Small society, big ideas

By Jane Thomas 18 November 2010

The Big Society can be a confusing idea to understand, shrouded as it is in political rhetoric. But in reality, many community organisations, have been helping to build the Big Society for years.

Take Amin Hussain, who runs the JUBBA youth centre for young Somali people. Before the community organisation London Citizens ran its living wage campaign, he was working two jobs, just to try and survive on minimum wage. As a result of the campaign’s success he has been able to afford to go down to one job. He then used the spare time this left him to set up the youth club in North London. As Matthew Bolton from London Citizens explains, ‘Amin could build the Big Society because of the work others had done running the Living Wage Campaign.’

Matthew Bolton was one of three speakers at NPC’s latest breakfast seminar, Engaging communities in the Big Society: Learning from local organisations, alongside Mark Perrott from The Catalyst Trust and Lucy Heady from NPC. The event was chaired by the man many see as the godfather of community organising in the UK, David Robinson OBE, co-founder of Community Links.

Amin’s story provides just one example of why the work of community organisations is vital to achieving the aims of the Big Society. At the heart of these organisations is the desire to build power within communities so that local people can take the issues affecting them into their own hands. For example, the living wage campaign only came about after people from the East London Mosque contacted London Citizens about the low wages being paid to female cleaners at Queen Mary University in East London. Today the university has been awarded two ethical awards for its procurement practises and 11 universities have signed up to pay their staff a living wage as a result of action and protests by local people.

The good news for government is that it appears people want to be part of the Big Society, whether they realise it or not. Mark Perrott of The Catalyst Trust, which provides volunteer coaches for families at risk, said he is constantly surprised about how many people want to give their time to volunteer. ‘The passion is there,’ he says, ‘Now you just have to harness it.’

The challenge now for community organisations and for government is to work out how small, local action can be tied into higher level, big scale solutions. David Cameron would do well to have David Robinson on speed dial.