It’s About Justice, Not Charity

Pritpal S Tamber

February 10, 2023

A conversation with three community organisers, Olivia Masoja, Marzena Zukowska, and Stephanie Wong, on power, relationships and justice

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). 

You can find it on Ratio’s website and Apple Podcasts

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. 

Until then. 

Pritpal S Tamber 

PS: To learn more about Ratio’s work, sign up for their newsletter or drop them a line:

Previous Episodes in the Series 

The photograph behind the title is by Leigh Wells / Ikon Images.

Pritpal S Tamber

I’m a doctor who trained as a medical editor and publisher and now researches and consults on the link between community power and health equity. My interest in community power started when I was the Physician Editor of TEDMED and is explained in My Perspective. I also work as a freelance medical editor and publisher for organisations that want to write high-quality articles and a strategy for their publishing and promotion. Find out more on my About page.

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