into a community resource within 12 weeks.

After ten weeks, most of the participants transferred from the farm site to Marsh House, a previously derelict building, where they worked on renovating the building a planning community enterprises. By the summer, 44 per cent of participants had gone on to find jobs, including new enterprises such as bee-keeping, a community farm, a building co-operative and a catering business.

Working on the Observer building, Hastings

Working on the Observer building, Hastings

The Hastings project, inspired by Marsh Farm, began its development of the Observer building by participating in the Organisation Workshop. The development company, White Rock has a ten year plan to turn it into work pods, artist studios, a construction workshop and a roof garden. But by beginning with the Organisation Workshop, it’s self-consciously trying to upend the usual gentrification pattern.

“You can make the case that gentrification does the profitable stuff first and puts whatever energy is left into the social bit,” says developer James Leathers. “We are turning that on its head from the start. Now 60 people are connected to that building who had little or no connection to it before.”

In the Marsh Farm experiment, as a report from Hastings notes, “14 of the original 50 participants remained after the project to develop social enterprises, nine of whom have actually created jobs within the complex where we work. There’s been some remarkable post-OW progress for our participants, whether it’s in traditional work or creating new enterprises”. As for Hastings, according to the Independent’s report,

Since the programme ended, some of the participants have been working towards starting a permanent business. “We have a lot of work to do,” Kempthorne says. “Setting up the enterprise, developing a code of conduct. We need to get the bureaucracy out the way so we can get our hands dirty again.”

In terms of the theory involved, we’re very interested - in terms of informing what an action network might be - that Organisation Workshops are "activity-based". The Wikipedia entry (we’ve lightly edited) explains further:

“Activity-based” means that for people to learn, a real object has to be actually present; as Jacinta Correia puts it: "to learn how to ride a bike, you need a bike to ride on".[17][18] Thus, for a large group to learn how to manage a complex enterprise [19], it has to have a complex enterprise to manage. In the OW context, this means that a group averaging 150, many of whom often with lower levels of education, are actively engaged, for an entire month, in an enterprise that provides a product or service…

The OW's defining features are not only the need for a cooperative large group and the creation of a complex and real enterprise. What’s also key is the position of the trainer, and the way in which training messages are communicated. In an OW, the trainer's role is merely subsidiary. In other words, it is not the trainer/instructor, but “the object that teaches”.

We hope to be commissioning a full blog on the Organisation Workshop method in the next few weeks.