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.