As part of our Buxton Leadership Programme, Selina Stone is working for CTC as a church-based Community Organiser in Lambeth – focussing on the Just Money Campaign with Citizens UK. She is based at St John’s Church, Angell Town, working with the Revd Dr Rosemarie Mallett.
In this extract from God and the Moneylenders – our new collection of essays – Selina describes her first two months of organising.
Upon arrival in Lambeth I spent the first two weeks conducting research that would allow me to gain an understanding of the financial situations in Brixton and Streatham. Over recent years, these two areas in the Borough have become increasingly occupied by payday lenders.
My brief was to create maps that depicted the various financial services in the areas which included amongst other things; banks, pawnbrokers, loans companies and money transfer services. On visiting these companies, I was able to speak to some members of staff and managers about the services they offered, their eligibility criteria and their perspectives of other service provides. Some of the companies were reluctant to give information but others were forthcoming. The most revealing episode was the occasion when a cashier informed me very excitedly that he was able to have the cash in my hand in ‘ten minutes flat’. He was willing to let me log on to internet banking on his computer in order to print of a 60 day bank statement and my bank card was significant enough to pass as official ID in the absence of a driver’s licence. As I left the shop I was overwhelmed by the pressure I had felt to go through with the loan and also the concern that if I had been a customer who had been desperate, I would have most certainly agreed and would have most certainly not read the small print.
I was also fortunate enough to speak with some members of the community as I walked around the area. I remember listening to the story of a Somali shop keeper named Ibrahim who explained the worry he was feeling about the young men in his community. While the older members of the community were aware that charging interest is ‘haram’ (forbidden) in Islam, some of the young people were not adhering to this law. He explained that some of the young men were getting into debt by taking out the easily accessible payday loans and then going straight into the betting shops next door in an attempt to make some quick money. As a result they were finding themselves in spirals of debt, often with families, women and children suffering the consequences. I could see the worry and concern on his face; not only for these young men who were gambling, but for the values that were being lost by the next generation. If I had come to Lambeth with any sense of uncertainty, the research and these conversations were all I needed to convince me that this was a matter that needed to be addressed with both urgency and efficacy.
Building relationships and identifying leaders
When I first listened to Rosemarie I was certain that the work would go ahead with full support. The vicar at St John’s, Angell Town was full of energy and passion from our very first meeting. My priority was building relationships with the congregation using the tried and tested method of what organisers refer to as ‘one-to-ones’. These are meetings that allowed the church member and myself to understand one another on more than just a surface level. We discussed our families, the defining moments in our lives, our passions and our motivations. My goal as the organiser in these conversations was to discover what we refer to as the ‘self-interest’ of the person [that is – their core passions – not their ‘selfish’ interests], as it is on the basis of shared interests that we work together. These were and still are the highlight of my work as an organiser. As a lover of people, it is a privilege to meet new individuals and to share something real about who we are, even before we get down to business. This was especially important for me coming into a new city and new church; but the same level of importance applies to leaders who may have been in their church for years. Often, we can function together for years without really knowing who we are working next to.
As well as identifying self-interest my aim was also to identify leaders who may potentially get involved with the campaign and with community organising more broadly. In my one-to-ones I have heard stories that have resonated with various Citizens UK campaigns such as living wage and social care. I have also heard personal testimonies of financial issues and noted interest in dealing with payday loans and the fight for economic injustice. The leaders I have discovered are not necessarily those who are most vocal, but those who have good relationships with the congregation. The lady who welcomes people at the door of the church can often have more understanding and also influence when it comes to the life of the church and its members. These leaders, those who have a following, are the people who I hope to encourage onto training with Citizens UK as it is through training that the leader becomes the organiser.
While building relationships and getting to know the people of St John’s, it has also been essential for me to connect with the leaders of other institutions within Lambeth. As is common for many, if not all organisers, my focus is split between working with my institution and with the borough. The focus of my work is not the campaign but the relationships and this is a fundamental point; campaigns come and go but relationships have the ability to endure if nurtured well. If relationships are the foundation of organising, then it is essential for me to seek out those in other churches, mosques, schools and community groups who have an interest in our work. In this way each institution, and in turn the borough, will be strengthened.