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…