The interdisciplinary Democracy In Action module, delivered in partnership with Citizens UK, sees final-year students from across the University of Essex working with local organisations to have an immediate impact on the life of our community.
Students have worked with Colchester Borough Council and the Essex Police Fire and Crime Commissioner.
The course gives students training in community organising and experience in engaging in local campaigns, bringing communities together to identify what local issues need to be addressed.
Working within the community, students this year have helped raise awareness of the living wage, advocated for better protection from violence for women and girls, and helped the community on the Greenstead estate in Colchester improve its surroundings and facilities. They have presented their work to community leaders.
Course leader Dr Rebecca Warren said: “In October, 30 students signed up for Democracy in Action visibly recovering from the pandemic and navigating a new face-to-face experience. Fast forward a year, they have engaged with four community campaigns, contributed to discussions and roleplay in the classroom and worked together to give presentations at public meetings to local decision-makers, standing proud and with confidence in their action teams. They know they have made a difference and they are taking their new skills with them into the careers they have ahead of them.”
Juliet Kilpin at Citizens UK said: “The Democracy in Action module has had significant impact this year. Citizens UK is a people powered alliance dedicated to challenging injustice and building stronger communities and through this module the Citizens Essex Chapter has developed leadership, strengthened University of Essex and its institutional relationships and achieved justice on particular issues.”
Philosophy student Matt Mason summed up what he got from the module: “Signing up for the Democracy in Action module 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, 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 campaigns that came out of the course included:
Living wage for social care workers and beyond
Students worked with Unison, Colchester Foodbank, Methodist Church to raise awareness of the living wage – an issue that resonates with many students as 63% of students work alongside their studies. The students presented their research to local councillors and engaged with local MPs. A particular win was meeting with the Leader of Colchester Borough Council and ensuring that he continues his support for the Real Living Wage within the council and work together with Citizens Essex to persuade other private companies to pay the real living wage in the borough.
Violence against women and girls
Students conducted a listening campaign to gather experiences of misogyny and presented their powerful presentation at a safety summit attended by Essex Police which has agreed to work together on fighting violence against women and girls improving awareness and reporting around issues of gender-based crime.
A spokesperson for Essex Police said: “A massive thank you to Essex Citizens for such an empowering event. Incidents or crimes motivated by hostility towards gender has no place in our society. Essex Police will record such incidents and crimes as a reassurance to our community that this will not be tolerated and a warning to perpetrators that they will not go unchallenged. The event was extremely inspiring and I am extremely thankful to the group for presenting on a topic they are so passionate about. We look forward to the relationship with Essex citizens continuing to grow.”
Community Cohesion in Greenstead
This group identified a number of key actions to enhance this large housing estate close to the University for the benefit of residents and students including volunteering opportunities, sharing of spaces and resources, safety campaigns, refuse collection information and ideas for improving the heart of Greenstead. The group worked with local councillors and community engagement officers from the local council as well as C360.
Following the announcement of central Government funding awarded to support economic growth, connectivity and quality of life to be spent on improvements to Greenstead estate, the students involved in this project conducted a listening exercise. This highlighted issues such as high rents, poor living conditions, lack of repairs, and a lack of sense of community among residents.
The group found that people across Greenstead are interested in engaging with each other, a need for a definition of ‘affordable housing’ and links to the condition of the property. They also heard that residents wanted clarity on what would be gained by any new developments.
The project worked with Councillors, community engagement officers and continues to work with C360 going forward on the Heart of Greenstead project.