St Bonaventure’s, the school in east London where I teach, has long had an association with community organising. We’re a short bus ride from the docks where Cardinal Manning famously intervened on behalf of striking workers. More recently, a student at St Bonaventure’s helped to inspire the Living Wage campaign.
In 2001, Fr John Armitage – then a local parish priest – was moved by the story of a student who said he didn’t get to see his mother any more. She turned out to be a low-paid cleaner who had to work long hours to make ends meet. Fr (now Mgr) Armitage went on to help found the campaign.
That tradition continues today: the school was a founding member of The East London Citizens Organisation (TELCO), a chapter of Citizens UK. Over the last four years, as I’ve led the school’s work with TELCO, I’ve come to see how essential community organising is to the school, and how important it is to our students. Young people know exactly what the problems are where they live, and are ready to fight for change when given the chance and the direction.
It’s also not always easy. In one early venture, some Year 8 students tried to raise a year’s rent for a refugee family. They began by organising a basketball tournament (with paid entry), while they sold refreshments. The students raised £53 – a reminder that fundraising can be hard work. But more important than the money was the insight they had started to gain into the housing situation in Newham.
They started to learn about the problems in the area, as well as the success stories (for instance, the affordable homes on the West Ham football ground development).
With help from Alistair Rooms of Citizens UK, a group of students became involved in the local conversation about housing. Students felt especially closely affected, as a number of their fellow pupils were being forced to leave the local area – mostly due to expensive private rents and a lack of social housing – with possible knock-on effects for their mental health and school work. The students interviewed their peers and compiled a report, which they shared with local government and health authorities.
Council Cabinet member Terry Paul, himself a former student of St Bonaventure’s, came to a meeting with the students and shared their findings with other council members. On another occasion, they were consulted to help identify potential sites for Community Land Trusts (CLT) in Newham.
The group visited West Ham MP Lyn Brown in Portcullis House. She spent over an hour discussing issues such as housing, youth crime and environmental issues with them, and the next day they were mentioned by name in the House of Commons as young people ready to stand up and make a change.
As one member of the group, Ethan, reflected: “When I first joined TELCO in Year 8, I was a nervous and timid individual who wanted to make a small change in certain people’s unfortunate circumstances. However, as time went on, our focus shifted to bigger and more locally important issues which is still continuous to this day. TELCO has not just built my own self confidence; it has also shown me the in-depth process of rigorous negotiations between two parties and how the very same negotiations impact people’s lives in ways I never fully comprehend. Overall, I am a better, further well-rounded individual because of the work of TELCO and the guidance of its staff and partners.”
Another area where students have worked hard to make a difference is in youth violence. In 2017 a group of sixth-form students formed a group after two of their friends were shot in an unprovoked attack. (Thankfully, both survived.) They invited the Newham Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent Ade Adelekan, to come and discuss their concerns. As a result, students got invited to be part of a new Youth Independent Advisory Group. This made them feel they were valued and being heard in the local community. They didn’t even know these forums existed before their involvement with TELCO.
They later visited New Scotland Yard to speak at a TELCO event, and their work has been covered on BBC Radio 4. One student, Shanea, campaigned within the school to ensure that every sixth-former was First Aid trained, something the Red Cross provided for free. This is something that Newham are now looking at doing borough-wide. NewVIc sixth form college did the same as St Bonaventure’s, so as a direct result of Shanea, around 700 young people now have the skills to save a life.
At the same time, Year 8 students conducted a listening campaign in Year 7 and 8 to find out what worried young people in St Bonaventure’s. The group attended a “March 4 Peace” in Stratford, and met Newham councillor and cabinet member James Beckles. They invited him into school and were able to share their findings.
Community organising does not always produce immediate results: sometimes, the visible benefits are less in the outcomes, more in how young people develop. Former students have said their experience has proved very useful for university and future employment.
But there are victories too. One was achieved by inviting Stagecoach and Transport for London (TfL) into St Bonaventure’s to discuss bus routes, an issue that the school had been trying to fix for around 6 years. From the moment when Tomas, a Year 8 student, welcomed them to the room and explained that he was chairing the meeting, it was clear that a win was possible. The students had quickly learnt how to suitably prepare and conduct themselves in such a meeting. The bus times were changed so that students did not need to rush out of school and everyone could get home safely.
That showed how community organising can make a difference to an area – and how much it can help students to move out of their comfort zone. As Shanea put it: “I was able to learn, grow and develop as a youth and community leader at St Bon’s with TELCO whilst studying. Learning how to community organise and strategise gave me the confidence to continue to drive change in my local community and support my peers to heal and thrive.”
St Bon’s students are now well-known locally as changemakers. I know they will continue to live out our Franciscan mission, and be a positive change in the world for many more years to come.
This is an abridged extract from Schools In Their Communities: Taking Action and Developing Civic Life, edited by Sebastien Chapleau