My friend is unwell, and I feel I should be there to support him – drink tea, sit in silence if need be. Why do I feel this way? Part of me wants to feel like a saviour; someone he might reflect back on later and say, “She stayed while no one else did”. I don’t like this as a reason to care: it is self-centred. But I also hope that one day, when I’m in need and not much fun to hang out with, my friend will come and drink tea and sit in silence with me. This, to me, is about reciprocity: it says that your destiny is intertwined with mine. It is the togetherness at the root of this motivation that makes me believe it is wholesome. I guess I have mixed motivations – not unusual, given I am human. I think it’s best we drink the tea.
In our church people generally sit in approximately the same places each week. It reminds me of growing up when Mum and Dad always sat at their established ends of the table, with the kids lining the sides in predetermined spots. These days Dave and I have set sides of the bed on which we sleep: I'm on the left, he is on the right.
Established spots have practical advantages, but they also operate to keep things predictable. It’s a kind of subconscious agreement; a cooperation with everyone else in the room that says, “Let’s just keep things the same. I won’t change if you don’t change.”
I have been reading Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’, which is about relationship. So often we relate to others as an ‘It’. We have decided what they are like based on our past experiences of them; they are contained by our limited imaginations. When we relate to others as ‘Thou’, however, we see them as part of a much greater eternal reality, where anything is possible.
Our fused places at church, at the dinner table, in bed are physical manifestations of the limits we place on ourselves and each other, where we decided who we were and the roles we played long ago.
What happens when we switch it around? What if I shift slightly, and some dormant seed suddenly has room and sunlight in which to bloom?
We live in an age of great scepticism for institutions.
It’s not surprising, really. We are disappointed by periodic reports of abuse caused by paternalistic institutions of church and state. We are frustrated by old ideologies that don’t work anymore, defended by creaky structures and dogged vanguards. We are bored by dying associations that are concerned more with staying alive, than with doing anything much good for the community.
And yet, institutions are not going to go away. While many of us are inclined to run a mile from the nearest AGM, the reality is that if we don’t build our own institutions that embody the kind of values we would like to live by, then the institutions of the status quo will run our lives.
Injustice, war, inequality and consumerism are all institutionalised realities. The organisations of government, market and civil society conspire, consciously and unconsciously, to make sure they continue on indefinitely with as little opposition as possible.
We cannot defeat injustice, war, inequality and consumerism with momentary declarations of peace and equality, or even momentary acts of protest. What is required is the disciplined, sustained embodiment of an alternative reality, that defeats injustice piece by piece. An internet mobilisation of individuated, disembodied voices is no opposition to institutionalised evil, even if they all turn out for the day at the State Library. It is just another way of doing individualism.
What we actually need to do is build our own institutions, which can be formidable forces in the battle for a world defined by love.
If you are like me, you will not like the sexist, racist, hierarchical institutions of old. This is where we must challenge ourselves to not abandon ship, but to create the kind of institutions that begin to embody the reality we are seeking for our world.
My challenge to you all? If you haven’t already, join a faith community, sign up to your union, or become a member of a local community group. If you don’t like any of the ones around you, be part of the long, slow and often painful work of creating better ones.
We have to commit to this work, or else be content with the institutions of the status quo dictating how this world will be.
Quivering centre of me,
don't you know you are part of All That Is?
Stop being so hungry all the time!
Just be filled.
This is a call
not to arms,
but to the unleashing of gifts.
For too long many of us have waited
for others to give us permission;
to give us space
to speak, act, write, create.
We have asked politely,
not realising that no permission is needed,
other than our own.
All we need, and more, is in our possession.
how many hours have I wasted
waiting for someone to throw me just a bone?
there is no need to gnaw on leftovers
when there is a feast here,
ready to share.
Believe that you were born
with the most precious of treasures within.
Wait – I see you looking over there,
over your shoulder
I’m talking to you!
You were born
with unbelievable things inside your being.
They will transform the world, if you let them.
The world needs you to.
Who are you to deny it?
it is time
to stop keeping your God-given gifts hidden,
out of some false pretence of humility.
Believing the lies of a patriarchal world
is not the same thing as humility.
Humility is this:
Letting go of those layers and layers
that are covering your inner light.
Shine, sister, shine!
This is the time to unite.
That’s right: sisters unite!
We don’t need to wait for others to create things
so we can participate when asked.
No! We must create things ourselves.
Organise the forums.
Form the networks.
Create the businesses.
Start the organisations.
Raise the funds.
God knows, we are so very capable.
The world needs us to act upon this.
if you can write,
for goodness’ sake, write!
If you can speak,
for goodness’ sake, speak!
If you can organise, if you can oversee finances,
if you can cook, if you can care,
if you can paint, if you can knit,
if you can govern, if you can direct,
if you can mentor, if you can preach,
if you can code, if you can design…
for goodness’ sake, do these things!
And do them well.
Do them to the best of your God-given ability.
God knows, the world needs you to.
And one more thing!
Go and find your fellow woman
and help her to be all she has been created to be, also.
And then –
Let us make things together.
that is what the world
is crying out for us to do.
Here is a Tried & Tested, 3 Step Process to Finding Your Vocation:
Step 1: Identify what you do that gives you Great Joy.
Step 2: Work out where your Great Joy meets with one of the world’s Great Needs.
Step 3: Give yourself the permission and authority to do this thing. Don’t forget that God already has.
In my experience, Step 3 is the hardest.
whatever I feel they have taken away,
denied access to,
tried to quash in ways so subtle they are impossible to name,
I give to myself.
Today I choose not to wait for permission,
not to wait for somebody to tell me my work is of value,
not to wait – or even expect – acknowledgment, recognition, reward.
I give myself permission. My work is valuable.
This is true whether I am condemned, celebrated or ignored.
I have had moments of glory, and I will have them again:
name in lights, famous for five minutes.
I won’t deny these times are fun.
But just as I refuse to be defined by invisibility,
I evade the clutches of good opinion,
What matters is this:
that I am a child of God,
who has been gifted
to speak and act a truth that comes from an inner authority
that is none other than God.
My truth is part of the rumble
that is shaking the foundations of the systems that oppress.
I feel the pressure of these structures –
concrete upon layers of concrete.
We all feel the pressure.
But when there are a million seeds germinating around,
sending forth roots and tendrils
that crack and prise that cancerous concrete,
how can these structures not be transformed?
The permission, the authority –
it was given to me long ago.
“Take it up,” she says.
Take it up. Take it up.
Cracks, cracks all around.
I’m seeing a crisis of faith:
corporate institutions who are being called out for their greed and corruption;
churches that embody the dictates of a by-gone era, and new light shed on past, buried sins;
governments that people have ridden off as forces for social good.
There are cracks all around.
An Australian election that no-one cares about, with a populous yawning ‘same same’. An American election that everyone cares about, because of the threat of a future that is suddenly alarming.
“The cracks of crumbling edifices,” David said over his bacon and eggs this morning.
“The cracks of new life trying to break through,” I said, and took a sip of my tea.
I would say, with some certainly, that it is both.
The cathedrals, the soviet-era buildings, the great bureaucratic machines with their self-important departments separated by concrete walls and creaking lifts, the patriarchal structures that churn on with the stability of a brachiosaurus – these things are breaking down, becoming increasingly abandoned, heading towards decommission.
These things are getting blown away, or removed in chunks, like mouldy mulch at the end of winter. Underneath? Pale, new sprouts, ready to get going in the sunlight.
The future is already present in what is trying to grow. Here’s what I’m seeing:
A yearning to be with each other again, even in the midst of the empire of individualism. The word ‘community’ is on our lips more and more, as we try to recover what it means and how to do it here and now. We now have the tools to be more connected than ever before.
A desire to do things ourselves, outside of the monolithic institutions that once dictated what was possible. People making things and selling them, people starting their own community groups and social enterprises, people running for government on their own platforms. The word ‘entrepreneur’ is popular now: it means smart, creative, lithe, self-directed.
A realisation that there is a great abundance amongst us, even in a dominant paradigm of scarcity. While the institutions of old want to hold on to power by controlling supply (food, housing, ideas, energy), there are many who are opening our eyes and seeing there is more than enough for all. It’s in the backyard fruit trees, in abandoned houses, in the skills and gifts and visions inside us all. We break free from the lie that there is not enough, and choose to open ourselves to a wild abundance of all things good. We choose to dance with it, garden with it, jam with it – not control it.
Cracks, cracks all around. Let’s open our eyes: hope is emergent.
The Iron Rule of community organising is this:
Never do for others what they can do for themselves.
Saul Alinsky was responsible for those words, and I always thought they sounded good. But lately, after being challenged at some Sydney Alliance training, I decided to see what would happen if I actually applied them to my own work.
I’m part of a group called Cassidy’s Place. It started when I called a meeting of people with lived experience of homelessness and housing stress, and we have since formed into a collective that meets monthly to address the systemic causes of the housing affordability crisis.
I have continued facilitating the meetings each month. I have also done other ‘group maintenance’ tasks like sending out email reminders and setting up Facebook events. However, as I thought about it, I realised there were people within Cassidy’s Place who were more than capable of doing these things, and probably better equipped than I!
I am now trialling an approach that involves coffee more than it does computers. I have been enjoying getting to know my co-workers at Cassidy’s Place more over a cuppa, and hearing about their skills, gifts and passions. I have then been encouraging these co-workers to step into new areas of responsibility and leadership.
Sometimes these areas involve things I had previously been doing myself, and other times people’s passions are taking us in new directions I had not considered possible before. This is good news!
Everybody needs support in their leadership; a space to reflect, talk about what’s working well and what’s challenging. I’m trying to put my energy into instilling a culture that supports us all in our leadership. I want to be someone who can help my co-workers to reflect on their work, and encourage them to do the same for others.
So far, the results have been pretty good! The last Cassidy’s Place meeting had heaps more energy, with a whole lot more voices being heard and ideas being entertained. For me, this is a process of letting go of control. This isn’t always easy for me, but it’s SO much more fruitful and fun!
Matisse’s The Dance is one of my favourite paintings, and is one that has been on my mind lately. I put it on my computer desktop.
I was introduced to this painting as an image of God. I love the idea of God as a wonderful dance that goes around and around with carefree abandon. It is a beautifully inclusive vision as well: it says to me, “Come and join the dance!” There’s room to slot in and whiz around with all the other dancers. There’s an invitation to be part of the dance of God.
Lately I’ve been reflecting on this painting in the light of my community organising practice. I’ve met activists, academics, campaigners and housing workers who for years have been working hard for more and better housing for our community. People before them were doing the same thing. The dance has been going for a long time, and as I join in, it is both humbling and liberating to remember this. I will join hands, make some moves, and eventually I will leave. The dance will go on!
I can serve you some tea, or I can service your bike, or I can serve on your board. I can serve my country, I can serve my God.
I can even serve a tennis ball, but not very well, and I think that’s probably a bit different anyway.
Service: I do something for you.
It’s interesting to me that ‘service’ is a word that has some prevalence in our civil society organisations.
‘Service provision’ has come to be the raison d'être for many social justice organisations, where services related to health, housing, job-searching and food are designed to meet the needs of clients, or more recently, ‘consumers’.
And isn’t it interesting that churches call their main gatherings ‘services’? Is a church service a kind of ‘service provision’, where consumers come to have their spiritual and emotional needs fulfilled? Or is it more like paying to get your car serviced: a transaction involving some kind of quid pro quo?
‘Service’ is a good thing. But when it is a one-way street, service leads to death. This is because the human spirit is designed to give and receive. If I only ever serve, I deny others the pleasure of giving, while I, in turn, deny myself the pleasure of receiving. I turn into a martyr while you become defined only by your needs, not your gifts. Both options are dehumanising.
And so what of organisations that are designed only to provide services to others? What if they are never able to receive of the gifts of others?
I see the outcome in the homelessness sector, where ‘clients’ are excluded and marginalised from shaping the ‘services’ that are supposed to be for them. The Homeless Persons Union of Victoria is an example of people refusing to be mere recipients; of people giving shape to their own voices and gifts.
And I see the outcome in our churches, many of which are becoming empty as people decide they don’t want or need the ‘service’ that is provided anymore. Others are gigantic and held in warehouses – like Ikea – which is great, if what you want is Ikea.
My vision? Civil society organisations that embrace the energy and giftedness of their members, so they are truly members, not just recipients. Serving one another, perhaps? That's the way to life.
I love you. I really do. I was born here (literally – at the old Queen Vic hospital, corner of Swanston and Lonsdale), and now live in an apartment where your skyscrapers are my view. Café culture, trams, buskers playing exceptionally high-quality music, crisp autumn mornings that collapse into rain – I’m down with it all.
And so you will understand, therefore, that this piece of criticism that I’m about to angle comes from a place of love and commitment. I just want you to be the best city you can be.
Ok, here goes: Melbourne, you’re a bit of a liberal wet dream. See, you pride yourself on your intellectualism, on your progressive politics, on the same intelligent articles that everybody reads over macchiatos and sourdough toast. You are full of good ideas – so many good, smart, progressive ideas.
And yet, sometimes I feel that your good ideas float in a happy bubble above the bricks and mortar, blood and dirt reality of the city itself. Don’t forget that you’re also a city where housing prices push people into far-flung, under-serviced suburbs, or onto the street, where international students cram into tiny apartments and get paid illegal rates for serving our dumplings, where the privileged, inner-city, progressive world is becoming more and more distant from the reality of the majority.
You see, good ideas are not enough. Nothing ever changes, nothing is ever done, with just a good idea. Do you think that if you develop the very best policy positions, the very best philosophical understandings, that you will really bring forth a city of equality and prosperity for all? Can a head do anything without a body?
Melbourne, I’m afraid to say that your organisations are becoming disconnected from their people, like disembodied brains. Paid professionals and organisational ‘experts’ run ‘services’ for ‘consumers’. Your churches are emptying out, your union memberships are dwindling. Your not-for-profits seek only money from their ‘members’ so that they, the professionals, can do the campaigning or run the unemployment service or kick start the social enterprise themselves. Civil society is being replaced by a series of transactions.
You’re head is big and impressive, Melbourne, but your body is atrophied and weak.
But because I love you, Melbourne, I want to work to change that. I want to give your body a workout, build up the connections to make a vibrant civil society again.
Will you work with me to do that?
We can do it over coffee, if you like.
In groups and organisations, we need people who can help us with how we’re going. This is a particular kind of leadership that cares about the emotional state and internal condition of the people. In church parlance, we might call this the ‘pastoral care’ function. It’s care for our mob, our community. Maybe in other contexts it’s the HR department!
We also need people who can assist us work out where we are going. What’s going on in the big wide outside world, and how do we fit in that? Some churches would call this the ‘prophetic’ role. These are the movers and shakers that make sure we’re fulfilling our group’s mission and challenge us when we’re not.
The ‘how’ and the ‘where’ questions pull on each other; they are, you might like to say, in tension. The ‘where’ question is often disruptive, and makes us feel uneasy for a while. It can put strain on our relationships with each other; it can even cause conflict. The ‘how’ question can get in the way of the group’s mission because it’s hard to go somewhere fast with truthfulness and purpose when you are bogged down by the ins and outs of messy human relationships. It’s easier just to lead the way and expect the pack to catch up!
But, of course, happily or unhappily, ‘how’ and ‘where’ need each other. (Did you see that one coming?) If our only aim is a peaceful internal equilibrium of stable warm relationships, people eventually ask, “But what is the point of it all?” They ask the ‘where’ question themselves. And if there is no answer present, the group dies in a loving whimper or else explodes in a love-fest gone wrong. There is such at thing as ‘tough love’, and it’s there to prevent mud-sucking-you-down love. Expect the kick, be prepared for the sharp word. It’s conflict baby, and it may just be the prophetic voice pointing us where to go.
And just as obviously, ‘where’ needs ‘how’. You can’t troop on ahead saving the world if your people are lying about in ditches and injured huddles. Nope – that’s bad too.
So in conclusion: ‘how’ needs ‘where’. ‘Where’ needs ‘how’. The prophet needs the carer. Vice-versa on that. A mission needs a community. A community needs a mission. Peace and truth. Truth and peace.
I’m sure there is a Sesame Street song in this.
Image from Hernán Piñera, Flickr.
I am working on the early stages of a campaign around housing affordability. The issue arose in the context of the Credo community in the Melbourne CBD, where a wonderful diversity of people meet to share food and life throughout the week.
I have been part of this community for the last 7 years, and so I also know that many of us – perhaps even most of us – are sleeping rough, or forking out hundreds of dollars each week on dodgy rooms in boarding houses, or sleeping on friends’ couches, or budgeting 60 per cent of our incomes on sub-standard private rental accommodation, or trapped in bad relationships because of the fear of homelessness.
In other words, the Credo community is seriously feeling the pain of the housing affordability crisis in Melbourne.
I am using a community organising approach to facilitate a response to the immense and abstract problem of housing affordability in Melbourne. Community organising is, broadly, the task of bringing people together for social change.
When I started this work, in August last year, I was very clear that my organising needed to begin with people who were feeling the pain of the housing affordability crisis most acutely. I have a strong conviction that it is people experiencing oppression who have the power and ability to shift the systems that are keeping them down, because it is only they who have a vested interest to do so. It is they who have within them the flame that is so critical for the blaze of social change – even if that flame is initially dampened by the voices that say they are no good, dependent and powerless.
We started with a group of about 20 of us, from Credo and beyond. We began by sharing stories of how the large and abstract issue of housing affordability was affecting us personally (a process known as ‘consciousness raising’). We have been meeting monthly, and have formed into a solid group that has called itself ‘Cassidy’s Place’.
I expressed a vision of a housing affordability campaign that would be strategic, targeted and involving many other people in the community. The group affirmed a collective desire to build connections with many other groups and organisations, and work together to bring about real change.
I’m feeling excited that these connections are happening now. I can feel the momentum building towards something good as dedicated, passionate individuals from a bunch of organisations are wanting to band together to do something powerful.
As we are on the cusp of forming a coalition and my question is this: How do we form something broad and powerful – inclusive of NGOs, churches, community groups, trade unions, schools, local councils and private sector – while keeping the voices of the people who started this whole thing front and centre?
At the last Cassidy’s Place meeting, we discussed this question. It is an unfortunate truth that often, or even usually, initiatives that are set up to help oppressed people end up marginalising those very people. The way to stop this dynamic is to ensure that the people being ‘helped’ are in control of the process; that they are, simultaneously, leading the process of ‘helping’. However, it is challenging to pull this off, because, I have noticed, that people revert easily to the well-practiced social roles of the ‘helped’ or the ‘helper’.
What Cassidy’s Place decided to do was to continue meeting once a month just as Cassidy’s Place: to share stories, reflect on how things are going, make plans. In addition, Cassidy’s Place wants to host and embrace other allies in a separate space that is all about the coalition. The idea is that Cassidy’s Place can retain its strength and identity as a group, in order to participate in a coalition with great confidence.
Will it work? I don’t know yet! So stayed tuned…
I really like Groups. I find a lot of my personal security in the context of the Group, and also believe deeply that collectives of people are powerful forces that obviously can work towards very bad things, but equally can embody and produce very good things. Whether I like them or not, Groups are here to stay: we are, after all, pack animals, and we will congregate around others as a matter of course. The Group is an inherent feature of being human.
Increasingly, I have come to see that the Individual is also a very powerful force, which can work towards very bad things, but equally can embody and produce very good things. Individuals have a particular gift to offer that cannot be given by the Group: that is, the gift of Inspiration.
There is a great creative, energising force in this world, and my observation so far in life is that this Spirit of Creativity, which wants to become embodied, tends to visit Individuals.
This is all of us.
It comes in the form of ideas that wash over us when we are in the shower.
It gives us a kick when we are trying to get to sleep at night.
It gives us a dangerous tap on the shoulder while we are driving to work, and catches our eye in a passing street while we are on the tram.
Sometimes it interrupts a conversation that we are having with someone else – usually it has dissolved itself inside a cappuccino – and I don’t want to rule out the possibility of it rising up amongst a large group of people. The Spirit moves as the Spirit does. But it’s just that usually, I have noticed, that this Inspiration of the Creative Spirit comes to us as Individuals, channelled through our own uniqueness as Individual People.
If the piece of Inspiration has a social dimension (let’s say it’s an idea for a community project, or a new business, or a theatre production), it requires the Group to really set it in motion and embody it. We need some people, people! Here are some things that can happen:
1. The Individual casts a vision and a direction that the Group likes, but the Group does not get on board. While they appreciated the Inspiration that the Individual offered, they found that their own contributions were not valued. So they drop out.
2. The Individual casts a vision and a direction that the Group likes, and the Group get on board as passive followers, slotting in where they are useful. People participate in groups like this for a range of reasons, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are all pathological. But I would say that the overall dynamic does not honour the unique giftedness of each member of the Group, and is likely to produce a culture of hero-worship and passivity. Surely the fruit of such a Group cannot be as rich and textured as compared with a dynamic where the gifts of all the members are employed.
3. The Individual gifts their Inspiration to the Group, offering a vision and a potential direction. The Group accepts the Inspiration, and then shakes it up a bit, irons it out, turns it inside out. Other members of the group – who are also Individuals – add their own Inspiration to it. What we end up with is something that probably looks a lot different from what was envisioned by initial Individual, but – if the group is a healthy one – it is actually a whole lot better.
(Another thing that can happen is that nobody has any Inspiration. Have you ever experienced this? I have. Maybe we are spending too long inside the group, staring at each other. Maybe some of us need to get out for a while! Maybe the Group needs to dissolve, allowing its members to catch some more Inspiration and start afresh.)
In my work, I’m aiming for Outcome 3. But it’s quite hard to achieve, because I not only have to be confident in the inspired nature of my Inspiration, but be willing to hand it over to the other Individuals to add their Inspiration.
Ultimately, it’s about trust:
Trust in myself.
Trust in the others.
Trust in the Creative Spirit who inspired us all to begin with.
Late last year our apartment building caught on fire, and so we stayed for a while at my sister’s place in North Fitzroy. Even though I was technically homeless for that period, I had a pretty nice time. I love North Fitzroy. I love the abundance of cafes and quirky boutiques, I love the smell of jasmine in the air and the sounds of happy, healthy people gathered on pockets of public lawn. I love hearing classical music spill out from the homes of local musicians, and I love walking around in my vagabond shoes and oversized skirt and feeling completely at home.
But the thing I loved most about living in North Fitzroy for that little stretch of time was being around some more of my family, and experiencing that comfortable, natural way of being that took me, floating, between trees, earth and gelati, and some of my most beloved people.
Our apartment escaped the fire unscathed, and so we returned after 10 days or so of homeless hipster bliss. Dave and I live in a funny little spot that marks both the edge of Docklands and the Central Business District of Melbourne. We overlook a wide channel of train tracks that connects much of Australia to Southern Cross Station. When we go into the lift lobby we can generally look directly into Etihad Stadium, and until recently (before they constructed another high rise apartment tower) could look over the whole of the Docklands harbour, and Port Phillip Bay in the distance.
North Fitzroy is almost the centre of the universe. Our little home, on the other hand, sits slightly uncomfortably on the borderland between two places. We are on the edge of things, not at the centre; not grounded in the earth but hovering in the sky, looking in.
But here we are and this is our home. Dave and I have thought a lot about what it means to make a home on the edge of things. One thing we have noticed is that we have become more intimately connected with the world of travel. Whenever we look outside we can see trains, buses, cars, trams, people walking, people riding bikes. When I open our big glass doors I listen to trams turning corners, to trains rumbling by, to a general haze of city activity. We are a still point in a world that is moving.
This makes our home an excellent stop-off point for travellers! We often meet people when they are in the midst of travelling from A to B. Sometimes people stay at our place, other times they come in for a cup of tea or a drink. I think about roadhouses or people who run hostels on the way to places. I like meeting with people when they are in-between things, when they are thrust out of the stability of life and onto the road. It’s fun and interesting and jolts me in the direction of discomfort, too.
I also can’t help reflecting that I’ve spent a lot of my life on the edge of things. I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that I’m an edge-dweller, and that’s just how I am, and I may as well make the most of it. The good thing about being an edge-dweller is that by my very nature I connect things together. When I sit on the edges of two communities, for example, I can introduce the people to each other. I’m coming to see this as a very valuable thing. It does, however, make me quite busy at times, and often torn between different people and places, because a part of me wants to immerse myself in every context I’m connected to.
Oh, and when you’re living on the edge of things, you meet lots of other edge-dwellers as well. Travellers, poets, marginal people, profits. My own apartment building has a transient population, here for a stint, moving between things. There is a social reality that exists in my apartment building that deserves my attention.
And even though a part of me would love to live in North Fitzroy, I feel that for the time being I am meant to be situated here, on this borderland.
Just under a decade ago I found myself in New Orleans, where I fell in with a bunch of community organisers. I had not heard of community organising before, and gradually learnt that it was a way of creating social change, that was different from advocacy and different, even, from the kinds of activism I had experienced at uni. Put simply, this methodology for change was about ordinary people, connected relationally to each other, bringing together their voices and their bodies to shift injustice.
No one is speaking for the people. There are no professional activists putting their bodies on the line on behalf of the people. This is the people themselves. The organiser simply facilitates the process.
The group I ended up volunteering with, in the recently flooded city of New Orleans, was trying to organise people who had their homes destroyed in the Lower Ninth Ward. These were mainly African American people. The community wasn’t rich – they were living on drained swampland – but there was a high level of home ownership. It was a community that was proud, and just wanted to be able to go home and rebuild, despite all the obstacles in their way.
Community organisers made their way down to New Orleans from all over the States. I met LBGT-rights organisers, student organisers, organisers of homeless people and others organising around issues of environmental justice. I met organisers who learnt their craft in the Civil Rights era, and came to the Crescent City to bemoan the continued oppression of their people, and keep battling on in the endless journey towards justice.
I came back to Melbourne enthusiastic to apply this methodology in my own context, which was as a student at university. But no one really knew what I was talking about: it turned out it was the kind of thing one had to experience to really understand. I was still only 21, and I quickly got distracted by other exciting things. The timing just wasn’t right yet.
Almost a decade later, I met a community organiser in Melbourne! His name is Ken Luscombe, and he is the unlikely combination of an Australian Baptist pastor and a US-trained organiser. And it turns out that in the last 5 years or so, community organising has become a ‘thing’ in Melbourne. It’s still a very small thing, but the point is there are people around who are talking about it and doing it.
And I am pleased to say, I have now started organising! On Monday we had our very first meeting of a group getting activated around housing affordability. We had such a rich group of people in the room, with diverse backgrounds, experiences and connections. But the thing we had in common was a commitment to speak from our own stories, rather than speaking or acting on behalf of others. This will be powerful, I feel. I could feel the power in the room.
It is a delight to be doing something that feels so right, at a moment in history that is so wonderfully right too.
I’ve been a long-time advocate for the shared meal. The shared experience of eating is thoroughly humanising and equalising. It reminds us that there is a part of us all that is ultimately the same, and helps us to overcome the barriers that differentiate and discriminate. I appreciate the story of the resurrected Jesus breaking bread with two disciples in Emmaus: it is only at that point that they recognise him. I have made my hermeneutical step to suggest that it is in the breaking of bread that we too recognise Christ, and each other.
I’ve just recently become a little bit sceptical about all this. I have been thinking back over my experiences of eating with other people, of which I have ample material to draw from. Honestly, shared meals don’t always foster domination-free spaces of mutuality and freedom. Often times, meals allow for the unspoken power dynamics of everyday life to float to the surface, making for a space that is more stratified than ever.
I had developed a theory around shared meals that kind of went like this:
(1) The flow of everyday life is determined largely by sets of roles and processes and officially-sanctified hierarchies. Think, for example, of a workplace, where your boss has more power than you do because of the social role she or he is afforded. Your work life is dictated by this dynamic.
(2) There are moments when we can free ourselves from these structured social forms, to meet each other in our common human state. In cultural anthropology, the word for this is communitas. A shared meal is an opportunity for this free, unstructured space. There is a reason why officers don’t eat with privates – because it would undo the social hierarchy that the military relies on to maintain order and discipline.
I am beginning to see the limitations of shared meals in fostering this utopia of unstructured freedom and equality. In an unstructured environment, where there are few pre-determined rules around how people should speak, sit, sing, congregate or dance, people will usually just do what they are most comfortable with. When left to our own devises and given the choice, we will generally gather around people with whom we have a natural affinity and most likely share the same culture.
A shared meal is a pretty unstructured environment. When we bring together an array of different people from different class and cultural backgrounds, unless we are consciously trying to do otherwise, like-people will gravitate towards like. I’ve been a part of a lot of meals that are either split down class, cultural or gender lines, or else dominated by a particular class/culture/gender while others take part in a more marginal way.
I think that the utopia of communitas can happen in a mono-culture, where social structure is removed to reveal commonality. In a multi-cultured environment, on the other hand, removing social structure just sends us all into our own cultural groups.
I am starting to think that in order to create community in diversity, we actually require a level of structure to bind us together. A format that is known by all. Facilitated spaces for conversation. That kind of thing. If we don’t, if there is a dominant group-within-the-group, they will set the rules, and they will be unspoken, and therefore impossible for non-dominant group members to abide by. The unstructured nature of the group creates a microcosm for social stratification.
I haven’t fully given up on the idea of meeting Christ in the communal breaking of bread. But in multi-cultured groups, I think we actually need some structure in place in order to equalise us and allow Christ to emerge in our midst.
It’s time to talk about leadership.
One of the things wrong with the world is the way we desire and even expect a single person to come along and make everything ok. As social beings we form into groups, and start to get incredibly anxious about it all. “Where are we going?” and “Who will make this place safe for me?” are the questions we ask. We seek the answer in a single person.
The questions are good. The answer is a problem.
There seems to be something fundamentally naïve about human nature, that believes that despite the complexity of relationships, social forms and power dynamics, one person can magically make it all ok. This belief belies the very nature of how people work and interact together. Our social forms are systems: multi-inputted, inter-generational, infinitely feedbacked, wildly complex systems. One person is one person. They have a part to play (and often an important one), but it is just a part.
So we lie to ourselves – and it’s a very obvious lie – about how one person can take responsibility for and ‘lead’ these crazy complex social realities. Why do we do this? I have concluded that it’s because we don’t want to take responsibility. If we tell ourselves that it’s someone else’s responsibility, then we are not accountable for any of the outcomes.
In fact, we are all responsible for the social systems we are in, and their outcomes. We are all responsible for leaders who don’t listen, for voices that get shut out, for misogyny, for racism and for everything else we get angry about.
This is because we have helped to create these systems. Often we do this by claiming to relinquish our responsibility. We don’t want the blame for when things go wrong, and so we pretend that we don’t have any power. We let moments of injustice slide, we let situations of exploitation continue.
We actually give up our power. And we buy into a myth that blames the leader, and puts all faith in the appointment of a new leader.
So I say: let’s stop blaming leaders, and let’s start taking responsibility for our own social realities. This is true of our workplaces, our schools, our churches, our society, our global community.
It’s time to give up the privileges of saying and doing nothing. These are the social kickbacks associated with giving up our power: whether it is wealth, security, social standing, status in an organisation, status in your social role.
“Where are we going?”
“We decide – and that includes you.”
“Who will make this place safe for me?”
“We will – and that includes you.”
Does this mean that we are all leaders? I think it does. In one way or another, we are all called to lead.
In my last blog post, I mentioned that my faith community, which was the 5pm congregation of Collins Street Baptist Church, had its last church service. I wrote: “There was a sense that the community itself contained something good and rare and precious, but somehow the form in which we met was inhibiting those things.” We would be meeting for meals in faith that one way or another, God would show up.
What we are committed to doing is making space for God. So far we have had one meal: a ‘bring a random ingredient and see what we can cook up’ evening. We turned our assortment of foods (tomatoes, lots of eggs and eggplants, silverbeat-with-earwigs, fennel, an orange, etc) into something delicious. I like the metaphorical component of such events, but then again I wasn’t the head chef!
‘Making space for God’ is easier said than done. It requires a kind of ‘holding back’ of all the activity that we want to use to crowd God out. I think that underneath it all, it’s our own anxiety that crowds God out. It is scary to let go of our own veneer of control, and enter a reality where we don’t know what will happen next.
And so, we crowd God out.
We crowd God out when we over-structure our time together, such that nothing unexpected is allowed to occur.
We crowd God out when we have no structure, no ceremony, such that our own anxiety drives us to fill all available space with easier activities.
I am convinced that the ‘holding back’ of all those things that crowd God out requires leadership. But it doesn’t work with the ‘I have all the answers so follow me’ kind of leadership we are used to. Clear-cut answers also have a way of crowding God out.
Lately I’ve been thinking about leadership as hospitality. When you host a meal, you create a space using food and perhaps furniture, courses, beverages, decorations etc, for you and your guests to experience one another. The very best hospitality, in this sense, provides you and your guest with freedom just to be themselves, without, as Henri Nouwen says, “attempting to make the stranger [or guest, for all guests are strangers, ultimately] over into a modified version of ourselves.”
I think that good leaders lead like good hosts. They create the space that is necessary for us to truly experience each other, and for us to truly experience the transcendence of God. They offer what they have of themselves – a meal, a thought, a prayer, a liturgy, a song, a game, a joke – but they do so in a way that others can participate in.
Another metaphor: Together, as a community, we are writing a story. It’s not like a book that is written by one person, in immutable ink and a hard back cover. It’s like one of those collective stories that people tell sometimes around a camp fire, where each person offers a sentence with space for the next person to continue. The stories are a bit messy, often hilarious, and always unexpected, because no one person has control. The story ends only when the group decides it should end, or when enough people walk back to their tents yawning and saying good night.
For a good story, participants require two things: deep listening, and great courage. We only know what to say, and when to say it, when we listen deeply to the storytellers who have come before. Equally, we only know what to say, and when to say it, when we draw from our own unique experience of our world and courageously offer something of ourselves to continue to the story.
Listen, and be brave.
Listen, and be brave.
I want this for me, and I want this for everybody else in my 5pm community. As we make space for ourselves and each other in this way, I believe we make space for God as well. I believe that God will show up.