Strangers into Citizens

 10.000 people, Trafalgar Sq, supporting the London Citiz campaign. Ph: C Jepson

– It was the personal stories of migrants who have been living “undocumented” in the UK for ten or fifteen years that changed people´s minds on the immigration issue, says Julie Camacho.

For the last 12 years, London Citizens havebeen working to empower the citizens ofLondon through a range of social justice campaigns and assemblies that hold business leaders and politicians to account.

–What is London Citizens, and why was it formed?

– The London Citizens is one of the biggest civic alliances in England, consisting mainly of faith communities, but also schools, universities, charities and other small groups coming together to work on social justice issues. They have all have in common that they insist on the participation of ordinary citizens in public life.

The alliance was formed 12 years ago by a social worker, who was concerned that social workers never attempted to solve social problems. He got in touch with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in the U.S. where he was trained, and brought these practices of training citizens back to England. London Citizens started out in East London. They were working in an area that had been deteriorating for many years, and started with small issues such as manufacturers who were disposing of rubbish and toxics in their neighborhoods.

Since then it has spread.

– How did you yourself personally get involved with London Citizens?

– I have a background in various organizations, and was working as a translator for a trade union who was recruiting migrant workers. I got interested in London Citizens because of the Living Wage campaign among the workers at the university I was attending. Unlike charities that often are based on handing benefits to victims of injustice, I saw that the victims themselves were agents for change.

– How is London Citizens organized?

– We are divided in three chapters, East, South and West London and currently trying to get established in North of London. We have common campaigns and work on issues in our own communities. Right now, in my area, we are doing a campaign to decimate the amount of rats which is something the members of the community themselves have identified as a problem.

– One of your methods is to engage citizens through what you call listening campaigns and accountability assemblies. Could you tell me more about this?

– Currently we are organizing accountability assemblies before the Parliamentary election in May, where we invite politicians in the boroughs to open meetings where they can meet citizens. We have already organized a series of listening campaigns, basically meetings and face-to-face conversations to discover what issues are important for people in the community. In my own area, street violence, road works, a living wage and the state of a local hospital were selected as the most important ones. We are now asking whether the political representatives would like to commit to this agenda. 

We have done a similar thing on a national level related to the recession, where we conducted a listening campaign and came up with four point agenda. These included a 20 per cent interest cap on lending and an effort to increase the financial literacy among young kids, where students in school learn how to use their money, save and the like. It also included an ending of aggressive lending practices where banks call people at their home and offer them loans at very high interest rates, and also the living wage. We brought this to the parties by presenting the demands to them at an accountability assembly attended by more than three thousand citizens.

Through these accountability assemblies we provide the politicians with a political agenda that has come out of face-to-face conversations, and we are giving them a chance to hear what the citizens think. This is what the politicians should do themselves if they were accountable, but since politicians hardly are accountable anymore, we have to teach it to them.

– Can you give me an example of how the campaigns you are working with have originated – for example the Living Wage campaign that has become an hallmark of the London Citizens’ movement, or the Strangers into Citizens campaign that you have been involved in?

– The Living Wage campaign started out with a parish priest who wanted to get in touch with the mothers in his community, but the problem was that they did not show up in church. So, he decided to seek the mothers himself and he soon found out that the reason that they hadn’t shown up was that they didn’t have time. They were working in sectors on low incomes and often had to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. The minimum wage didn’t give a high enough salary for these women to be able to live from it. Hence, the Living Wage campaign was born. Since then, the campaign has won political support and today the Mayor of London has embraced it. There is a special unit in the city government regulating the living wage, and several companies throughout the city have adopted it. 

The Strangers into Citizens campaign originated from the Living Wage campaign in the university sector, where we discovered that many of those working for low wages were in fact undocumented immigrants that were exploited because they didn’t have any rights in the country. Muslims, Catholics and Evangelicals had undocumented immigrants in their congregations, and that many already personally knew people who had been staying huge manifestations in Trafalgar Square. In 2007 more than 12.000 people participated, and I was personally responsible for getting the latinos to come. In 2009 we were even more demonstrators. We also tried to get our proposal discussed in Parliament. To do this you need the signatures of at least hundred Members of Parliament. We managed to get 96 signatures, so unfortunately the proposal didn’t get through.

There have been some small victories regarding the legalization of people that have been staying here for 10 to 15 years. This, however, has not been happening publicly since it is such a controversial issue. Just now, the general election campaign is underway and not a single journalist has had the courage to bring up the issue and it is not part of the political campaigns whatsoever. I think it took a movement like London Citizens to bring up this issue in the UK, because there have been a lot of institutions like faith communities or schools who have been affected by this issue. It was not until London Citizens came that they got the courage to act on it.

– What is the politics of your movement?

– We teach people that they can do politics. By this we mean the Greek notion of politics that has to do with the affairs of the city. Although we are non-artisan we do politics every day, and by directly involving citizens we try to give power to our communities. We tell people that they are the bosses of the politicians and take them to assemblies where they get a chance to meet mayors and leaders of big business. London Citizens are the only ones who train people in leadership. This is not something you are taught in school or university, but we are teaching citizens that they have to be engaged, to stop being so passive, and we encourage people to do things collectively.

Editorial Comment

First published in Communalism #2 (May 2010).