Taking Community Organising Down Under – how we built the Sydney Alliance

This article was first published in the Community Development Journal.

The Global Spread of Community Organising: how Alinsky-Style community organising travelled to Australia and what we learnt


Community organising refers to a particular way of working in public life that aims to enhance the capacity of community leaders to act for the common good in collaboration across civil society. In the last two decades, this practice, founded in the United States, has spread to Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.  This article develops a definition of community organising then explores the history of its practice in the building of the Sydney Alliance.

The article can be downloaded here: Community Dev J-2015-Tattersall-380-96

Rebuilding civil society in Sydney: the Sydney Alliance


Have you ever had that feeling of dread that you don’t really know where you live? For me, that  was triggered while living in New York and being peppered with questions like “how many people are Christian in Sydney and which denominations are biggest? How many are not white?”, and not knowing the answers. I also remember the gratitude I felt that years later, after I had begun forming the Sydney Alliance, that organising my city helped teach me deep truths about the city in which I lived.

Sydney is a divided city, by geography, class, race. Those in the North don’t go to the West and the inner city residents often just hang out there rather than move around. But that was not me during my time at the Sydney Alliance. I grew up in the North and lived in the Inner West but I spent most of my time in the West, in places like Blacktown and Bankstown and everywhere in between. I was a nomad learning about the place that was my home.

The Sydney Alliance is a broad based coalition of religious organisations, unions and community organisations that uses community organising to make the city better for everyone. Its goal is to create bridges across the city, between communities, issues and identities as a way of rebuilding civil society.

When I think of democracy, the first thing I think of is the rich practice of building a strong civil society. The practices of participatory democracy, something akin to the Greek polis but filled with more women and slaves.

The Alliance practiced a participatory democracy that I haven’t previously seen in Sydney. We had the Catholic Archdiocese and the Construction Union, the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Cancer Council, the Muslim Women’s Association and Settlement Services International all connected together. We sometimes had the heads of these organisations talking honestly and sometimes brutally about what made relationships between them difficult. At other times we would have dozens, hundreds or thousands of people gathered together in meaningful relationship. We trained over 3000 people in our 2 day trainings and 500 at our 6 day trainings in my nine years at the Alliance. These were people sharing small spaces with each other – learning about each other and developing as leaders.

The Alliance created a promise of democratisation and democratic practice that is new, even through it was build on the old traditions of community organising. Community organising first emerged over 75 years ago in Chicago USA and includes tools like relational meetings (in which individual participants share the experiences and hopes that drive their political engagement, as a means to building effective solidarity across difference) and the organising cycle (a framework for thinking about the relationship between problems and issues, building power, taking action, and reflection). These tools offer a tangible means for achieving lofty concepts like solidarity, power, and intersectionality.

The Sydney Alliance was good. But it wasn’t great. Not great enough.  It wasn’t what I wanted it to be – an explosion of participatory democracy that then reshaped how representative democracy worked. This gap stayed with me. I kept feeling that I only knew how to keep doing the same thing at the Sydney Alliance, but the Alliance needed something different if it was going to be stronger or better. That is why I now research city organising strategies. I hope praxis, a rich dialectic between theory and action, can help us better understand what it might take to democratise the city, transforming representative democracy through new forms of participatory democracy.

Two years into a postdoc on city-based organising strategies I am hopeful about the possibilities that urban alliances offer for democracy. I have found that urban alliances are present in many of the worlds cities and that they exist in a wide variety of forms. Our team has mapped over 90 urban alliances – they exist on every continent, across the Global North and South. We have learnt that “community organising” alliances are present across the US, Canada, Hong Kong, Germany and the UK – and in each place have similarities (a similar training program, similar tools like relational meetings) but across these cities they also differ greatly around whether they work up from the neighbourhoods or are build from across the city (or the state, or nation). Then in places like Moscow, Tel Aviv, Cape Town, Jakarta and Rio we have found different kinds of city formations – people working in networks acting to shape the city in the interests in citizens, but using different kinds of political practices to achieve it. In Moscow and Jakarta digital tools play a critical role in connecting diffuse groups and networks. In Cape Town a diverse city-base movement is being built through a single organisation called “Reclaim the City” with a more focused issue agenda around housing. Yet their context fighting for housing is actually a fight for desegregation as well as being a fight for access to jobs and decent transport. That said, their issue focus provides lessons for those in the community organising tradition who hold out the importance of a multi-issue agenda. Similarly, some of the relational tools used by community organising may have utility in the Cape Town space.

In each place, in different forms, I found activists struggling with the weakness of their democracy. In Moscow, it was a dysfunctional formal democracy, for those in Cape Town it was about making real the 1994 promise promise of democracy. Across the Global North leaders argued about the substantive nature of representative democracy and the need for a participatory democratic practice to fill the gap. Indeed in each space activists had concluded that city-based participatory practice was a recipe to rebuild and enliven the hope of democracy.

Like when I began my organising journey, going outside of the city of Sydney has provided me with new ideas about how to change this place. It’s inspiring to see how radically diverse contexts and inventive political strategies from all across the world can provide lessons and insight for how we might change where we live.

Reclaiming Cape Town’s  Inner-City


On the western side of Cape Town’s inner city are a string of what looks like unused buildings. From the outside they appear that they must be empty. Broken windows, damaged roofs. If you were a tourist here you wouldn’t “see” them – just a haze as you enter the city on one of the major highways. But today my 9 year old son and I came to find one of those buildings because we were there for a meeting about housing in the city.

To be honest, at first, I thought we were in the wrong place. It was a space that I, a middle class white woman from Australia, wouldn’t normally be. I kept checking the google map on my phone to be sure I was where I was meant to be. In the vacant lot next to where google was telling me to go was a series of semi-permanent camps set up by people who were homeless.

The actual building we were looking for – which was meant to house a meeting of over 100 people – looked like a boarding house. I said to my son, I don’t know if this is right. In my head I was looking for a more ‘formal’ community hall? But up the stairs I could see someone in a red and white Reclaim the City t-shirt – so we went in.

The stairs leading up from the street were dripping wet. Noisily wet. Even though this building housed dozens of families, as was explained at the meeting, the building has a leaking roof that the Public Works Department has refused to fix. So even though it wasn’t raining outside – the residue from recent rain meant it was raining inside.

We found our way through to an open space that during the day was a makeshift laundry. There were ropes across the roof and a stranded sock still hanging on the side of the room. But this space was being claimed for another purpose today – it would house the first gathering of a City Central group of leaders for Reclaim the City’s housing campaign.

Reclaim the City are desegregating the inner city suburbs of Cape Town by fighting for housing for the poor. They do this by occupying sites to create emergency accommodation and campaign for the building of affordable housing. They have created occupations in Sea Point and Woodstock, and now are seeking to spread their campaign to the downtown area. This meeting was about exploring how they might do that.

We were there early and while Hartley and I mucked around with some of the kids, an extraordinary number of chairs were stacked out. Over 120. And, by 2pm when the meeting was scheduled to start there were only about 40 of us there. The stage was filled with kids (including my kid) playing games. I was wondering if they had been too ambitious. But by 2:30 when the meeting kicked off the room was full.

This is a poor people’s movement by any other measure. Most of the people in the room had experienced eviction, many homelessness, and some had also experienced the forced removals under apartheid. It was a space where black and coloured people could give testimony and prepare each other for building a new wing to an escalating city-wide movement. Stories were shared – a woman explained how her family were evicted with her stuff dumped on the streets, where she had to live in her car with her 8 year old child and 2 month old baby before she found emergency accomodation through Reclaim the City (at its Woodstock occupation).

The meeting moved from testimony to strategy, where Nkosikhona Swartbooi, the Lead Organiser from Ndifuna Ukwaz – a supporter of Reclaim the City, stood up and gave a history of the land struggles in the city, a power analysis about how the banks, developers and government were continuing to cause the pain, an explanation that rallies hoping for promises don’t work and an invitation to consider strategies that create the change that they seek.What then unfolded was a dialogue between leaders and organisers – where inventive suggestions were raised and analysed. One leader suggested “create title deeds and give them to the state rather than ask for deeds from them,” others identified other sites for occupations, ways to mend the houses being occupied, the formation of new advice assemblies where people could gather regularly or ways to support solidarity inside the diverse and sometimes fragmented communities they work with.

Meanwhile the kids played screens. All of them. Until the screens died and the kids made a b-line for the room next door where they played.

At one moment in particular the meeting traveled the world. We heard how occupation strategies had been used successfully in Brazil, how in Barcelona Advice Assemblies had powerfully enabled evictees to help each other without relying on lawyers, how the American community organiser Saul Alinsky had argued that you should ‘personalise’ your enemy. I was introduced to the group as someone who wanted share the work of Reclaim the City with others around the world. There was a sense that this hyper-local meeting had the capacity to transcend Cape Town.

The meeting finished with a song, of course. An anti-apartheid anthem sung with a beat, chorus and solo. I tried to look like I knew what I was doing, but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t convince anyone.

At the end we took a photo, fists in the air – including the fist of my 9 year old son. There was a feeling of hope. Not “Obama” hope. Not “waiting for someone to save us” hope. But a “we are going to build this for ourselves” hope.

As we walked out of building, up then down the squelchy staircase I could hear singing. It was the families getting back on the bus that was returning them to the Woodstock occupation. It was the voices of people who had the feeling that they knew what is possible. They already lived in a functioning, self-managed, community-run occupation. And joyfully they were not yet satisfied, because their city was not free. They knew that this place needed more. And so they sang because they would reclaim their city.

A Review of Castell’s Networks of Hope

If you have ever been involved in social change work, you have probably puzzled over the question – what is the right balance between digital organising and face-to-face organising?

For instance, when is the tech world just “clicktavism,” and when does it open up spaces that can change the world?

In a study of the whirlwind of social movements that was the Arab Uprising, Occupy and the Indignados in Spain – Manuel Castells tries to answer that question. Alongside this, he engages in a powerful discussion about how prominent social movements are working in the 21st century.

Networks of Hope is now five years old, and some of its findings have dated with time, but what is remarkable about the book is how long lasting much of its analysis is.

Its greatest contribution is to present a framework for understanding when digital and offline organising can work in a powerful and complementary way. Castells was the original theorist on the power of networks and the Internet. But what he does in Networks is present how social movement power can come from an effective combination of offline and online organising. He talks about how the hybrid of cyberspace and urban space can create spaces of autonomy for social movement activists to build and create radical change. He explores this through the stories of uprisings in Cairo and Spain in particular, where Facebook and social movement organising sparked dissent, that was then made concrete through direct action in urban spaces like square occupations. These loose digital and social networks allowed the movement to create a transformative force beyond and outside traditional “left” organisations (like unions or political parties) and beyond the eyes of the dictator (in Egypt).

These stories are indicative of future strategies to pursue in this space. He doesn’t buy into arguments that suggest that online or offline is best. He argues you need both. And here’s why. Online without offline is “withdrawal” – online without action, and without real world relationships, can devolve into escapism and entertainment rather than politics. But the answer doesn’t simply lie in face to face collaboration. Offline without online gives over the power to mediate and interpret the world to the state and corporations that we are trying to change. Social movements need to be active in creating their own narratives online as well as offline. Vacating the online space also denies social movements layers of connectivity and collaboration that are crucial to building creative, experimental connections and thus exercising new forms of power.

There are very tangible implications here. Castells implores organisations like GetUp.org.au, 38degrees.org.uk or Change.org to have offline as well as online strategies. It stresses the importance of peer-to-peer communication in digital organising rather than just “email pushing.” The Facebook groups in Spain and Egypt were flat and conversational, a space for strategy development. Podemos’s use of Reddit to develop a manifesto was all about online collaboration, not just the recruitment of people into pre-fabricated tactics.

But it is equally a critical clarion call to the digital luddites. To the Industrial Areas Foundation the book argues that “you can’t ignore the internet.” Castells suggests that online conversations are an important strategy for “mediating” how we interpret the world. Sure we shouldn’t obsess about digital organising to the exclusion of face to face, but neither can we ignore its potency.

Castells also criticises those in the union movement and NGO sector who have a tendency to “moblise” people to rallies, events and action, rather than organize them into spaces where they have a substantive say over strategy. From Spain to Cairo, these social movements were not traditional “mobilisations.” People didn’t passively turn out, rally, and then go home. People became leaders in these movements, setting up affinity groups, attending General Assemblies. They became civic leaders in the process of struggle. Castells gives us a deeper and more meaningful way to understand “mobilization” – suggesting there are ways that social movements can help identify and develop the leadership of citizens in the process of engaging in momentary political struggle.

The book explains why organising strategies that cleverly integrate online and offline techniques work. It helps explain why Mom’s Demand action against Gun Violence have had such success with using Facebook groups in organising local chapters. Facebook connects and keeps alive the movement, while face-to-face then plans local action. This synergistic online/offline organising is working at a new level since the election of Trump. We see this in the strategies of the Women’s March and Indivisible that have creatively combined online and offline organising. As Castells would say, in harnessing the hybrid richness of both digital networks and urban space, they are creating a networked transformative power.

There is more that is useful in the book. In sharing the stories of the Arab Uprising and beyond we see the importance of a series of strategies. We saw that momentum from one place to another was built using symbolic days of protest – it was “Days of Rage” that spread the uprising across the Arab World. Global action was also possible through using symbolism – there was a Global Day of protest on 15 October 2011, six months after the M-11 Protests in Spain. This became a focus around which disparate and disconnected networks could combine and organise – powered by the symbolism of coordinated action.

But the book also opens questions that it leaves for others to answer. Networks of Hope is a study of a mobilization moment. It describes what happens in an eclectic and extended period of social upheaval. But the book begs the question – what happens when the heat dies down? What lasting change is left? Is civil society changed? Are political parties changed? What does a mobilization like this mean for ongoing organising in the city?

The book focuses extensively on the idea of “leaderless” movements, but it doesn’t consider if and how these leaderless movements might change the institutions around them. For instance, in Spain, unions were initially quite separate to the Indignados in May 2011, yet by October 2011 several unions were visibly present – had the unions changed in a measurable way?

This speaks to one of the limitations of the book – by focusing on the “leaderlessness” of these social movements it tends to not have a clear theory of change about how these movements slowly, substantially change everything around them.  This is left for future researchers to explore. Castells gives us tools to understand the uprising, but we now need to create new concepts to understanding the wake of this storm.

Another limitation is Castells argument that political parties didn’t figure in these social movements. This is where the timing of the book let Castells down.  In Spain most obviously, but in Iceland as well, political parties were a fundamental part of the aftershocks of the uprisings. In Spain following M-15 over 400 political parties were established, now new Indignados are Mayor in both Barcelona and Madrid. In Iceland, the support of a radical left coalition of parties was crucial in the country’s ongoing response to the economic crisis. Parties matter, and it will be useful to further understand the dialectics and creative relationships between parties and social movements if we want to understand how to sustain the change that social movements spark.

One difficulty I had with the text was how Castells used the language of power. He argues that “power” is the power of the state and corporations, arguing that power is negative. He then presents “counterpower” as the force for good; as the energy produced by social movements. I fear that this can confuse an understanding of power. Power, according to the dictionary, means “to be able.” It isn’t riddled with value judgements. Power can be corrupted, and it can be emancipatory. The state and corporations can use power aggressively and negatively, but so can civil society. It’s incredibly important for us to realize that we all must guard against power’s “tendency to corrupt.” By using a new word, “counterpower,” it almost romanticizes the “power” used by civil society. This romanticisation is a problem. Inside the General Assemblies of these movements, in the squares and the camps, there were examples of leaders using emancipatory power, and examples of them falling victim to the tendency to corrupt. The camps tried to develop strategies to guard against the “tendency of power to corrupt” by having rotating leadership. Having a more wholistic understanding of power would have helped us understand social movement behaviour in all its complexity.

My final wish from the book was that I wanted it to discuss the modes of organising more. It was a fine narrative on the social movements, particularly extraordinary given how quickly it was written following the uprisings. But there is a need a different kind of analysis. We need to know more about the “how” when it comes to organising in the city. For instance, Castells describes some of the difficulties built into consensus decision making, but doesn’t give us tools for understanding why it was so frustrating. I would have liked him to unpick how consensus-making can often lead to “lowest common denominator” demands. It would have been interesting to explore how the breadth or depth of an agenda connects to how easy or hard it is to operationalize that agenda with action.  This is just one example. A more detailed understanding of the grandular processes involved in how these social movements worked helps future social change makers learn lessons for their next endevours.

This book is worth a read. It is a fast paced narrative that takes the reader on a journey of uprisings from Tunisia, Iceland, Egypt, Syria, Spain and America. It introduces concepts about the relationship between digital and offline organising that can help good campaigners evaluate and improve their work. But it also highlights there is more to be done – we still have more to learn about what it will take to successfully organize sustainable civil society transformation in our cities.


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