Community organising is a term that is being used more and more in Australian social movements – but what does it really mean? Here’s a brief introduction to some of the key principles.
Community organising builds power through gathering people with shared interests to take collective action. This approach recognises that significant social change tends to come about through the coordinated action of a number of people, rather than by isolated individuals.
Organising aims to shift relationships of power. From this approach all negative impacts on a community can be understood as a result of a lack of power. For example, where workers are divided and do not act collectively through a union they tend to receive lower pay and poorer conditions.
Organising does not focus energy on educating a target (decision-maker) of the merits of a policy; organising aims to make adopting a particular position in the political interests of a target, by avoiding negative pressure and potentially winning support through the change.
As Frederick Douglass, 19th Century US civil rights activist wrote, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’ So the challenge is not to convince Tony Abbott that climate change is real, but that failure to act on it will result in political repercussions.
Some of the characteristics of an organising approach to social change include:
- ‘Organisers organise organisations’. The role of an organiser is to develop relationships with people and connect them to an ongoing representative organisation which is capable of winning change.
- Strategy. Having a clear path from the current situation to the desired outcome is key to community organising. Strategic analysis can identify political opportunity where there is greatest potential to shift power relationships and win outcomes for constituents.
- An emphasis on direct communication, such as one-to-one conversations to shift people’s thinking and move them to action. Tactics that use this focus include door-knocking and outreach phone calls.
- Listening to people and identifying their concerns, motivations and values. For example, when campaigning for renewable energy you may meet someone who is primarily motivated by jobs and regional development. You could leverage those concerns into action for renewable energy – but if you focused on convincing that person to support renewable energy because of the need to reduce carbon emissions you may quickly lose their interest.
- Recruitment. Growing the numbers of people involved in an organisation and prepared to take action. If an organisation isn’t growing it is shrinking, simply due to natural turn-over.
- Training and development to build capacity to work together and take action. There are many barriers to effective action including confidence and skills-gaps. Overcoming such barriers through targeted development increases the effectiveness and powerfulness of an organisation.
- Developing leadership. To have an impact it isn’t enough to just increase the number of people involved. People need to be prepared to take increasingly influential action, such as moving from signing a petition, to volunteering to doorknock, to coordinating a team. Developing leaders allows action to be ‘scaled’, as information flows for example between active volunteers, neighbourhood organisers and regional organisers (depending on the organisation’s structure). Leadership need not to be interpreted hierarchically, but as many people with defined roles taking responsibility for making things go well.
- Like organises like. The best results for engaging people involve connecting them with people from their own community, background or with particular shared values or interests. Knowing your people is key – by mapping a community and the relationships within it, engaging community leaders who can influence a number of people, and managing data to ensure targeted communication.
Organising is a well-established approach to social change in the USA, with many paid community organisers who may move between different movements and community campaigns with a transferable skill-set. Saul Alinsky is considered the founder of modern community organising, and his book Rules for Radicals (published in 1971) continues to influence organising practice today.
Community organising has received a lot of exposure through the two presidential campaigns of Barack Obama. ‘Obama style organising’, developed in part by Marshall Ganz, emphasises personal story-telling and relationship building.
In Australia organising is becoming increasingly apparent as an approach to social change, particularly in workplace organising (through the activities of many trade unions), electoral organising (for example Adam Bandt’s Melbourne campaign and the Independent for Indi campaign) and community issues campaigns (such as Your Rights at Work and climate campaigns).
So that’s the basics covered. Want to take a deeper dive? Keep exploring the organising resources on the Commons!
This article was first published in Green Magazine Issue 41: Summer 2013.