Recently I’ve been doing a lot of training and mentoring around community organising theory and practices. I find this area really energising – I get to see people grasp the sense that they can have collective power, take on leadership and win significant change.

In July I ran a workshop at Melbourne’s Green School, hosted by the Green Institute. Most participants were involved in the Greens in various ways, many engaged in their local branches. The workshop ‘Organising to Win’ included discussion of definitions of organising, the most succinct of which is:

Organizers engage people in deliberating about how they can turn what they have (resources), into what they need (power) to get what they want (their interests): strategy.
Marshall Ganz, ‘What is Organizing?

Put like that it sounds very logical and simple, but taking on organising as an approach can be challenging for groups, and involve changing practices and outlook. Building one-to-one relationships takes time. Calling supporters and directly inviting them to engage in action is more labour intensive than crafting and sending a broadcast email. But the outcome is worth it in terms of depth of engagement and commitment.

Sometimes when I’m educating folks about organising I, and the group, can struggle a bit because of the limited examples of organising in Australia. Obviously organising is widespread in the union movement (although in some unions more than others!), and aspects of organising are used by many activists. But we don’t have the widespread established community organising models that exist in North America. We have less folks identifying as organisers, with key organising skills. It is exciting to notice the spread of this identity, language and skillset.

One inspiring emerging example is the 100% Renewable Energy campaign. I feel very fortunate to have been involved in the campaign through the Change Agency  as a trainer and mentor to regional organisers. The campaign has been developed so thoughtfully, with well thought through campaign strategy and a commitment to rolling out an organising plan around the country. In just a few years the campaign has linked up climate action groups to have national influence; developed a team of committed regional organisers; trained numerous activists in community organising; involved hundreds of people around the country in creative tactics; undertaken 14,000 one-to-one conversations about renewable energy; and had an influence on the carbon price negotiations. 100% Renewables talks about its organising plan here.

On a totally different scale, Make Change Melbourne is utilising community organising in the federal seat of Melbourne. The Greens built an engaging and highly visible campaign in the seat in the lead-up and during the last federal election. This culminated in Adam Bandt being elected as the first Green elected to the House of Representatives in a general election. This electoral outcome has already had a significant impact, with the ALP requiring Adam’s support to form government, and the carbon price deal a negotiated outcome. Make Change Melbourne is now tackling the challenge of building ongoing community support for a range of progressive initiatives outside the electoral cycle – because it takes more than electing representatives to make change. Jake and Kajute from Adam Bandt MP’s office spoke at the workshop about the Make Change Melbourne project. It was an interesting discussion about a different way for Green activists to work – building connected neighbourhood groups and campaigning in an ongoing way, rather than the boom-bust cycle of election campaigning.

After the workshop some of us had lunch together and continued discussing issues we cared about. I was struck by how much we tend to get caught up in finding policy solutions, and the particular way to approach an issue which will get the attention of powerholders. We get stuck with the assumption that the barrier to change is the way our solutions are articulated – not how organised we are, that is how much power we have. Of course proposing clear solutions is going to help us get where we want to be – but I don’t think it’s the main work.

At the heart of organising is building power and shifting power relationships. This will be easier for people to ‘get’ the more it actually happens and they experience it. Pioneering community organising projects have the potential to spread organising as a popular and effective approach to social change in Australia. Once we’ve tasted community power why would we look back?

Do you have other examples of community organising in Australia to share?