Empowerment. Closely followed by Inspirational, Educational and Fired Up are all key feelings I came away with, after spending two days on community courses with Unite the Union in Cardiff recently.
Unite are avant-garde in their thinking to open up membership of the union to ordinary people like me, who don't work in the typical unionised workplaces you associate traditionally with union membership. Mums, the unemployed, the disabled, the retired, the self employed are all being offered membership and access to courses, to equip people in the wider community to fight the dreadful cuts that this governments forced austerity are imposing on us all.
Many ordinary people face barriers to participation on courses and most of these barriers are financial. Unite recognise this, and help out with rail travel and lunches for example. The barriers melt away and allow the individual community member access and participation. For people like myself, this support is vital, or we literally are unable to take part due to being poor and/or working poor.
I attended courses in Community Activism and Public Speaking. Barry the Unite tutor for both courses, explained succinctly that people in the community are extremely worried about a variety of austerity measures from The Bedroom Tax to the closure of local swimming pools libraries and youth clubs. Often, although people have the passion to fight to influence or stop these attacks on our communities, they lack the skills and tools to campaign effectively. Barry explained for example, with public speaking that for the likes of Cameron, Osborne etc public debating is part of their expensive Eton education that is not taught in state schools. Thus, confronted with posh boys who have been equipped with the tools to speak publically and debate, often ordinary community activists are immediately put on the back foot, as they lack these skills and have not been taught how to campaign and talk in public to any skilled degree.
From the start of the courses, there was an excited air of expectation that once we had the "keys to unlock the doors" we would be in a position within our communities to effect change, fight back, and be in a much more advantaged place to take on the dark right wing forces whose mantra is "Austerity for the Poor Only" Many people on the course were there to learn how to campaign for their particular community cause. There were 3 grandmothers who were bringing up their own grandchildren and were full time carers, often with disabled grandchildren and were getting no support from government or their local councils. They had set up a group to campaign for more support and for more rights and recognition of the fact they save the Government thousands in care costs. The group were self funding with very little resources. They approached Unite, who apart from offering the course, allowed the group to meet in the Unite building every month for no cost and also helped out with printing their promotional posters and leaflets. Thus the ladies on the course were beginning to feel more empowered, and that the ball was shifting slightly back into their court and the feelings of hopelessness were supplanted with bright hopes for the future. Again "empowerment" and the tools to fight back will see this group make headway in their battle to get grandparents raising grandchildren in the spotlight with their council and big government.
Throughout the first day we were taught how to plan campaigns from the outset, and look for skill sets within our campaign group.Also researching exactly who holds the power to make decisions about our cause and who to approach. Publicising our cause on the variety of media we now have from newspapers to twitter was also a key element as well as the more traditional methods of door-knocking, banners and posters were explored. We were given practical help on petitioning and lobbying the decision makers and organising our group into a very effective campaign team who would now have all the tools to fight the social injustices all around us.
On Day 2 we tackled the tricky subject of Public Speaking. Many people are terrified of standing up in front of a crowd and delivering an effective, exhilarating inspiring speech and getting the message out about our cause/belief and getting the crowd to act upon our message. For me, with the articles I write on austerity and being asked to speak to groups, it was vital that I could unlock the door to the same type of help, advice and support that union activists, politicians etc get, in order to get my message across on the impact of austerity in our communities. We were shown different speeches and critiqued them and were given valuable resources on how to construct and deliver a successful public speech. Everything was explained in fine detail from coping with nerves to answering questions at the end of the speech from the audience.
Speaking to other community members on the course and also workplace union members on the Public Speaking course showed the diverse reasons and causes as to why we had all decided to participate. What underlined our causes and reasons was one factor: the devastating impact of the coalitions austerity policies on individuals and the communities we live in. The real hunger to be able to fight back was very evident. The end result was of satisfaction that we were getting the tools to enable that fight back. To know that with Unites support we can now return to our communities, impart our knowledge and make that fight back happen.
Unite and other unions are demonized in the right wing press on a weekly basis. If educating ordinary working class people to have an impact in their local communities on youth club, library and other facilities closures is wrong, "ultra left wing" or "radical" then the Tory press should hang their heads in shame. Communities need this education and skills set.
Empowerment. Or as I like to see it "Kicking down the doors and barriers to fight social injustice." Our fight comrades in the community v austerity is a worthy one. Start your own fight today.
* Special thanks to Barry (course tutor) and Jo Galazka (Community Co-Ordinator Cardiff) at Unite for enabling our empowerment
**Unite Communities already have 40 branch groups throughout the UK and are expanding rapidly with community co-ordinators in most areas including Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland as well as UK regions. To contact someone in your area for more information on courses and getting involved phone or email: Liane Groves 07793 661 657 : Liane.Groves@unitetheunion.org who will put you in touch with your regional co-ordinator