Community organising is the process by which communities build their power. But what does that look like in the real world? The new episode in our podcast series on community power will give you a sense of it. It’s a conversation with the three organisers, Olivia Masoja (they/she), Marzena Zukowska (they/them), and Stephanie Wong (she/her).
Do an image search for ‘community power’ and one of the most common results is of people holding placards, usually in some kind of demonstration. Demonstrating is a type of activism but activism and organising are not synonymous. As Olivia describes it, when they were an activist they jumped from protest to protest, lending their support to numerous issues that affected them. But as an organiser, their work is to sit with their community, understand their concerns, and facilitate the process by which they wish to act. Not only is there less jumping, but the focus has also changed from what’s important to them to what’s important to the community.
As Michael Little, the host of the podcast, describes it, it’s the shift from I to we.
Marzena also sees activism and organising differently. Activism is about making a bold demand of people in power, they say. It’s about having a specific agenda and making a specific demand. It’s one way in which power can be expressed. But organising is about building that power.
So, how is it built? Through conversations.
Called one-to-one’s in the trade, Stephanie describes how at the heart of the work are conversations with members of the community. It’s through those conversations that you learn what matters to people and whether they want to do something about it. But it’s not a process of information extraction. It’s a process of connecting, of being with someone, of building a relationship with them. It’s through the strength of those relationships that acts become possible.
According to Marzena, those conversations also serve as a form of education. Yes, they’re about listening, about meeting community members where they’re at, but they’re also about “bringing them up the political curve”, as they say, helping them to understand why their situation is what it is. This is called critical pedagogy, an idea popularised by Paulo Freire, the educator and philosopher who, alongside Saul Alinsky, is considered one of the great influences in community organising.
Charity versus Justice
Staying with the idea of travel, Stephanie describes organising as “commas not full stops” – it’s not about the issue being tackled today but the relationships built through the process. Those relationships outlast the issue and not only make it possible for people to step in and out of the work but also take what they have learned into other areas of their lives. Marzena echoes that and says that relationships are the key metric for that work, not whether they win or lose on an issue.
The conversations draw out an important issue for me – the difference between charity and justice. By definition, inequities exist due to an unfairness or an injustice. To date, the most common societal response to inequity is some form of charity. For instance, most responses to health inequity can be described as giving more to those that have received less. There is no doubt that this is important and helpful but it’s amelioration not solution – it’s charity, not justice.
Organising, as Stephanie says, is “in the space of justice”. It’s about people building their own power to combat unfairness and injustice. It’s not about giving and receiving; it’s about creating relationships of mutual accountability that help create a society in which everyone is treated fairly.
That sentiment very much echoes what Leigh Carroll, a union organiser, said in our last episode (Ratio/Apple). Ultimately, organising, whether community or union, is about creating the kind of society we want to live in.
In our next episode, we speak to someone who has very much shaped society, in Ireland and beyond. Katherine Zappone was one of the architects of the thirty-fourth amendment of the Constitution of Ireland – the one that made same-sex marriage legal in the Republic.
Pritpal S Tamber
Previous Episodes in the Series
- Leigh Carroll and Lynn Weidner (Episode 6; January 17): A conversation with Leigh Carroll and Lynn Weidner on how unions can help create the kind of society we want to live in (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
- Martha Mackenzie (Episode 5; December 13): A conversation with Martha Mackenzie on community organising and repairing democracy (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
- Paul Speer (Episode 4; November 30): A conversation with Paul W. Speer on the role of relationships, conversations and mediating institutions in building community power (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
- Jennie Popay (Episode 3; November 15): A conversation with Jennie on the need to truly understand how communities with power can pursue social justice (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
- Jonathan Heller (Episode 2; November 1): A conversation with Jonathan, one of the most innovative practitioners in the journey to health equity (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
- Pritpal S Tamber (Episode 1; October 17): I talk to Michael Little, the host of the podcast, on what community power is and why it might be important (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
The photograph behind the title is by Leigh Wells / Ikon Images.