By James Whelan
James Whelan shares four ways the Community Organising Fellowship is giving participants the skills and confidence to initiate, design and lead powerful campaigns.
James Whelan is one of Australia’s most experienced activist educator-strategists. He has spent a lifetime exploring how people learn to campaign effectively for social and environmental change. Since completing his PhD on this topic and establishing Australia’s first and longest running activist education project, thechangeagency.org, he has trained, facilitated and strategised with hundreds of civil society groups in Australia and internationally. He has also led campaigns on climate, forests, air pollution, transport and other issues, influencing governments at all levels.
He now heads up the Community Organising Fellowship, a unique education program that equips emerging leaders in Australia’s climate movement with the skills they need to build community power to influence decision-makers.
His efforts are fuelled by a strong drive to understand what prompts people to stand up for what they believe in and become empowered to create change within and beyond their communities. Years of research and experience have revealed that for many, the challenge presents itself.
“People don’t generally go looking for a fight,” Dr Whelan says. “The fight comes to them.”
When something they treasure is threatened or damaged, they find themselves in a complex struggle. People standing up for what they believe often feel they are in a vortex and risk exhaustion as they try to find the point of leverage that will create change. Vested interests and the power of organised money are formidable forces, but the people who campaign for social and environmental justice can and do win.
James spent his childhood snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef while companies planned to drill it for oil. As an adolescent, Tasmania’s Franklin River was going to be dammed. Just a few years ago, the valley north of Newcastle where he shares a farm was going to be fracked for unconventional gas.
People power protected all these places, and people power is the engine of today’s social movement for climate action. These campaigns were led by passionate and deeply skilled community organisers, people able to identify and harness deeply held values and translate them into power. What they had in common was the ability to cultivate leadership, build participatory structures and hold elected representatives to account.
Since 2014, the Fellowship has trained 25 community organisers each year, through a series of residential workshops, a structured curriculum, mentoring and a series of real-world challenges. It’s the most intensive training program of its kind in Australia.
The Fellowship’s cohorts have included activists from the climate, environment and union movements, campaigns for Aboriginal self-determination and justice, refugee and asylum seeker campaigns, and many other social movements.
The Fellowship welcomes and maximises diversity. Participants’ ages have ranged from 19 to 78 years old, and they’ve come from urban and rural communities, grassroots campaigns and big NGOs. What they’ve had in common is a passion to learn and at least a few years’ campaign experience.
“In just six years, we’ve created a national network of 150 effective organisers who are now leading many of Australia’s high-impact campaigns.”
The Fellowship is based on four key principles:
1. The skills of community organising can be taught and learnt
Throughout history, skilled and organised people have learned and exercised these skills. Their stories and learnings are now being made accessible through sites like the Commons Library and thechangeagency.org. The Fellowship draws on these important resources and tools and continues to adapt and apply them.
2. Applying the tools and frameworks of organising to your own struggle facilitates deep learning
It’s great to observe or hear about a powerful campaigning technique. But to integrate that technique into our campaigning toolbox requires application and reflection. The Fellowship’s intensive residential workshops create the right conditions for supported practice. They entail a series of ‘rich tasks’ for the cohort to apply tools and techniques to their own campaigns.
3. Engaging in action informed by reflection is transformative
Campaigns draw us in, like a vortex. There’s a risk that we lose perspective. At its best, activist education creates space for self-reflection, both as individuals and collectively. There’s power in being with a cohort of critical friends on this journey. So the Fellowship deliberately creates space for reflection and teaches the practice of action informed by reflection: time, process and networks.
4. Tapping into a community of interest builds power
Connected organisers help to create connected movements. Immersive activist education like residential workshops create useful networks. Our graduates can turn to allies right across the country; an ever-growing base of experience, knowledge and connections.
The fellowship forges the relationships necessary for trusting alliances. I believe we need to work in alliance to build power. To change the world we live in, we have to reconnect with the people around us and across the political divide.
Kajute O’Riordan, Organising Director of GetUp
How to apply
Applications for 2020 are open from 1 August to 30 September 2019. Fees are charged on a sliding scale. Full scholarships are available for ATSI and Tasmanian activists.
For more information visit www.thechangeagency.org/community-organising-fellowship/