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.

As part of the CS316 Democracy in Action Module, we have been contributing to the Living Wage Campaign launched by Citizens UK in 2011. This project represents one of the most successful organised movements in the country, employing the notion of community organising: a set of skills and tools to mobilise interested groups towards social change.

As a result of Citizens UK’s campaign, 3125 employers of more than 1.4 million workers became Living Wage accredited between 2011 and 2017 (Heery et al. 2017).

Colchester campaign – reflections from Martina Serafini, Politics and International Relations

Our campaign focused on improving those numbers by applying pressure on Essex County Council to pay the RLW to their care workers. This sector is one of the lowest paid in the UK with 73% of workers earning below the RLW (Werner, 2021).

We also aimed to build relationships across local organisations to discuss better working conditions and stable pay rates. We used the Citizens UK ‘Five steps to Social Change’ to structure our campaign strategy. We particularly considered the importance of the second step: Listening. Only by paying attention to personal stories, can community organizing really affect people’s habits and struggles.

First, we designed a survey to collate information from students and staff on their knowledge of the RLW and whether they were earning that amount. During our final presentation, we shared these significant findings. We found that 65% of the participants had never heard of the RLW while only 11.5% were paid the RLW. These results made us feel it was important for us to have in-depth conversations concerning this topic. This was crucial to understand the financial remuneration coming from our university and our future actions.

I believe the most meaningful reflections came from our meetings with undergraduate and postgraduate health care students. They are required to do 70 hours and 100 unpaid days placements in their first and second year. Thus, they feel a difficult power dynamic in their workplace since they are working for free while other are being paid for the same labour. Moreover, they have never heard about the RLW. This is why, I think, that our listening was really important not only for our own research but also for the students themselves. They felt more powerful as we provided them the skills and knowledge to improve their working conditions. For instance, one MA health care student agreed to speak publicly about her experiences and the financial problems her industry is facing. Furthermore, we were able to broaden Citizen UK’s power base by enhancing their relationships with the University and care providers in Essex. Eventually, our work has established new communication channels for the Living Wage Group and for future Democracy in Action students. They can rely on our findings and listening, within the community, to build off what we have started.

Living Wage Action in Parliament Square – reflections by Brendan Smith, International Relations

On 30 March 2022, Citizens UK orchestrated a nationwide action campaigning for a real living wage, this was the result of Wales successfully implementing the real living wage. Our action outside Parliament was represented by Citizens UK Chapters from all over the country.

Citizens Colchester was represented by students from University of Essex Democracy In Action, Colchester Methodist Church, Colchester Food Bank and local Unison branches. It was extremely surprising and reassuring to our chapter to see how many people had come from as far as Birmingham or Manchester to show up and show out.

After the action we congregated in the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster. The meeting was inspirational in that it consolidated the real necessity for our actions and efforts. St.Anthony’s Primary School RC choir was extremely impressive in their singing and choreography skills, their lyrics were packed with meaning, their words resonated with the values of dignity and justice.

Before the action, around 30 members of Citizens UK, including our Uni of Essex students, made their way to Parliament to get into contact with their MPs to urge them to support the Real Living Wage. We were unable to meet with the MPs as they took too long to join us, but we have planned ways to work to ensure a meeting in the future and learnt a lot from the action, even from the parts that may not have gone as well as we had hoped.

The action was powerful and emotive and will have a lasting impact on us as developing community organisers.

How it felt to be involved – reflections by Matt Mason, Philosophy

Signing up for the Democracy in Action module at the University of Essex has been like nothing I have ever experienced. It has presented me with the opportunity to do some really meaningful work within the political realm. Studying BA Philosophy can often feel quite isolating from the world, as philosophers often sit in their ivory towers arguing about problems that often have little application, but the training from Citizens UK and the module leaders themselves has allowed me to bridge that gap and put some of my beliefs into action. One might even say that it has given me a sense of purpose.

The cooperative setting in which we ran our projects has been second to none: support was always offered when needed. We were able to determine for ourselves the direction and scope of our organising endeavours and given the opportunity to present what we have achieved to stakeholders, on whom we certainly had an effect.

I found the presentations themselves certainly quite a profound experience. My group personally held a house meeting around it, in which we were able to get the audience to share stories relating to the living wage campaign. Seeing the sense of solidarity that descended upon the room after hearing our presentation, testimonies from our speakers and everyone’s common stories was amazing. We were, in a sense, not just a group of people who came together to watch some student presentations but were a community. And this was true for all the groups who presented.

Of course, undertaking such a venture was very nerve racking, much to the dismay of my group who had to deal with me beforehand (thanks everyone). However, once the initial adrenaline rush wore off, all I could feel was confidence as I saw the audience’s supportive and interested faces. They were all there because they cared and wanted to see every one of us succeed.

Having worked from the start of January until the end of April on that project, it was an extremely satisfying and meaningful end. At that point, we were no longer simply students, but had transformed into organisers and political actors in our own right.