By Adele Neale
Adele Neale, co-director of the Community Organising Fellowship, makes the case for deep listening and learning as part of organising during times of crisis, including the current pandemic. The Community Organising Fellowship, Australia’s most intensive 6-month training for community campaigners and organisers, is accepting applications for the 2021 cohort till 31 October.
It’s September 2020 and I’ve been in lockdown and self-imposed isolation for the better part of 5 months. That’s a lot of Zoom meetings! Perhaps you’ve spent even more time than that organising and connecting with people online.
Have you, too, been noticing that it’s just not the same as in person? There’s no chance to float an idea with someone by the coffee machine. No chats over drinks after a meeting to check in as humans informally. No easy way to feel the room or sit with a fellow community member to find out what’s up.
I believe we shouldn’t give up on the practices of listening, reflection and building relationships, just because our communications have to be online.
Some groups have responded by making more time for check-ins, extending time for breaking out into teams and creating online spaces for fun stuff or monitoring vibes.
There’s another tool in the organiser’s toolkit that comes to mind straight away for me – to help us be more reflective and relational when we’re learning.
We start in the centre with participants’ experience on the topic, draw out themes and lessons, then introduce a tool or framework, practice using it, then reflect on how that went.
As we’ve shifted the Fellowship’s teaching and learning arrangements (our pedagogy) from in-person to online sessions this year, the spiral model has helped us to support participants to learn and connect with each other (not just with the facilitators), building their support network and reaching greater understanding about the work they do for change. These are key things our graduates and current participants value about this fellowship. And we keep looking for more ways to make space for it, intentionally, and do it better.
The foundations of the spiral model can operate at a more meta level too – in the way we approach organising communities. In the way we determine what to fight for and how to win.
We can approach a crisis as a time of learning and growth, for ourselves and our communities. We can start by paying attention to people’s experiences. We can notice the themes and emergent lessons. We can find new tools and practices that fit the times and we can practice them and prepare for what comes next.
Let’s pause for a moment to check in on what’s been happening in some communities on this continent. Some communities are mobilising and organising in new bursts in response to some of the most unjust aspects of our social systems. There has been huge growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, after the police killing of George Floyd, to stop black deaths in custody here. Workers have started acting together powerfully during the COVID-19 pandemic in workplaces where bosses refuse to put in appropriate protections or conditions.
Some other communities are less politically active lately. People are sick, isolated, experiencing trauma from multiple crises, trying to stay afloat financially, or taking a breather. Some are feeling busier than ever before. Separated like never before.
I have hope that organisers can play a transformative role in these communities, even during the pandemic. People in all our communities still have problems, still care about the state of the world, and still need connection.
My observation is that many people need extra support to engage in social change than they did before the pandemic. Perhaps different support to what organisers have provided before. Is it about arranging psychological support? Financial? Inspirational? I don’t have the answer because I don’t know your community. You know your community.
This is a prompt for all us organisers to make the time to keep listening in our communities. Listening can be powerful. Through listening we can identify the issues that are widely and deeply felt in our community – which may be very different from what was bubbling prior to the pandemic. Listening can help people access their own resilience and inner wisdom. Listening builds trust and rapport so people are more able to act together when the time is right. Listening can be paired with supportively agitating people to reflect. This is potentially a time for transformation.
As such, we are also called to respond creatively and courageously. Perhaps this looks like adjusting your strategy to match the community’s newly-realised or affirmed values. Or to share your power with a community facing great injustice. Or finding tactics that raise people’s energy even if it doesn’t demonstrate as much power as you’d like. Or building messages of hope, defiance and solidarity into the culture of your community.
This article is not here to offer you a shiny new tip for engaging lots of people online at once – there are many people who are doing brilliant work on that front. I’m here to lift up the deeper slow-burn engagement. Let’s not allow the online nature of our constrained work stop us from listening, reflecting and building relationships. Let’s care for our wellbeing along the way. Deep engagement with each other as communities is an important part of our movements’ resistance and our path to a better future. Shout out to all organisers doing incredible work!
Adele Neale is co-director of the Community Organising Fellowship, Australia’s most intensive 6-month training for community campaigners and organisers. Applications for the 2021 Fellowship are open till 31 October.
Thanks to Holly Hammond for feedback and additions to this article.