Interview: True Matilda
Politics: State of Play
Industrial: Capital Dilemmas
Unions: Rhodes Scholars
National Focus: Rennovating the Lodge
International: People Power
Economics: A Bit Rich
History: Mine Shafts
Safety: Sick Of Fighting
Organising: Building a Wave
Poetry: Anger In The Bush(es)
Review: The Battle Of Algiers
Culture: The Word On The Street
The Locker Room
Co-operating At All Costs
All Good Except You
Building a Wave
This common set of campaigning skills has the potential to bring us together as we go about rebuilding and strengthening our movements.
All organisers face similar challenges. They include - how to recruit new members, to inspire and mobilise people, to build confidence that change is possible, and to articulate a vision of a community or society that works for the majority and not a powerful minority. To re-generate solidarity that says that what happens to other people concerns me, and to build the collective strength that equips people to act together.
Like unions, community groups have experienced their own difficulties in the past twenty years. Many community groups were born out of struggles in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, women organised refuges, self-help organizations, and feminist agencies; indigenous people established their own organizations; public housing residents and tenants formed resident action groups, neighbourhood and community centres were established, community child care groups, advocacy groups were formed, and peak community associations grew.
Nearly all these organizations have come to rely on grant and/or project income from the State. Today many community groups report that the pressures to meet stringent government accountability requirements, the stress associated with dwindling resources and short term employment contracts, the constant demand to compete for government tenders and so on has changed the scope and ability of their organizations to be effective community advocates or activists.
In response to these pressures there is an interest in re-examining their relationships with the State, and examining new ways of organising at the community level.
Unions have looked overseas to learn lessons for organising. But what is interesting about the US unions is that they looked to community organisers to craft their organising techniques. Those methods were honed over decades and draw on different traditions that include the industrial organising drives of the 1930s and neighbourhood organising in the Depression, the post war urban renewal and organising strategies pioneered by Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), and the civil rights movement and new left community organising of the 1960s and 70s. An important catalyst in these movements was the Highlander education centre of Myles Horton.
Since the 1970s a number of national networks have developed systematic approaches to community organising that rest on the idea of building power for local communities. Organising strives to building power in communities for people to achieve their own emancipation. There are many definitions of community organising. Essentially it involves recruiting low and middle-income people to organisations to act together in the interest of their communities and a common good. These are people who are generally removed from decision making in their workplace and in their community. Ideally the process enables members to feel a sense of personal and collective agency through claiming responsibility for their community and its future direction.
In many cases the larger American organisations undertake very deliberate training programs to develop and support organisers.
Much of this training is focussed on developing organisers in techniques of protest (rallies, marches, boycotts), political action (voter registration, lobbying), mutual aid (low cost housing development, co-ops, credit unions), communication and organising development (house meetings, precinct work, one to one organising), and media work (issue framing, press releases, media conferences, publications).
Successful community organising means knowing 'how to' act, but it is as important to know 'why'. How to communicate, to talk and listen, to plan, to follow-up, to pressure and to be strategic are all essential tools. But by themselves they are not enough. Unless there is a clear purpose and goal to build power to improve the lives of working people or working class communities then we are just left with a set of tools that can be applied by others with often quite contrary ideals
For example, some of the most successful contemporary examples of grass roots organising have been waged by the Republican right and moral majority in the US, by fundamentalist groups in the Middle East, and by community development workers in Singapore. Closer to home fundamentalist Christian groups in western Sydney have shown how effective they are at drawing huge crowds to their rally-style Sunday services, and are now moving into political organising by running candidates in the coming federal election.
There are positive examples of community organising in Australia - the breakthrough campaigns of the BLF's green bans and the broad based campaign for refugee and asylum seeker rights are two prominent examples. Campaigns such as Fairwear, the organising work in the Pilbara and other localised projects run by church groups in local areas offer glimpses of what can be achieved using these methods and how new people can be moved to take action on issues of immediate concern.
Community organising necessarily involves developing alliances between community organisations, unions, social movements and other social justice groups. But that can be easier said than done.
A question for us today is how to bring together organisers from across different movements to hear and learn from each other. To share experiences, to better understand what motivates each other, what goals are being pursued, to find out what unites and how to deal with scepticism and doubt in order to build trust and collaboration.
A group of community workers, union organisers, campaign activists and academics have been meeting this year to discuss these ideas and how they could be given stronger foundation in NSW. Various possibilities such as convening a School to bring together community organisers from different fields, establishing an ongoing training intermediary; and working together on a place-based organising project have been discussed.
Recently the group decided to organise a Community Organising School for 2005.
A forum on Union-Community alliances and coalition building, will be held at the UTS Centre for Popular Education on 10 September to look at these questions in more depth. www.cpe.uts.edu.au/forums/activism_forum_3.html
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