This article will appear in an upcoming book about Community Organising, published in Germany.
When I first encountered ‘community organising’ I saw it as a distinctive practice for making change in the city. Its particular form and method sat in dramatic contrast to a different type of change-making that I had tried previously, mass mobilisation.
In Sydney Australia in 2003, I was working in the union movement helping to build a social movement to try and stop war in Iraq. At one level, the movement was remarkably successful — in the shade of the enormous Fig trees that line Hyde Park on the 16 February 2003 we organised the largest demonstration in Australia’s history with over 250 000 people overwhelming the centre of Sydney. That march, in turn, was part of a global wave of protest on the weekend of 14–16 February 2003. That weekend’s coordinated mass demonstration was the largest global protest ever staged in human history. Yet, despite all of this, the movement was unsuccessful — the war went ahead. On top of this, the coalition that coordinated these protests may have been large, but it was built very quickly. There was a lack of trust between the groups and soon after the war began, it fell apart. For me, this contrast between the bigness of the protest and its coalition and our lack of impact was a watershed moment. It drove me to search for a different way to make change.
Years later in 2006 while in the United States researching coalition building, I met and participated in a five-day training held in a seminary school in New Jersey run by the Industrial Areas Foundation. There I encountered the principles of organising. I learnt about power and the possibilities of building ‘power-with’ through building deep relationships. We discussed the role of institutions and leaders for anchoring democracy, and the role of public action and evaluation. This pedagogy of change-making was captivating and irritating in equal measure. It challenged many of my earlier assumptions about how to build people power. Yet at the same time, it was a relief. Perhaps this approach could work in ways that protests had failed?
A year after that training I returned to Sydney and established the first IAF organisation in Oceania — the Sydney Alliance. It was hard work…