Saturday, 18 February 2012

Interview : CitizensUK and Himmah

The Building For The Future Blog is a big fan of the CitizensUK project, which aims to draw on the “proven power of person-to-person organising, our work transforms communities and builds the local power necessary to create local and national change” and was chuffed to have the chance to interview two people involved with the project recently. Muhammed Suleiman is a professional organiser for CitizensUK and is working with a relatively new chapter that has been set up in Milton Keynes) while Muhammed Sajid is a volunteer of Himmah, a grassroots community organisation based in Nottingham who are involved in the work being undertaken to set up a chapter of Citizens here in that city

The interview touches on Suleiman's experiences in Syria, examples of what CitizensUK has achieved, what is being done in Nottingham and the challenges of getting organisations to work outside their comfort zone.

The best bits of the interview have been transcribed for you below. One thing worth mentioning to readers who are not from the Muslim community (and BFTF hopes that there are many such visitors to this post) is that there is a tradition amongst Muslims of giving people the title of “Brother” or “Sister”. Where this has happened in the interview the term “Brother” has been abbreviated to “Br.”

Hope you enjoy the interview!! :

BFTF : To start with, Br Suleiman, can you give us a brief outline of the CitizensUK project and how it started in London.

Suleiman: A community organising model, one that came from America by Saul Alinsky, a pioneer back in the 40s and 50s of community organising. He managed to get a lot of the black communities engaged with the process of making change. As you can imagine in the 40s and 50s in America, there was a lot of prejudice against black people. So this concept and tools of organising were brought to the UK about 20 years ago started off in East London with the East London Community Organising Group. They were organising there for about 10 years, getting people involved, training leaders and listening to the people who form the membership. This then widened and you had South London Citizens, West London Citizens and, more recently, North London Citizens. We, in Milton Keynes formally became a member of the Citizens UK group on Nov 2010, although the process of getting the organisation up and running takes about 3 years about that.


Saul Alinsky

BFTF : Can you give a couple of examples of the kind of organisations that comprise the London branches of CitizensUK?

Suleiman : The key concept of London Citizens is that the power is in the diversity so they look to recruit member organisations made up of as wide a diversity as they can. It is very much independent of the state. So you have churches but you also have mosques. In North London you have synagogues. There are also student unions, tenant associations, groups from communities like the Congolese – anything really where the people behind it want to make change.

BFTF : Citizens UK run a number of campaigns. Can you tell us a little about the Living Wage and Housing Community campaigns as these are areas that the Muslim community does not usually get involved.

Suleiman : The Living wage campaign came about some 10 years ago when the local Citizens leaders in East London were speaking to a group of their members in a community hall and asking them what issues or problems were important to them. Many of the people said that they did not have enough time to spend with their children because they were working two or three jobs because the minimum wage did not provide them enough to live on. So CitizensUK did research into this and worked out what was called the living wage. We would argue that the minimum wage will keep you in poverty while the living wage will allow you to get out of poverty. As an example of what we are talking about, right now the minimum wage is £5.93 in London, whereas the living wage would be £8.30 an hour. What the team in East London wanted to do was to look at the people who were earning these low wages, such as cleaners. They tried to get a relationship with HSBC but this was not forthcoming, as you can imagine. So what they ended up doing was talking to, and training, one of the cleaners who worked for HSBC, he cleaned the office of the chief executive. The cleaner got a share in HSBC [bought by local organisations] and went along to the AGM. He stood up and asked a question to the chief executive of HSBC, John Bond that began, “Mr Bond, we share the same office, but we live in different worlds. . . ”. That sparked off media attention right there in the room and this led to a relationship being built between CitizensUK, the cleaner and the CEO of HSCB. In the course of that relationship we managed to convince HSBC to pay all of their staff, including their contracted out cleaning staff, the living wage.

Cleaners and office staff shared the same space but lived in different worlds

BFTF : Wow, that story touches on so many points. It touches on patience, on not having the attitude that “I’ve tried that once and it didn’t work so I am going to give up now”. . .

Suleiman. . .Your point is very important. A lot of times we say “I’ve sent the letter and I’ve not got a reply”, but a lot of the time you aren’t going to get a reply and you have to keep plugging away, and sometimes you have to get that person to recognise you and the power that you hold. As individual people, as individual masjids, we don’t have that power. But if we get together with diverse other groups, suddenly people start to take you more seriously because you represent a far wider group of people.

Sajid: We did a very similar action at the Tesco AGM which was held at the University of Nottingham recently. Once again the issue was the living wage. Why were the security guards, the cleaners, on a lower wage than everyone else who worked for Tesco? We took an action, once again we bought shares in Tesco as this gave us an automatic right to go the AGM and just before the AGM, as the chief executive was coming in, a young boy (who has previously met the CEO of Tesco a week earlier) asked him whether he would meet with CitizensUK to discuss why your security guards and cleaners are paid less than anyone else in your organisation. To our surprise, the CEO said, “I’ve read up about CitizensUK and I am really eager to engage with you and talk and we can certainly discuss this”. It’s that understanding of the power dynamics, the tension and knowing which card to play, these are the incredibly powerful tools that CitizensUK teach, and this is exactly what we are trying to bring to Nottingham. It’s about using the basic principles of Islam. It’s about understanding what unity is - both within the Muslim community and unity across relationships with the wider community. And another principle, that of leveraging resources, when people come together and leverage their resources they have a greater impact to make that change.

Suleiman: Most of what we do is training and development of people to become leaders so that they can go into these high powered negotiations and speak directly with the CEO of Tesco or whoever it may be. So when we have these meetings, it’s not professional organisers like myself that go and negotiate, it will be leaders from the community that are hand picked, that are trained and developed. We do a lot of practice, a lot of training before we go to these meetings. It’s crucial because the Muslim community lose out because they don’t have training in negotiation, in how to conduct meetings. I’m also a trustee of the Muslim Association here in Milton Keynes and one of the things I’ve found is that some of the meetings are two or three hours long and you come out of it and you haven’t really gained anything. Whereas with Citizens meetings, they last a maximum of 45minutes to an hour but they always have action points that you go away with. This is something that the local Muslim community in Nottingham can really benefit from when and if they join Citizens Nottingham.

Although he was early, the moment Imran entered the meeting room he realised that nothing useful would be decided that day. .  .

BFTF : Certainly it has been my experience that trying to get notes and actions out of any community meeting is a very difficult task. Br Suleiman, I’m hoping that you can give us a little background please about your life story and how you got involved in this.

Suleiman : I was born and bred in Milton Keynes. I went away to University and studied Law and my interest was to get into commercial law and earn a lot of money. And it took a long time because commercial law is a niche market and there is a lot of competition. But when I eventually got job as a trainee solicitor I moved back to Milton Keynes and got more involved with the Muslim community here and I realised that they needed a lot of work, so I set up the Milton Keynes Muslim Association, made it a registered charity and started working with the Muslim community. And I found I was getting more satisfaction from the work I was doing with the community than the legal work I was clocking in for every morning. So by the time I had qualified as a solicitor, it struck me that I did not want to pursue that line of work anymore. The underlying motive of making money really wasn’t such a motive for me. And naturally, by building the Muslim community I had become more interested in my faith and felt that there were a lot of aspects of commercial law that didn’t fit well with my religion. I had recently been married and spoke to my wife and said “what shall we do?” and we decided to go to Damascus in Syria to study Arabic and Islam, just for six months while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. And it ended up being two years that we spent out there and what really hit home to me was the injustice that the local people had to put up with the regime on a daily basis and, with that in mind, I decided that when I came back I wanted to do something here where we could make a physical difference, where we could make a grassroots difference to peoples lives, rather than a lot of initiatives that talk a lot but don’t get a lot done.

BFTF : Just to stop you there for a second, with what is happening in the Arab world being very much a current topic, could you give some examples of what kind of injustices these people were facing.

Suleiman : You expect to be a in a Muslim country and that you can live life freely, but when I was there and I enrolled in the Institute to learn Arabic but I had to trim my beard quite short because you are not allowed to have long beards out there. Also people out there western clothes so if you wear long robes you are viewed with suspicion. Also, another aspect is that we lived near the souk (market) and often you would see the security forces come in and take peoples merchandise, their food and vegetables and put it in the back of their truck or throw it on the floor. For a while I couldn’t figure out why this was happening and then I realised that they didn’t have licences to trade and when I made further enquiries I realised that the reason they didn’t have the licences was that they didn’t have the money to bribe the officials to get the licences. So at all levels, the society was very corrupt there. And the honest people, the very lovely people out there in Syria are the ones to suffer and that was what really struck me.

You can have a stall here - if you bribe the right people.

So when I came back I wanted to find a job in the charity field where I could make a difference and Musa, my predecessor, approached me and said ‘look, you are trustee of the Muslim Association, I want the Muslim Association to join CitizensUK” as they were setting up something in Milton Keynes. And when he explained the concept I thought that this is exactly what we need as an association to be involved in. We want to be outreaching, to be mixing with other members of society. Because a lot of the time Muslims are under the microscope at the moment and we seem to be very inward looking, just thinking about our own community. And I thought that the best way of us doing dawah (invitation) and also to engage with our own community and the wider community is to be involved with something like Citizens.

So we decided to join and it was through the process of that that Musa sent me on the 5day training to develop me as a leader. So I started doing some of the things in CitizensMK, chaired meetings etc. One thing that really struck me was that the organisers that did the job professionally came from very good universities, they had very strong academic backgrounds and they could be in the marketplace earning very good money. But they were working at this grass roots level, for a pittance really, so that they can make this social change and they have such job satisfaction, which I hadn’t seen in the legal area. From there I spoke to Musa and said ‘if a job does come up , please let me know’. Musa is from Iraq originally so he decided to move there and use the tools he had learnt in the UK to Iraq to try and organise out there. And he told me to apply for his vacant position, which I did and, by the Grace of God, I got the job. So I am an organiser employed by CitizensUK to do the work of bringing organisations together and helping to facilitate these actions that we do.

Milton Keynes is  a great town, so long as you can handle plenty of roundabouts. . .

BFTF : So, regarding the wages being paid to you and, perhaps, some other people - where is that money coming from?

Suleiman : That’s a very good question. We never take money from the State because the whole point is that we hold the state to account so really the money has to come from the member institutions that join the Citizens organisation. Ideally, that should be 90% of the money, but the reality is that it is more like 10%, which means there is 90% funding gap which one has to find from grants, trusts and charitable foundations, but the problem with that is that it is “soft” money, it may not be there next year. We are not talking about much money and the rewards that can come from that money are tremendous. It’s all about organising your money, one bring and buy sale can bring in the money that can keep the organisation in funding for a year.

BFTF : So, having got an outline of the organisation and how you got involved, can you give some outline for what Citizens MK had been doing?

Suleiman : Our leaders went back to their communities and asked them what their concerns were, what issues did they have? One of the things that was high on the list were to make Milton Keynes a safe city. Although Milton Keynes is a safe city, by the Grace of God, we do feel that there are some areas of Milton Keynes that could do with some work. So one of the things that we are looking at is to train up some members of out institutions so that they can go into those estates and keep the sustainability going by having a core leadership in those estates. That is one of the things that makes us different from other organisations. Other organisations might put money or resources into an area and then they will move away from it and those resources then dry up. What we do is that we don’t do for other what they can do for themselves.

Another thing that we are acting on nationally as well as locally is the minimum wage. I myself have spoken to cleaners who have to borrow food from their own families because they can’t feed their children on the amount that they earn, and there is no dignity in that really, or there are cleaners who have to work 60hrs a week to make ends meet.

There are some real stories here that make you think that something has to be done and it we are not going to do it, if Muslims are not going to do it, then who is going to do it?

BFTF: Normally, the “living wage” is something that charities are fighting to get in places like Bangladesh or Vietnam. It’s a bit shocking to hear it being applied to the UK.

Suleiman : I know, I know, you don’t really think of it in the UK but I watched a programme about child poverty and, in Milton Keynes, one in five children lives in poverty. You can’t say to yourself that “they are more poor in Bangladesh” because it is all relative. There are people here in Milton Keynes, as there will be in Nottingham, who do not have two square meals a day.

He deserves a living wage too

BFTF : Before we get onto what is happening here in Nottingham, can you give a flavour of the organisations that are involved in Citizens and also any tips you can give to people who would like to get involved, what should they be saying to their mosques?

Suleiman : In Milton Keynes we have the Congolese community, we have the Hazara community from Afghanistan, we have the Shia mosque involved, the Milton Keynes Muslim Association, a Sunni organisation, we have about 4 different churches, we have the Quakers and the Q Alliance as well as schools - we have three of the major secondary schools in Milton Keynes involved as well.

What I would say to your listeners is that it’s a great initiative and we need more masajid involved. It’s a shame sometimes because we have more Muslim groups in Milton Keynes but they don’t always come on board because of politics. They say ‘ this group is involved so we don’t want to get involved’ or ‘we don’t have time for this kind of thing’ or ‘we are more worried about our own Pakistani community, or Bangladeshi community’. And it’s a real shame because we shouldn’t live in a vacuum, and as Muslims we make up part of the broader spectrum of civil society and if we take ourselves out of the equation there is a gap there which isn’t being filled. So if there are Muslims out there who have connections with the masjid committee, say to them ‘this is an investment, not just for us but for our children to give them the tools and to make our lives and our children's lives and the people of Nottingham in general better’. And it works! If you have a good organiser and good leaders then the model works.

BFTF : Sajid, perhaps you can tell us what is happening in Nottingham?

Sajid : Just to reinforce what Br Mohammed Suleiman said, it is just amazing to hear an experience that is virtually identical to our experience in Nottingham. We are at a very formative stage and are creating a steering group of alliances and Himmah is part of this. So far we have the Church of England Diocese, 4-5 independent churches, two trade unions, we’ve had talks with the University, we’ve had talks with several other organisations as well. Remember that we are also still constituting ourselves and arranging funding sources, both hard money such as memberships and soft money from grant-making authorities.

I’ll be frank with the Muslim community and say that we were very close to the Muslim community not being represented in Citizens. We had negotiations with several key Muslim organisations in Nottingham but no-one stepped up to the plate and it was in that vacuum that Himmah entered - it wasn’t a position of choice. We were acting as a facilitator but after several attempts at getting leading organisations involved, no one came forward. So we had a choice - do we let our children live in Nottingham in an unsafe place with high unemployment, high pollution, high crime, or could the Muslims step in and add value to the pot. And that is how the membership of Himmah made the decision that is was absolutely essential that there was a Muslim at that table.

What really brought it home to us was when we met with some organisers from CitizensUK and they also met with some local leaders and what really impressed us was the fact that we get capacity built, learning about these methodologies of leadership, learning about dynamics of power, learning about relationships - this is all absent from the Muslim community. One of the things we negotiated with our membership fee was the ability to have 20 people trained, 5 people on 6 day training courses and 15 people on 20 day training. Now usually this training will cost thousands but joining Citizens has given us the ability to undertake that training at minimum cost. So what we are asking people in the community to go on our website and see the information on community organising at www.himmah.org and come and volunteer yourselves. If you want to get involved in this, if you want to make a real change, get involved. Himmah is about individual change and about communal transformation of both the Muslim community and the wider community. Himmah is a vehicle of Islamic ideals - serve the people, justice, compassion. And we believe community organising using the structure of CitizensUK as a vehicle will allow us to do that individual and communal change.

BFTF : It’s a little bit sad to see the while the East London Mosque, an organisation that has a lot of traditional Muslims, has been able to get involved, mosques in Milton Keynes have been able to get involved but there has been no interest from the mosques in Nottingham.

Sajid : We’re hoping for that to change. We’ve hoping that if people from the community say ‘Look, we’re going to miss out on this, our children are going to miss out on this, to improve the environment, improve our living standards’ and then the next time they are at the masjid, speak to one of the elders at the mosque and perhaps say ‘Himmah has got involved in this, they are asking for more Muslims and Muslim organisations to get involved, why don’t you get involved?’. I’ll tell you what the real injustice is, it is the injustice of ourselves, this is an opportunity for the Muslim community to express Islam and perform dawah in the most positive way in the form of action and serving other people through the principles of Islam. If Nottingham's Muslims don’t wake up and get involved they could miss out on this. Individuals, please come to the website, come and volunteer, talk to your Muslim organisations and say ‘we want you to get involved in this. We are part of your congregation, we are part of the community, part of Nottingham and we need you involved’

BFTF : One of the things you have mentioned before Br Sajid, is that whilst you want people to get involved in civil society, they don’t need to do it through you. They could talk to their masjid and ask them to, say, have the Woodland Trust in to talk about the woodlands close by, or ask their masjid to lobby against injustice in the UK or abroad, for example they could ask their masjid to send a letter to the Syrian embassy saying that it is outrageous that a Muslim government is killing its own people. What would be your comment on this?

Sajid : One of our principles of change is that ‘It takes the local people to empower themselves to make change.’ No-one is going to make the changes we want except ourselves. God Almighty has told us that He will not change the condition of a people unless they change it themselves.

We need to empower ourselves, by whatever vehicle we want to do.

We don’t have a lot of resources. I have a full time job, you are working full time, and we both have family commitments on top so we need to work intelligently, which means looking at the most effective way of sharing our resources together. Himmah is about diverse people in the Muslim community - it’s not just me, I am only a spokesman - Himmah gets involved with the homeless, with refugees, in education, with new Muslims and the list goes on but we have come together because we understood that to make change loads of little streams need to come together to make a mighty river, which can cut through mountains.

Nottingham - do you want to make it a better, fairer, happier city ?

BFTF: Br Suleiman, what kind of feedback have you received about this project so far?

Suleiman : As we have mentioned before, Muslims are usually seen to not really engage themselves and when people see Muslim organisations on the front line really doing something, it empowers the organisation, it empowers the mosque and it empowers the mosque leaders to say ‘ we can make a difference in civil society’. It also encourages people to want to have training, to want to be leaders, or future community leaders if they are young. We recently had a training event where we had about eight Muslim people come on the training from various different backgrounds and they all gained a lot from it. They can take those tools back into their jobs, into their life and their families. Ultimately it is to help civil society take us forward in the campaigns that we are running in Milton Keynes

BFTF : Okay, one final question, one we ask of all the guests on the show : What is the best thing about living in the UK?

Suleiman : Having been in Syria and in other Muslim countries in the Middle East, it is the freedom that we have here, without a doubt.


Notes:
Suleiman and Sajid wereinterviewed on the Buidling for the Future show (Wednesdays at 5.15pm ish) on Radio Dawn 107.6FM, one of Nottinghams community radio stations.

Image Sources:
Alinsky, HSBC, Meeting, Souk, Roundabout, Cleaner, Nottingham


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