Community organising aims to win back civil society’s rightful place

The Sydney Alliance’s founding assembly in 2011 filled the Town Hall with people eager to put community back into politics. Kurt Iveson/citiesandcitizenship.blogspot.com.au

In the wake of the Second World War, Karl Polanyi wrote that the public arena is made up of three interconnected sectors: the market, government and civil society. He argued that democracy thrives when these three are in balance.

If only that were the case today. Since the late 1980s, the global influence of the market sector has increased and, at the same time, civil society has decreased.

This can be felt every day in Australia’s cities. We see it in declining investment in community infrastructure – everything from a lack of public transport to unaffordable housing.

First in Sydney, then in other Australian cities, as well as across the world, civil society organisations – like churches, schools, unions, community and religious organisations – are rebuilding the power of civil society using community organising.

Community organising is a way of working that trains and builds citizen leaders inside community-based organisations. Community organisers argue that in order to fix our cities we need to fix our democracy. That means we need to build strong and vibrant civil society organisations that act for the common good.

Chicago-born Saul Alinsky was the grandfather of community organising. He first organised immigrants and industrial workers into a diverse coalition named the Back of the Yards Neighbourhood Council in the late 1930s. Alinksy created the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to spread this success.

Today, community organising coalitions can be found in more than 60 cities in countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany and Australia.

The Sydney experience

The Sydney Alliance translated community organising to Australia. The alliance was built slowly between 2007 and 2011, with a focus on one-to-one meetings across a remarkably diverse array of partners. These include the Catholic Church, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, the Cancer Council, the Uniting Church, Arab Council and the nurses’ union, among others.

Partner organisations fund the Sydney Alliance and supply the people who lead it. These leaders are supported by a small team of community organisers.

Community organising borrows from traditions as diverse as Catholic social teaching, the Jewish self-help tradition and union action. The alliance’s extensive community organising training uses texts as diverse as the Bible and Greek philosophy, then mixes those traditions with the experiences of social coalitions like Sydney’s Green Bans movement and modern-day heros like Gandhi.

The alliance’s first campaigns were local. The first victory was in Liverpool, in south-western Sydney, where community leaders from religious, union and community organisations advocated for the creation of “15-minute drop-off zones” outside six medical centres in Liverpool City.

In Glebe, churches and unions teamed up with the Glebe Youth Service to create local jobs for young indigenous men and women living in Glebe’s public housing estate. In 2013, this culminated in a 350-person assembly where Mirvac CEO John Carfi agreed to create an apprenticeship program for local men and women at the Harold Park Housing Development.

The Sydney Alliance uses community organising to restore the voice of civil society in our democracy. Western Sydney Public Transport Users Inc.

With the 2015 NSW state election looming, the alliance spent 2013 running listening campaigns across the city. This work produced our election agenda, which was launched on March 26 at Sydney Town Hall. About 1500 leaders from the alliance’s 49 partner organisations came together to commit to running public campaigns that could improve transport, housing and job opportunities.

The proposed solutions included:

The alliance will hold a campaign of suburban assemblies in Sutherland-St George, Western Sydney, North Shore and Nepean. The campaign will climax with a 3000-person Accountability Assembly – most likely at the Opera House. The NSW premier will be invited to tell the assembly what he has done to progress each of these issues after 100 days in office.

Making leaders and building relationships

The Sydney Alliance is an advocacy organisation with a difference. Its primary purpose is to help thousands of community members develop into community leaders.

We say leaders are made not born: the alliance provides training, teams and mentoring that can gently and intentionally support people from all walks of life to take on leadership roles in public life.

The alliance is creating remarkable relationships between Muslims and Christians, unionists and Catholics, schools and synagogues. It is also breathing new life into those organisations, by providing them with a means to not just talk about the things that worry them but do something about it.

A similar organisation is growing in Brisbane called the Queensland Community Alliance. There is also interest in community organising in places as diverse as Adelaide, Melbourne, Auckland and Newcastle.

Civil society may have its work cut out for it, but in Sydney and Australia it is making a comeback.