In their People Power Manual: Community Organising Guide James Whelan and Jason MacLeod distinguish three frameworks of practice, schemas, or cognitive maps for the social change practice of organising. They are broad based organising; social movement organising; and community development informed organising.
Broad-based organising (IAF-style) has been heavily influenced by the work of Saul Alinsky (1969; 1971), which was then systematised by Ed Chambers (2004) and others (Tattersall 2015). The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) teaches all their organisers the cycle below.
The IAF broad-based organising model is generally applied in a place and begins with listening, building relationships, training people and forming an alliance. Organisers from the broad-based organising tradition talk about ‘power before purpose’ (Gecan 2004; Chambers 2014). By that they mean building commitment to work together through an organisation of organisations long before taking action on a particular community concern. Only when sufficient relationships have been created between people from a range of faith, labour and community-based institutions do organisers initiate processes to discern what issue, or combination of issues, resonate broadly and deeply enough with people in the particular place they are working in, to sustain shared action. The research phase involves careful analysis, selecting goals, refining targets, making plans and determining timelines. The next stage is action. At some point this invariably this means turning out large numbers of people in public demonstrations of power. Once the issue has been won a rigorous process of evaluation begins to ensure that the lessons are fully integrated across the alliance. Evaluation in this sense is different from debriefing. Monitoring and constant reflection is part of the emphasis on social learning that accompanies broad-based organising.
Social movement issue organising
James, together with the Change Agency co-founder, Sam La Rocca, developed the following approach to organising. While expressed in a linear form here, action and reflection informs each step.
This approach, which was the foundation for the Big Switch, an early experiment with organising for climate action in Australia, is well suited to neighbourhood and social movement organising where the issue comes first and the constituency around that issue is expanded. Significant time is invested in understanding the issues at stake and mapping the interests of various stakeholders before engaging in relational meetings, building coalitions and moving into collective action.
Jason’s work draws on a different lineage, influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Martin Buber and Paolo Freire. The framework was developed at the University of Queensland (Kelly and Sewell 1994; Westoby and Dowling 2013) and has been taught to a generation of community workers as ‘community development method’. Community organising within this tradition differs from community development to the extent that it explicitly awakens power-within, undermines power-over and creates power-with through collective action for social and environmental justice.
At the heart of this approach is being: knowing who you are and why you do what you do. This is all about having an awareness of the traditions and values that inform the organiser’s approach to organising as well as the communities and histories the organiser is linked to. Being subtly shapes all the other dimensions and brings depth to organising. The actual practice of day-to-day organising, however, really begins with bonding: listening, observing, entering into dialogue and building relationships. Getting alongside people traverses a spectrum from light and fun to serious and deep. Bonding creates conditions that are more conducive for collective action. It is about understanding why people do what they do, why they care enough to want to take action.
Organisers will continue to maintain, deepen and expand their relationships throughout their work with particular groups, places, interests, identities and issues. But organisers are not only interested in relationships for their own sake, they are also attuned to the movement to shared public action: banding together, taking collective action.
Some community organising, particularly grassroots organising, may not go beyond bonding and banding. But if, for example, the work requires more structure than a local action group that meets around kitchen tables, it will proceed to building: creating more stable forms of organisation that can nurture leaders and widen the circle of civic participation. Bridging is the next step, further increasing the complexity of organising. This is the work of building alliances, coalitions, and local- global partnerships. Community organising rarely proceeds to this level of complexity.
These are, by no means, the only the frameworks of practice or approaches to organising out there, but they are ones that have shaped our work as educators and practitioners. We encourage you to explore others and articulate your own approach.
For more information about community organising and a comprehensive collection of planning tools and training resources see the full People Power Manual: Community Organising Guide.