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Community organising, Chicago-style

The Rev. Kent Crawford has just returned from a conference in Chicago where various religious leaders were encouraged in the practice of community organising.

Kent Crawford in Redfern (Photo: Kat Hines)
Kent Crawford in Redfern (Photo: Kat Hines)

The Uniting Church minister, who is the chairperson of the Board of the Sydney Alliance (a coalition of religious and educational organisations, unions and community groups), found the experience invigorating.

“Chicago is where it all began, 75 years ago,” he said. In the midst of the Great Depression, Saul Alinsky began organising with immigrant-filled Catholic churches and the Packinghouse workers union. Soon after, in 1940, he created the Industrial Areas Foundation.

Community organising is about relationships. It’s founded on the acknowledgement that we don’t know each other, we need to listen, Mr Crawford explained. “The Sydney Alliance devoted its first five years to relationship building between members and organisations that make up our civil society. Only then can we understand that we have more in common than what separates us.”

Founded in 2007 by union organiser and GetUp co-founder Amanda Tattersall, the Sydney Alliance seeks to identify values held across diverse organisations that can see them work together in areas such as health and transport services, housing, employment and social inclusion. The Queensland Community Alliance has recently been established, with conversations underway in Canberra and Melbourne.

There were many positive aspects to the Chicago conference. “Many religious communities from across North America, the UK, Germany and Australia were represented,” Mr Crawford said. “Every day would see African-American Baptists, Hispanic Catholics, Jewish, Anglican, Presbyterian and Uniting Church clergy and lay leaders gathered in building relationships.” Delegates were reminded that a congregation can use the tools of community organising – listening, researching, acting and evaluating – to strengthen its own work and to become effective partners in coalition to solve local, regional and national issues in their own contexts.

An unfortunate scheduling conflict meant that Muslims were unable to attend – they were observing the holy month of Ramadan. “That’s something we’ve insisted be rectified for the next conference in London [in 2016],” Mr Crawford lamented.

Participants recognised a common desire to develop leaders with skills to transform their communities. “We all want to see people with greater capacity, energy, drive and passion, and the practical skills to bring about change,” Mr Crawford said. “I was pleased that our delegation included two very capable young leaders: Liuanga Palu from the Uniting Church and Qwayne Guevara from the Catholic Church.”

“We’re not part of the Sydney Alliance to sort out our deep differences, but no matter our religious identities we can all learn to work at being good citizens together to improve the lives of our families and our neighbours,” he added. He went on to recount the recent example of Sydney Alliance members standing in support of Muslim community members at risk of vilification. “Our response to careless public statements and media coverage about Muslim-Australians was to gather under a banner which read: We’ll love Muslims for 100 years.”

“I know I’m being challenged and empowered not just as a leader of my organisation, but as a public leader,” Mr Crawford concluded. “These are important questions: Who am I as a citizen among other citizens? Can we find a common language for talking about the issues we face together? How do we move from talk to public action?”

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