This speech was delivered by Amanda Tattersall to Citizen UK’s Guild of Organisers on 5 January 2022.
I first discovered community organising through books in the early 2000s. Which is a little unusual because organising is before all else experiential, not cerebral. But in Australia it didn’t exist. While I had spent years trying to make social change through social movements and organisations, this new way of working came to life through the work of Saul Alinsky.
In 2005 I was living in the United States completing a PhD on coalition building. I’d found the IAF through their website, a web presence that vividly reflected their skepticism of digital activism. Nevertheless it gave me the email address of one of the IAF co-directors, Mike Gecan.
I met Mike in January 2006 in the Empire State Building. He kept an office on Level 29. We had an engaging and slightly unnerving conversation about social change while we looked over the Financial District. That May I did my first Five Day National Training at a Seminary School in New Jersey, staying overnight in a Monastery. I was intrigued. What kind of organisation was capable of moving between these different kinds of places?
When I returned to Australia in 2007, I took my nascent knowledge of community organising with me. I’d met Neil Jameson on Christmas Eve in East London who’d shared a series of lessons about the long formation of Citizens UK and I’d met Joe Chrastil, the IAF Lead in the US North-West, who agreed to mentor me. At age 30 I decided that I would establish community organising in Australia by building our first organisation — the Sydney Alliance.
The origin story of the Sydney Alliance can be told at a few different registers. The popular one is that my return to Australia coincided with a desire for new strategies for civil society. These included a race riot in Sydney’s southern suburbs, serious attacks on workplace rights, and a rising community agenda in local Protestant and Catholic Churches. In 2011 we launched the Alliance with 2500 people, 49 organisations, having raised millions of dollars in independent dues. Following that launch new Alliances formed in other parts of the country. Battles around housing, social isolation, transport, electricity prices and climate change were staged by alliances drawn from a base so broad that it surprised political and market leaders. While no one in 2007 called themselves a community organiser, in 2022 — somewhat…