How Sydney Alliance builds Local Power for the Common Good

IMG_2804b.JPGA few weeks ago I was a part of a Granville District information night, and I was unable to speak. I wasn’t feeling sick, but I had completely lost my voice. However, because of how the Sydney Alliance build power, it didn’t matter.

Granville sits on the edges of the western suburbs of Sydney. It’s a melting pot of different migrant and ethnic communities – with large numbers of Christian and Muslim migrants from the Middle East, Pacific Islanders, Asian and older Anglo communities. It’s a struggling but vibrant community. It has great local shops that are a pain to get to because there is not enough parking. There is an interchange train station, but it is quite dark and feels dangerous at night.

I was in Granville because I am the founding director of a massive coalition of civil society organisations in Sydney. Since 2007, I have worked with a handful of staff and dozens and dozens of leaders from churches, unions, community organisations, schools and other religious organisations to build a powerful network of citizens, capable of making the city a better place to live. I came into this work because I was frustrated that so many of the problems we face in Sydney were too big for one organisation to solve. And indeed, many of the problems which we face with the state of politics stem from the fact that citizens aren’t engaged, leaving politicians out of touch. The Sydney Alliance seeks to change politics by bringing people back in. We build from the grassroots up – in places like Granville.

In Granville, we have a District run by a “core team” of six local community leaders – Alex, Antony, Miguel, Sarah, Paula and Louise. Together we had prepared the agenda, and when I arrived I joined them sitting around a school bench in the playground of Granville Boys High. They laughed when I tried to speak (my voice was an undignified squeak) – then Alex said – “have you lost your voice to provide a leadership development opportunity for us?”. We re-allocated the 5 mins I was going to speak at the meeting to another team member and continued to prepare.

The meeting was successful – over 35 locals squeezed into a classroom to share stories about why they needed to be heard when it came to making their suburb safer. When we debriefed the meeting, there was a buzz in the team – because if they weren’t sure before, they definitely knew now, that this district was their responsibility, and it was working.

When we began the Sydney Alliance, we knew that to stand for the whole of Sydney that we needed to build local suburban scale coalitions as well as a city-wide body. We had to marry the idea of having enough breadth and enough depth. To create breadth, we started with the Sydney metropolitan area – because to be taken seriously by political and corporate decision makers we needed to be based across a large population. However, to create depth, we started building districts – local suburban coalitions of community, union and religious groups in the suburbs.

We made lots of mistakes as we learnt how to build the districts right. Our first mistake was one of scale. Our instinct was to cut Sydney up into a three “big areas” – West, South West and Harbour. Although we held a few quite large meetings – the geography was too broad to foster genuine common interest in local issues. In the West, the Penrith people had a different set of concerns to those in Blacktown/Mt Druitt and Parramatta. Our first districts were a mile wide but only an inch deep.

After some evaluation, we changed directions. Instead we decided that we needed many more local coalitions. We developed a three year plan of establishing 15 districts by 2015, but insisted that we would only build 5 at a time. We decided to do what unions sometimes call “hot shop” organising –we would go to where there were people who were already wanting to organise. So, we began “districts” again, this time in places like Liverpool, Parramatta and Nepean where we had talented individuals who said they were prepared to coordinate local teams.

These districts had a stronger base than the first iteration. However, our evaluations also showed us their weaknesses. We were relying on too few people to make the districts work. In one place, the district almost fell over because it relied on only one person to do the convening. The lesson was that while you might need a coordinator, what you really needed was a solid “core team” of people if you were to sustain a local district. Ron Burgess, on of our organisers, came up with a formula for what a district needed to work – “you need a core team of 6-8, and then a contact list of 30-50.”

So we tried again. At the beginning of 2012 we began forming “core teams” in a couple of targeted areas of Sydney. We also decided to give the districts a much greater degree of community organiser support to make the team building process easier. David Barrow, one of our Community Organisers, went out and slowly built the Fairfield-Liverpool district through dozens of one to one meetings. He consolidated a team that included parishioners like Faustina, union delegates like Raff and Brad, and community workers like Miguel. Together they ran a Foundations 2 Day training in February with a larger pool of interested people.IMG_2809.jpg

The new Fairfield-Liverpool “core team” (many of whom undertook our National 6 Day training) lead a local listening campaign where they decided that they would work improve transport access to medical centres. They formed a research action team and cut the problem into an issue – campaigning for 15 min drop off zones outside 6 medical centres. Two weeks before the Local Government elections, 13 councillors came to an Accountability Assembly with 190 locals at St Xavier Parish in Lurnea. The Assembly was run by the local leaders – and their action resulted in 12 councillors, including the current Mayor, all committing to create the drop off zones. Go to Liverpool now, and you will see them. The signs are up and it is because of how these Sydney Alliance leaders were able to exercise local power for the common good.

“Change our Suburbs, Change our City” was the theme of our City Assembly in October 2012. At the Sydney Town Hall the Alliance showcased the local organising that had developed in places as diverse as Marrickville, Parramatta, Nepean. It also outlined our safe station campaign run by our Transport Team that had worked with all our local districts to audit all of Sydney’s 17 Interchange train stations.

By the beginning of 2013, we knew that while our districts were strong, they still had gaps. Many of our partner organisations didn’t clearly see how the districts could be used to develop the skills, talents and leadership capacity of their parishioners’, union members or community members. So, the Alliance ran meetings inside our partner organisations – 37 meetings in all – where we asked each organisation to consider “what is the vision for your membership in 5 years time?” Then, if there was an alignment between that vision and the work of the districts – we encouraged them to bring the leaders they wanted to develop to a Leaders Assembly in May 2013 called “Local Power for the Common Good.”

326 people came to that Assembly. It was in Glebe, where we showcased how local power had created local jobs for young Aboriginal men who lived in the housing estate, and was working to create more job opportunities. In the second half of the Assembly, each district presented its work – and then – the room split up, with interested leaders finding the districts they wanted to be a part of, and connecting face to face. In the month since, our districts have bloomed – new leaders, new connections, new interests, new ideas.

Why districts?

Power in Coalition argues that multi-scaled organising is a strategy that helps coalitions to be successful. “Multi-scaled” is a fancy way of saying that a coalition must operate at different “geographic levels” at the same time – like operating at a local as well as city, state or national scale.

Multi-scaled coalitions are powerful for two reasons. First, political power is multi-scaled – with local electorates and state and national parliaments. You garner the greatest influence with a Member of Parliament if the people who are advocating live or work in the local electorate. Secondly, the local space is where we live – where we send our kids to school, where we hang out at the park, spend time with our families, eat and shop. Even though we are a “global village” we still “live” in our suburb. Organising locally means that people can find common suburban interests that can overcome apparent religious or community differences – groups that haven’t worked together can find common ground in a campaign to create drop off zones that benefit themselves and each other.

But we need multi-scaled coalitions, not just local coalitions. A coalition exercises power when it can “coordinate” across different local areas as well as have the ability to act in a specific area. Coordination comes from an agreement about certain practices, goals and standards. There is a universal tension here between “coordination” and “autonomy” – too much coordination and you tend towards domination, too much autonomy and you tend towards anarchy. You need to constantly negotiate these poles to hold your suburban and city scaled power in check.

We have learnt this in the Alliance. We did a city wide listening campaign in 2010-11 that led to 261 people “committing” to take action on three problem areas – social inclusion, transport and community support and health. But when we came to look at how to act on these issues, we realised we needed to go deeper into our suburbs to work out how to develop solutions to these problems. So in Liverpool and elsewhere we listened, but rather than asking an open question, we listened to people’s concerns about transport. The listening process was “coordinated” with the city-wide priorities the Alliance had chosen. But, when in Liverpool they identified the issue of medical transport, the Alliance also recognised that districts needed to have the autonomy to cut their own issues based on their energy and experiences.  So drop off zones became their focus.

How to we build districts?

Districts are built from a core team out. If you don’t have a leadership team in place, then you will never have the means to mentor and support new leaders. You need leaders create more leaders.

So when we build a district we don’t focus first on a big launch or activity. We focus on consolidating a team. Short team meetings take on the task of one-to-one outreach in the area to meet with leaders in local organisations.

From the core, we then seek to build a team of committed people and a wider community. This philosophy borrows (and changes a little) the ideas of Rick Warren in Purpose-Driven Church. He talks about cascading circles of leadership – core, committed, congregation, community, crowd. We are exploring how to translate those ideas into our context.

In the Industrial Areas Foundation, we talk about primary, secondary and tertiary leaders. When building a district we are looking for all of these types of leaders – primary leaders to run the district as a core, secondary leaders to help lead local activity inside their church or school, and tertiary leaders to participate in listening or public action. Of course, we seek to transition people up this ladder of engagement, if they are interested. But unlike in some “activist” groups – there is less urgency to “push” everyone up the “ladder of engagement.” In the Sydney Alliance, we are organising people who are already committed to an organisation that they care about – we work with people to explore their interests and see how they might want to engage in public action, but we recognise that not everyone wants or needs to be a primary leader all the time. And, in developing leaders we don’t seek to take them away from their organisation – but rather make them stronger and more capable leaders inside their organisation. This is how the Alliance seeks to build local power – by building the vitality of our civic organisations and connecting those organisations to each other.

Community organising is the key

The key practice that underpins all this work is community organising. When the Sydney Alliance uses this phrase we mean particular practices and “universal” rules that operate in public life.

We teach these universals to our leaders at our 2 day Foundations Training and our National 6 day Training. And most importantly, we teach and practices community organising in everything we do – from the one-to-one relational meetings we have with people, to the meetings we start on time and end on time, to how we plan our public actions, to how we evaluate everything we do.

In doing so, we stand on the shoulders of the experience of the Industrial Areas Foundation and the thousands of leaders and hundreds of organisers that work in the United Kingdom, the USA, Canada and Germany. The Sydney Alliance is the first time that this kind of community organising has been intentionally practiced in Sydney.

The success of the Alliance, however, is also based on our ability to stand on the shoulders of successful Australian coalition builders and community leaders. Jack Mundey’s Green Bans that saved the urban environment in the 1970s, or the 8 hour day campaigns between the catholic church and unions in the 1880s saw a broad base of community organisations, unions and community organisations come together to make the city a better place to live.

In building the Sydney Alliance we have learnt from all that went before us. Indeed, we seek to cultivate a culture of reflection – learning from the past as well as evaluating our current practice. Combining a culture of reflection, with a culture of relationship building and action has been a key tool for creating an Alliance where highly diverse organisations can work successfully together. We seek to practice our values in everything we do, and what is special about how we make social change is that we involve thousands of people in the process. We say “don’t do for others what they can do for themselves” and accordingly we have worked with hundreds of people to build strong districts across the city.

While we are still building the kinds of issues we work on, over the past 6 years, the kind of local democracy we have built is notable. The team in Granville will go on in 2013 to run a local listening campaign involving thousands of locals. It will identify short term and long term concerns to act on, and over the coming years will make that suburb safer and easier to live in. All the while, the process of involving hundreds of local residents, workers and students in making that change will make our democracy stronger at the same time.

The Alliance has been building for six years, but really it has only just begun. We have big plans to slowly and surely make the city a better place to live.

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