Field Notes article

Community Organising in London’s Congolese Diaspora

‘Culture is to social organisation, as mind is to brain’. As civic space in London becomes increasingly cosmopolitan, this observation by Mary Douglas emphasises the need to delve deeper into the cultural make up of this thriving metropolis. My experience of engaging members of London’s Congolese diaspora in community organising has highlighted the increasing demand for both intentional processes of integration, and the opening of spaces within which citizens can actively engage in public life. This blog outlines two forthcoming papers, which I am currently completing as part of the Contending Modernities research and education initiative: Democratising Democracy; and The Culture of Community: Opportunities and Challenges created through Diaspora Community Organising.

Acknowledging the Technologies of Democracy

Naila Kabeer identifies an important challenge to the low levels of democratic engagement which have characterised the period since neoliberalism has become firmly entrenched – both politically and economically. For Kabeer, the challenge of structural inequality brought about through relatively unregulated capitalism can only be redressed through the development of active and inclusive citizenship. In her view, international initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals, which are designed to tackle what are considered to be the greatest threats to the flourishing of lives in the developing world, often only perpetuate the structural inequalities of the current economic order. Similarly, the lack of opportunities for civic engagement within narrow and technical democratic processes at local, national and international levels, only furthers this structural inequality. According to Kabeer’s account, democracy is in danger of becoming a means of advancing, rather than regulating, the inequalities generated by unfettered neoliberal economics.

Understanding Civil Society

It is essential to place an analysis of contemporary civic space in London within this structural framework. Experience of organising with the Congolese diaspora over the past year has brought into sharp focus the challenges faced by migrant communities in London. Evidence suggests that one of the main reasons for a lack of integration within British society is a fear of ‘other’. Using Edward Said’s conception of ‘orientalism’ as a lens for analysis, it becomes increasingly clear that difference can be defined according to a broad range of affiliations including culture, faith, experience, and knowledge, regardless of whether these views are real or imagined. Rather than adopting a neutral narrative which denies these differences in a superficial attempt to bring people together, community organising provides a platform through which people of contending worldviews, beliefs and experiences of civil society, can come together to work on behalf of one another for the common good.

Challenges to Inclusive Citizenship

While community organising provides a creative and progressive platform in which people of diverse beliefs, values and opinions can work together, challenging the notion of ‘difference as other’, the process of the organising highlights the fact that these differences are not necessarily easily negotiated in a neutral model. My research further explores the multitude of challenges faced by migrant groups, articulating particularly how these challenges play out in an organising context. The model of community organising is universal in order to retain sharp focus and rigorous strategy, but when one attempts to exercise this model with people of such diverse backgrounds, the ‘western’ basis of the model becomes apparent. Not only does my research articulate the need for an opening of democratic space within which people of all different backgrounds can be heard equally, the model through which citizenship becomes inclusive and active (i.e. beyond the narrow technologies of a ballot box) must be interrogated in order to understand the assumptions which lie beneath its own narrative.

Practical, Moral, and Ideological Considerations

In light of these findings, a number of important issues have been raised for further research. It is necessary to reject the assumption often made that migrant communities come to the UK and learn what it means to be part of a civil society. In rejection of this view, we must ask: What does civil society look like in the countries from which migrants come, and how would a better understanding of this enhance active citizenship within the UK?

Focusing particularly on the practical, moral and ideological barriers found by members of the Congolese community who have been involved in community organising to varying degrees, the research papers pose challenges regarding both life in the countries from which migrants come, and also in the UK. On a practical level, it is necessary to interrogate the physical norms of public life in the migrant’s country of origin. Morally, it is necessary to acknowledge what it means to come from a predominantly faith based society like the DRC, into one which is largely secular. Finally, ideologically, it is necessary to explore how notions of civil society and community are understood to migrants in their countries of origin, and how these understandings complement or conflict with similar notions in the UK. I argue that these findings should not only be seen as tools for enabling diaspora groups to engage more effectively in organising; they should also have an impact on how we, as host communities, consider our own notions of home and community.

Facilitating Sustainable Integration

It is my belief that community organising has significant potential for redressing low levels of democratic participation – through processes which actively engage citizens, encourage integration, and allow the voices of all individuals to be heard at local, national and international levels. However, in order for this process to take place, it is necessary to reject the assumption that community organising is a neutral model. Acknowledging its own cultural framework, one can begin to think through ways in which the model might be adapted to incorporate more fully the breadth of worldviews and experiences incorporated in its agenda. The sustainable answer will inevitably require long-term in-depth analysis, but the imperative is clear.

Caitlin Burbridge
Caitlin Burbridge is a community organizer in Hackney, London. From 2012-2013 she was Research Co-ordinator at the Contextual Theology Centre in East London.  Caitlin received a BA in Geography from Oxford University and an MA in International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Her research interests include the challenges and opportunities created by the development of cross-cultural communities.

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