What I've learnt from National Weeklong Training

Posted by: Gordon on 10/25/2014

Deltra group trainees august 2014 group pic

Thank you to Eleri Birkhead, youth and community organizer with Together Creating Communities in Wales, United Kingdom who gave us permission to repost this piece from TCC's website.

In August this year, I was given the exciting opportunity to attend weeklong National Leadership Training with Gamaliel in St Louis, Illinois. Gamaliel is a Community Organising foundation based in the US, their aim is to “empower ordinary people to effectively participate in the political, environmental, social and economic decisions affecting their lives.”

The training took place on the outskirts of St Louis, in Belleville Illinois. St Louis, like much of America, consists of areas of great wealth, and contrasting areas of poverty. Racism is a prevalent issue in the city, and consequently became the main focus of the weeklong training.

There were around 140 leaders from various organisations attending the National Leadership Training. I was in team Delta, and my group consisted of leaders from various walks of life: from young organisers just starting, to retired members of community groups who were looking to create real change within their communities.

The training involved being ‘agitated’ a lot. Being agitated is as painful as it sounds! It is the act of stirring a person into action or into realisation through pointing out a contradiction in someone’s beliefs and behaviour. This did make for an uncomfortable few days but it definitely kicked me into action, ensured that I was aware of what elements of my work needed to improve, and gave me a clear idea of what to do once I got home.

Another important element of the training was learning to hold effective public meetings. We were provided with a very realistic role-play situation: We were to meet with the chief of police about the shooting of a young black man within our community. This scenario felt all too real as Michael Brown, a young black male, had been shot by the police just a few days before in Fergusson, not too far away from where we were. This emphasised to me the importance of learning to use our power effectively. Learning to hold a public meeting where our demands are met is intrinsic if we want to make any changes within our communities. If we don’t learn, things won’t change.

We then went on to take part in a public action meeting held in East St Louis. This was a state wide action, with over 1000 people attending from various affiliate organisations. The atmosphere was electric, with chanting, singing and inspiring speeches. The aim of this meeting was to demand improvements to the education system, increasing diversity within workforces, increasing access to public transport, and to protect the right to vote. This meeting was attended by Governor Patt Quinn, the governor of Illinois, who declared that he would meet the demands made by the people that day. The volume of people, and the energy of the meeting was impressive, it was a great example of an effective public action meeting. I will, however, be interested to see if the Governor follows up on the promises he made at this meeting.

I went on from St Louis to Chicago, where I spent a few days at the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council (PNCC). PNCC is an affiliate of Gamaliel who operate within the Pilsen Neighbourhood, home to a vibrant Latino community. They are very well known in the area as they host the largest Latino festival in the Midwest; Fiesta Del Sol, which is attended by 1.3million festival goers! The organisation is currently working on various issues including the provision of education, and legal advice for immigrants. It was fantastic to see active community organising where clear wins were taking place regularly. The office was lively, with people from various aspects of the community holding effective meetings and working within their areas of expertise to ensure that positive decisions were made for their community.

After a few days in Chicago, I went back to St Louis where I visited Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU). This was a particularly interesting day to spend at the MCU office as they were holding two key events; the first was a meeting attended by various members of clergy from across the city. The aim of this meeting was to discuss what would come next after events in Fergusson where communities were angry at the injustices attached to the shooting of Michael Brown. This discussion was centred on countering institutional racism, the root cause of many negative issues faced by those living in St Louis. We then went on to a press conference where Clergy announced their plans for a mass public meeting. It was incredibly interesting to witness Community Organisers in action during such an integral time for communities across St Louis.

This is just a brief snapshot of what went on during weeklong training with Gamaliel. I could write a book with all that I’ve learnt- it was an incredible experience and one that I will never forget. I am now enjoying the challenge of putting it all into practice. Watch out Wrexham!

--Eleri Birkhead, youth and community organiser, TCC

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