April 2020 was a frantic month for Citizens UK Birmingham (CUK B’ham) members involved in the Business Leaders’ Project (BLP), a pioneering cross-sector partnership that aims to support migrant business owners. On April 26, Tsitsi Mudokwani of Sisters Care spoke movingly to Sky News about the risks to her care staff on home visits without adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Earlier that month on April 4, social enterprise director Shale Ahmed posted an important twitter thread on the profound sense of detachment felt by local business from public pronouncements on Covid-19 support. This sense of disconnection prompted several CUK B’ham member organisations to join forces on April 29 in a bid to support Birmingham City Council’s Public Health Team communicate vital information to ethnic minority communities.

These rapid public actions were the product of the slow, deliberative, and respectful process of community organising at the heart of CUK B’ham and the BLP. Since 2015, BLP partners – CUK Bham, the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME), NatWest Bank (represented by Andy Lee) and the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership  [GBSLEP] – have set aside institutional affiliations to build relationships with businesses and communities often ignored by public agencies. We’ll discuss the outcomes of the BLP in another blog. Our concern here is to reflect on the key elements of community organising – relationships, power analysis, and actions – that enabled the BLP to respond in swift and inclusive manner during the pandemic.

The first is deep knowledge of local communities. The BLP focuses on nurturing relationships with businesses and communities rather than top-down business support. In the first year of the BLP, Community Organiser Dr Mosese Dakunivosa met nearly 300 business owners to discuss their personal concerns and business needs. Many of these discussions resulted in enduring relationships, which are proving invaluable in the COVID 19 crisis.

On March 16, a few weeks before the national lockdown, local business owners involved in the BLP met to share experiences on the challenges of running a business in the locality, gaps in business support, and how business owners might represent themselves during the crisis. A key outcome of the workshop was the decision to establish the Business Leadership Group, a peer support group of local entrepreneurs to represent businesses and communities in their locality. The patient nurturing of community-based relationships was instrumental to the development of the group, and differentiates it from other – often detached – representative bodies like Traders’ Associations and lobby groups.

Another community organising tool – the ‘power analysis’ – informed the design of the BLP and is also demonstrating its worth in the crisis. Power analysis involves an appraisal of the key institutions and individuals that facilitate or hinder social change. We conducted a number of listening campaigns with local business owners in 2015, well before the decision was made to develop a project. Numerous other ‘agitations over cups of tea’ led to relationships with CREME, NatWest (represented by Andy Lee) and eventually to a successful bid to the GBSLEP. These three organisations are key actors in the local business support ecosystem, and the enduring relationships with them account for the longevity of the BLP.

Tsitsi Mudokwani’s appeals for PPE in front of the Sky New cameras on April 26 were facilitated by the ‘real time’ power analysis that characterises CUK B’ham and the BLP. Two weeks’ earlier, Saidul was approached by a journalist seeking stories about the pandemic. He shared Tsitsi’s company’s story: large numbers of the Black and Asian (mostly women) staff team were visiting vulnerable patients at home visits, often without adequate PPE.  Some had ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ so had little choice but to work. Many relied on public transport to get to work and visit patients. Thanks to the publicity and a decisive tweet by Andy Lee of the BLP, Tsitsi’s firm received a donation of PPE from Jaguar Land Rover on May 15.

Analysis needs to be followed by action; a process made all the more urgent by COVID 19. On 2 April, the newly formed Business Leadership Group (BLP) met online for a listening session to discuss their concerns and needs during COVID 19. This was the first time they shared their experiences. None had received advice or guidance from local government, business support agencies or representative bodies. Most feared for the viability of their businesses, and were unclear about the criteria for accessing government grants. They agreed to work with the BLP to arrange a meeting with the local authority representative responsible for business support grants.

This meeting was held on April 27 with the relevant Council official, and six weeks’ later, many business owners in attendance received a grant. Few had contemplated applying prior to the initial meeting of the BLP. This cycle of analysis, action, and importantly, reflection has characterised the BLP, and is a prime feature of community organising.

Agile and decisive responses are required when the livelihoods and life chances of businesses and communities are the on the line. Ironically, it is the patient cultivation of personal relationships in communities at the core of community organising that produced the swift actions to support businesses involved the BLP. Mainstream business support institutions can draw on these rich, trust-based networks to provide more inclusive and responsive services.

Saidul Haque Saeed is Regional Organiser at Citizens UK