Who is leading the housing campaign?

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…

The Inspiration, the Individual and the Group

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. 

Living on the borderlands

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. 

I'm doing community organising!

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. 

The stratification of the shared meal

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.