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.

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