George Gabriel reflects on the British Refugees Welcome movement, which helped bring tens of thousands of Syrians to the UK, and how a system of incubating and cascading created the local and national capacity necessary for the victory.

In the summer of 2015, then-Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron was adamant, the country wouldn’t take any more Syrian refugees. The country was full, and urgent action was needed to stem the “swarm” of migrants struggling to reach the UK from refugee camps in northern France.

Then one image arrived that changed everything, a picture of young Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on a beach in Turkey.

The outpouring of grief and the demand for action from the general public was immediate and overwhelming, and five days later David Cameron announced the UK would take 20,000 Syrian refugees.

At the time every major NGO - from Save the Children to the Refugee Council - had petitions and fundraisers rolling, but if you as a member of the public wanted to do something to help resettle actual Syrians to your town there was precious little you could do. But at CitizensUK we devised a way to bring more people into action.

CitizensUK is the UK’s leading broad-based organizing network and Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) affiliate. It brings together faith groups, unions, and educational organizations in place-based alliances that campaign for the common good in cities around the country.

It was in CitizensUK that we’d been working in a handful of local areas, over the previous year, trying to prove the Prime Minister wrong by persuading councils to step forward and say publicly that they could take ten, twenty, fifty Syrian refugees.

Through that patient work, we learned the main blocker would be the availability of housing and so developed tactics to recruit private sector landlords. We set up pods of people to welcome the families and help them settle, found local translators, and got pledges from schools and doctors to help - making it as easy as possible for the council to say “yes”.

I stepped in to lead this work just as Aylan’s death moved the country. The challenge was to take the local work we had incubated and massively scale it at speed - not something community organizing is known for and one of the principal critiques of it as an approach to social change. 

Through our prior work on the ground we built what I call a strategic template - these can exist for any issue, but are campaign models that have been proven in one location and can be replicated in another. They include an ask or demand, an understanding of the target and what is likely to move them, and a tested approach for building and deploying the resources needed to make it happen.

In our case, the ask was that the councils pledge to take a given number of refugee families and sign up for the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. We’d worked with council leaders and learned that saying yes would be politically impossible if it meant drawing on already stretched public housing. And we’ve proven that local campaigns, supported by landlords willing to make properties available, could get a council to “yes”. To cascade the template across the country we needed a way to recruit at volume, turn that crowd into teams, and build the support structures needed to help those teams thrive.

We turned to friends at 38 Degrees, the UK’s leading digital campaign group, to help recruit. They started a petition in every local authority area in the country. Wherever a petition hit 1,000+ signatures people were invited to sign up for a training. Wherever 15 or more people signed up, and someone offered to find a host venue, we committed a CitizensUK Organiser to deliver the session. 

Those two-hour sessions were part training and part campaign kickstarter. We spent the first half giving context on the crisis and coaching people to articulate why helping Syrian refugees mattered personally. Everyone in every training could see it mattered, what we asked in the first half was why it mattered to them. 

After building trust and commitment through this mini crash course in public narrative, we spent the second half forming the teams that would go on to run the campaign. Our organizers would help the groups select co-chairs to lead them, nominate volunteers to drive different workstreams like liaising with the councils and signing up schools and doctors, and then end the session with planning - where people would make specific commitments and pick the next date to meet. A continent away and one year later this approach also emerged in the “barnstorm” meetings from the Sanders campaign’s Big Organising.

In ten weeks we trained 1,309 people in 96 locations across the UK, from the Scottish highlands down to the South Coast.

With the strategic template and this recruitment funnel in place, the last critical piece of infrastructure was to provide the teams with ongoing support through a relational architecture. With just two organizers and what would become over 100 teams we knew we’d never have the staff capacity to support them directly, so we learned to strike a balance between central support and peer-to-peer.

By selecting co-chairs in each location we made sure it would never all stand on just one person’s shoulders. All those co-chairs were then placed in a Facebook Group so they could connect, and share learnings and resources without relying on the team at the center.

Co-chairs got a 1:1 coaching call each month from one of our organizers, were invited to an annual residential training, and were welcomed onto a fortnightly central campaign call. That call itself was part national campaign engine room featuring key allies like politician Alf Dubs, and part forum for troubleshooting and sharing best practices from leaders on the ground.

Through this relational architecture, we made sure local leaders could get what they needed to succeed with their local campaigns while making sure they felt like part of a greater whole that was delivering impact across the country.

By incubating and then cascading we helped build the Refugee Welcome movement that welcomed 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. With that movement in place, we were then also able to take further national issues, break them down into new local strategic templates, and use grassroots power to deliver real wins. 

When in March 2016 Lord Dubs, himself once a child refugee, brought an amendment that would require the UK to take a share of the refugee children reaching Europe, the local teams stepped up again, securing further pledges from councils across the country.

These pledges helped prove that the country stood ready and willing to welcome these kids, winning the national argument while teams also brought pressure to bear on specific Conservative MPs ahead of key votes. Through that pressure, we built a threat of rebellion credible enough that the government backed down and, rather than risking a vote they would lose, simply accepted the amendment. MPs like Will Quince, representing Colchester, did not have a long track record on refugee rights, but when his local team led by Jean Michel Knutsen turned out 500 people, he backed the amendment.

Final Thoughts

Community organizing is often criticized as too slow and too low - it is patient people and place-focused work that can struggle to achieve change of the scale that feels demanded by many of the challenges facing us today - inequality, climate change, the housing crisis.

Incubating and cascading as a practice provides a response, as organizers don’t have to walk away from a focus on people or place to respond to crisis or to take advantage of major events. It is precisely through their deep local work that they can create the strategic templates needed for scale - whether resettling Syrians, pushing for a Living Wage, or persuading police forces to treat misogyny as a type of hate crime.

What’s more, incubating and cascading achieves speed and scale without dumbing down the participation of local leaders on the ground. Local groups aren’t reduced to “troops”, just there to be deployed in support of a strategy held entirely by paid professionals at the center. Instead, campaign strategy is dynamic, repeatedly built from the ground up and broken down from the top down - as in the case of the fight to help refugee children, where we took an emerging national fight and split it down into local fights we could win at critical mass.

This approach enables community organizers to stretch for impact greater than the power and resources of their existing organization, through building a peripheral (sometimes ephemeral) layer of organization. In that layer, new leaders can be spotted and the seeds of future deep organization sewn, all while delivering the type of impact that is needed to win. Supporting and sustaining it does require different approaches however, ones that provide:

  • A clear and evolving strategic template that continues to provide meaningful local campaigning opportunities that also enable major national wins

  • A recruitment funnel through which recruitment can be driven at scale and speed

  • A relational architecture providing support that focuses on training while doing, peer-to-peer connection, and continued injection of energy. 

It’s been nearly ten years since the Syrian refugee crisis, but in that time the case for a type of organizing that can flex in crisis and reach the scale we need has only become clearer. From the climate crisis to racial justice to inequality, we need models that scale while continuing to fully leverage the leadership, power, and creativity of those on the ground as well as at the center.


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