By Bethany Koch
Beth Koch is the National Network Organiser at the Australian Conservation Foundation. She initiated an event in October 2021 called The Future of Community Organising: An exploration hosted by Anita Tang and Australian Progress. The aim of the event was to talk through the challenges facing Organisers as communities move out of Covid-19 lockdowns. Here Beth outlines the key themes from the discussion and the many knotty problems for Organisers to work through together. There will be further exploration of these themes at FWD+Organise 2021.
I join the chorus of many Melbournians in relief, excitement, and just a smidge of trepidation as we take our first tentative steps out of 262 days of lockdown. This time has been challenging enough personally, but for those of us who are Organisers, we’ve had added challenges of holding our communities together through this long and difficult time. If you’re anything like me you’re taking it a day at a time and being responsive to our communities’ needs right now. Even that has barely been manageable, let alone being able to anticipate future needs.
Yet with our quickly changing society, our communities may be needing different support from us and require us to look ahead. I don’t have all the answers (unfortunately), but I felt it important to convene a conversation of Organisers across the sector to collectively work out: what do we need to think about next?
These are some of the questions we asked ourselves.
- How do we re-engage, re-energize people and rebuild groups after lock-down?
- How do we create relational connections without relying on in-person interactions?
- How do we create a sense of a team and connection online?
- Are people going to want to do activism and local group work when they could be catching up on family, friends, and/or holiday time?
- How long will it take for people to reset / recover from burnout from lockdown? What is a reasonable amount of time to assume people need to recover?
- How do we prevent online meetings fatigue?
- How do we balance the online/offline world? How do we make it inclusive?
- What are tactics that work online?
- What is the future of training and what do we need to change in our approach to training?
Here are our collective thoughts about what we might need to think about next.
Online is here to stay. Organising online has had numerous benefits for communities. Barriers to geography and access have in part been removed, and it is unlikely that we will see a full return to doing all organising activities in person that we have learned how to do online. If you’ve been holding off making decisions on your program or executing tactics until things ‘return to normal’, it may be time to question what normal you think you will be returning to.
The toll has been huge. What support will communities need to recharge? It has been a long road holding our communities together through a global pandemic. In the same way that you’re probably needing a break to recharge, so too will our volunteers. Resist the urge to load up your calendars with all the events you wish you could have hosted over the past two years. We must remember that individuals will return to different types of in-person activities at different paces. Many will be craving the in-person community. Others will need more time to feel safe and energised enough to be in a room with others.
There will be both resilience and fragility in our communities. We will need to figure out what our role is and isn’t in people’s recovery, and how to refer volunteers to the professional support that they might need.
Which communities have had a multiplied impact from the pandemic because of systemic injustice? What are we doing about it? The pandemic has exposed the injustices experienced by marginalised communities. Governments increased their powers, societal tensions rose and those already experiencing class, race and gendered violence were placed more at risk of harm and cruelty. For those of us who aren’t already active on these issues, why not? How can you support these communities right now? How can your organisation?
We need to support our groups to do the full organising circle online. You might be familiar with the Organising Circle. We’ve been using it for years to support groups to grow, develop relationships, train their people, identify leaders, demonstrate their power, then grow some more. This bread and butter of organising becomes challenging when groups would usually build their lists off petitions collected in person and build genuine connections and trust with one another over a post-event debrief at the pub. We have also relied on in-person observations, to identify which potential leader takes responsibility for greeting new people as they walk in the door. We must support groups to fulfill these functions online, or the circle will shrink instead of grow.
- Where is the digital market stall?
- How do we identify potential leaders when online spaces can sometimes be a little more controlled, and those stepping up to the work a little less visible?
- How can online spaces feel more human and less structured?
- Importantly, as we lead into an election, how do we demonstrate power?
- Do 60 people in a Zoom room have the same impact as 60 people at an MP’s office?
- How do we make this pressure more visible?
Our communities’ relationship to geography has shifted.
An interesting shift many of us have noticed is that our groups’ relationship to geography has changed. Electorate-based campaigns have volunteers dialling in from 3,740km away.
‘Local’ groups now have a creeping turf as there are no longer the same barriers to participation when you are just joining a webinar. Yet, many Australians have also had a 5km limit on their movements. They’ve become intimately familiar with their Local Government Area LGA in ways they did not anticipate.
There’s a simultaneous demand for hyper-local and also for a borderless organisation of our communities. This has an impact on the ‘who’ of our constituencies, and also what issues they campaign around. It has the potential to both increase and dilute the pressure on specific decision-makers. It also has implications for the granularity of how we track this engagement. As organisers, should we be re-organising these constituencies, or supporting them to organically reorganise themselves?
Accessibility is crucial. In some ways our online spaces have broken down barriers to entry. In other ways, the past two years have created new ones. Technology can be a barrier if tech literacy is low, internet speeds are poor, language isn’t shared or the communities we serve don’t have access to technology because of cost. Even when all those barriers are removed, poor use of tech tools and poor facilitation can create more subtle barriers to participation (for example, if the facilitator doesn’t know how to manage breakout rooms, plenary discussions can result in only a couple of people participating).
To underline these known challenges, our biggest problem is that we don’t know who is being excluded by our digital spaces and we have no way to track it. We must intervene early to make sure that the move to a more online world doesn’t leave people behind.
We will need better digital and physical tools. To facilitate organising coming out of a pandemic, we will need to invest in better physical and digital tools. Groups are asking for tech packs (room mics and speakers, etc), but we must also consider tools that help our groups find new people online, to organise newly arranged constituencies, to connect better relationally online in more human and organic ways, and to increase access to and pressure to those in power.
This is challenging as tech investment is expensive. We need a movement-wide approach to this investment rather than digital and tech tools only being designed for the needs of larger NGOs.
Format of Events
The way we design events needs to change. It’s easy to imagine our return to events to look like they did before. Butcher’s paper. Small tables with expressive smiles and passionate conversations. Herding cats to get breakouts to rejoin plenary discussions. Creative and festive demonstrations in the streets. We live for this! It makes me excited just thinking about it. But within this vision are many assumptions. Where are the masks? Where’s the social distancing? Where are the immunocompromised people who also want to participate? Our groups are already asking us about QR codes, and where to find information on whether they need a fenced-off area for their street stall. We are all scrambling to work out our responses to each of these queries before the government advice changes again.
All I know is that we need to think about events in the future differently. There are several options that have been explored, each with value, opportunity and downsides:
- Purely online
Some organisations will continue to host all their events exclusively online because of accessibility, the location of their constituency, and affordability. They have made the choice to lean into online events and get extremely good at them. Who needs to pay for venues to run staff-intensive and inaccessible events?
- Purely offline
Some organisations can’t wait to return to offline events. Online hasn’t worked for them often because of their constituency’s challenges with tech, or the financial barriers to investing in the tech required to make this work.
- Hybrid events
Some of our groups are already trialling hybrid events, where some of the group join the event online and some join in the room. This has been most effective when the event is designed to be less participatory (e.g. you can film and then broadcast a speaker), but becomes more challenging the more participatory you need it to be. Some solutions have included investment in physical tech (speakers, audience mics, projectors, cameras, etc) and more sophisticated facilitation training to help equalise participation.
- Event repetition
Some argue that equal participation in hybrid events is a myth, and that you should instead make the format one or the other. This might result in some organisations choosing to repeat events for both online and offline audiences.
- Multi-site events
Multi-site events are where there are smaller groups of people meeting in person but are connected digitally for some activities such as plenary training. I was all set to run such an event when the borders were closed. We’d hired venues in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. And then two of our cities went into full lockdown due to Delta. The event was cancelled! But I’d be keen to hear if others try this and if it works.
Our discussion also explored that in some cases it might end up being a mix with some things online and some things offline, depending on the purpose and needs of the event.
Being ambiguous or ignoring the challenge won’t make it go away.
We need to figure out an approach to vaccines. Some of us have had volunteers refusing to come to events if the organisation doesn’t require attendees to be double-dosed. Others are threatening to cut ties with our organisation if we do require vaccinations for participation. This is tricky stuff, and many of us are still working out what our approach will be.
There are only two pieces of wisdom I can offer at this stage. First, is that your organisation will need an approach. Being ambiguous or ignoring the challenge won’t make it go away, and will result in shifting the burden to volunteers to have to resolve in their interactions with the community. In the same way I am grateful for being able to point people to a government position, our communities are looking for that same clarity and ability to handball to us. The second piece of wisdom I offer is to work out and write down what principles will guide your approach.
The Australian Conservation Foundation ACF has done this, with principles guiding our approach like being science-based, and acting for the common good. Tearfund Australia are developing principles based on a theology of vaccinations. Being able to offer people a values-based rationale that underpins your approach helps to bring your community along with you.
The Institute of Community Directors and Maddocks have developed sample policies and procedures related to vaccination, epidemics and pandemics.
This brings me to my last point on events. I’m sure we’ve all learned the hard way these past two years that we need a back up plan. The feeling at this convening of minds in October is that this need not and should not change. The world will continue to be unpredictable, and we must be ready.
This meeting of minds didn’t aim to get all the answers to the problems listed above, but rather to articulate them so that we can begin to solve them together. There will be a few Organisers gathering to dig into some of these challenges, and the hope is that we will be able to share this collective wisdom with you all at FWD + Organise 2021 (if you haven’t already got your ticket, register here!).
Have you got wisdom to share with us? Has your organisation gone some way in addressing these challenges? Perhaps you aren’t in Australia, are a little further down the recovery road and can tell us what the future holds. We’d love to hear from you.
Some related resources in the Commons Library:
- Organising: Start Here
- Community Organising Leadership in Uncertain Times
- Deep Canvassing during the US 2020 Election – ChangeMaker Chat with Adam Barbanel-Fried (Podcast)
- How to host virtual hybrid meetings
- How to have inclusive online meetings
- Digital tools to support effective meetings, trainings and conferences
- Staying Together While Keeping Apart