Democracy in Action is an award-winning module on community organizing, offered to students in their final year at University. 

Students from the 2021/22 intake share their experiences in this series of blogs.

Lisa Belabed, who joined the module as part of her studies in the Interdisciplinary Studies Centre, talks about her experience

As part of the Democracy in Action module, I took part in a campaign on Affordable Housing, taking the neighbourhood of Greenstead as a case study.

This has been a truly rewarding experience, and the reasons for this are manifold. Upon starting the module, we were offered with choices as to areas we felt we wanted to do community work in. Housing issues immediately struck me as fundamental, both in the wider context of neoliberalism and in the local context of Colchester. Indeed, the urban organization in Colchester seems to be suffering first-hand from neoliberal policies coming equally from private parties and from an indifferent state.

Colchester’s demographics are ever-shifting, and that inherently poses issues because the pre-established organization of the city was arguably not solid enough to accommodate such changes. Indeed, inequalities are reflected very starkly in Colchester. While it is a commuter town, albeit to a lesser extent than other places in the region, it remains profoundly economically divided.

Moreover, the campus of the University of Essex has had ambivalent effects on the city. Studentification is the process whereby specific neighbourhoods become dominated by student residential occupation. Nationally, and perhaps in particular in the case of Colchester, this has had tremendously negative consequences on the local housing market. Indeed, while a university being implemented in a town initially sounds positive, with the prospect of job creations and the town being made into a cultural hub, it is also bound to be destabilizing.

The University has grown in size since it was established in 1964 and the process of studentification has been gradual, but it is now at a peak with 15,000 students and staff members requiring housing. Simply put, the housing market in the areas surrounding the university has entirely changed because of this. Typically, lecturers buy properties in the nearby civil parish of Wivenhoe, which is essentially its own microcosm. Most students rent in Greenstead > Students attract landlords > Landlords set high rent prices > Average rent in the area increases > Previous renters in the area are put at risk. This relationship of causality situates itself somewhere in the conflation between studentification and gentrification. Very aware of the risk of gentrification in the area, we set out to attempt to mitigate it by joining a Taskforce organized by the Colchester Borough Council, which sought to involve inhabitants in the democratic process of collective decision-making. This allowed us to carry a student voice in those meetings, and to challenge the Council every step of the way. Seeking to involve people is not an end in itself, and only by having an acute understanding of the lived experiences of people and reflecting their needs as a result can a project deem itself democratic.

I would argue that a neighbourhood such as Greenstead is both overly politicized and under politicized. It is part of the discourse among students, people refer to it as “that place, with those issues”, but it remains under politicized in that we seldom seek to address the structural nature of those issues. It is only by understanding, enquiring, challenging, and organizing that we can enact change. I come from a tradition of direct action, and started organizing, in a framework-free way, in high school. I think that the willingness to enact change begins with recognizing that a specific set of material or social conditions is unfair. Community organizing, I have found, helps apply pressure to various actors representing several state apparatuses, from the police to council people. I would argue that democracy is an ongoing struggle. It is technically a given because citizens can vote, but we still need to fight to constantly access democracy.