Democracy in Action is an award-winning module on community organising, currently offered to students in their final year at the University of Essex. Students from the 2022/23 intake share their experience in a series of blogs.

Ashley Sa, who took the module as part of her International Relations and Language Studies degree, talks about her experience.

I took part in the Democracy in Action module during my last year of studies and chose to work on the housing project as I found it related to me and my fellow students. Throughout my research, I found that the subject of student housing is the one which has the most potential for change with the support of the university community.
I had the opportunity to work with a group of four other students to advocate for the University of Essex to act as a guarantor for international students, carers, estranged students, and those with refugee status.

If you walk around campus and chat with students, the most popular conversation opener apart from your name, origin, and studies, is asking each other about your housing situation. Every student you meet has a story to share about their “horrible landlord” or “unfair tenancy”. We do not want this situation to continue.

Our objective was to address the concerns and issues faced by these students, and to achieve this we implemented various strategies such as launching a social media campaign and conducting one-on-one interviews for data collection. Social media played a pivotal role in promoting our collaborative seminar with the Essex Law Clinic, providing student tenants with interactive sessions on navigating private accommodation rentals.

Participating in this module has transformed my understanding of community organising from theory to practical skills. We started the year by studying the theory of community organising, with guest speakers sharing their experiences of using community organising in NGOs, campaigns, and local communities to harness individual power. Attending assemblies broadened our perspectives on how far a proposal can resonate with the council or a national audience. The teaching team adeptly bridged the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical project management skills.

One significant challenge I encountered during the campaign was building relationships and establishing trust within the community. Community organising relies heavily on forming connections and fostering mutual interests. Engaging with the target audience, actively listening to their concerns, and mobilising them for action required consistent effort and time. In hindsight, I recognise the importance of investing more time in community bonding and engaging in one-on-one conversations to ensure stronger and more active community participation.

Despite the challenges, there were moments of enjoyment and enthusiasm throughout the project. Developing the “Loser Landlord Hotline” social media platform and organising the housing seminar were particularly gratifying experiences. These interactive activities allowed us to creatively engage with the target audience, generating a sense of excitement and involvement. Witnessing the responses and feedback we received through the platform and observing the impact it had on raising awareness about housing issues, reaffirmed the power of collective action and the potential for positive change.

This experience of community organising has provided me with valuable insights into the effectiveness of what is called the five-step cycle: Organize, Listen, Plan, Act, and Negotiate. I learned that these steps are not strictly sequential and can be re-organised based on the specific context and community needs. They are interconnected and reliant on each other, often requiring simultaneous progress. The duration of each stage may vary, emphasizing the importance of allowing sufficient time for relationship building and trust development.

In conclusion, my involvement in the housing project within the Democracy in Action module has been a valuable learning experience. I encountered challenges, experienced moments of enjoyment, and gained insights into the practical application of the five-step cycle.
Building relationships, investing time in community bonding, and remaining open to reviewing and adapting the campaign have emerged as key takeaways from this experience. Moving forward, I am excited to apply these lessons to future community organising efforts and continue working towards positive social change.