A new kind of politics

A new kind of politics

Community alliances using a model of relational organising could provide the key to rebuilding a strong civil society, writes Kent Crawford.

The Tate Modern, on the south bank of the Thames, is Britain’s national museum of modern art.

It’s a mighty building. Formerly an electricity-generating, oil-fired power station, it stretches 200 metres in length and has a central chimney that rises 99 metres into the air — a deliberate few metres short of the height of St Paul’s Cathedral which stands on the other side of the river.

It’s an impressive building, in a utilitarian and bulky kind of way, and it’s a strange and wonderful setting for a modern art gallery.

Inside the museum, alongside the handful of levels worth of galleries filled with wondrous creations, is the enormous Turbine Hall. It is the very definition of a “big empty space”. Where electricity generators once stood there is now seven storeys of nothing and a mind-boggling 3,400 square metres of vacant floor space.

Had you been in this space in the lead up to Christmas in 2007, as Jessica Jones was, you would have seen an enormous crack in the concrete floor of the Turbine Hall.

This might have been a powerful enough sight — a fissure meandering over 160 metres, beginning as a thin, hairline fracture, widening as it reaches out further across the Hall. Yet it was what happened next, as a lone voice sang out to fill the vast space with the strains of “Once in Royal David’s City”, and a crowd of people lined the length of the crack and joined hands across the divide, that Jess would later say was the beginning of a night that changed her life.

Social change

Jess grew up in the Methodist church and studied Political Science at Oxford. Through her studies she found herself disenchanted with the idea of any kind of future for herself in partisan politics.

What Jessica thought would be a preparation for constructive engagement with the processes that shape our public life turned out to be a crash course in the realities of modern politics and the seeking-after-power or maintaining power for power’s sake that so often dominates the political landscape of our time.

Upon completing her studies, and wondering whether on earth a new kind of politics was even possible, she considered starting all over again — a new career pathway, perhaps. That was when a friend invited her to come and witness an action by London Citizens on a wintry Friday evening at the Tate Modern Gallery.

London Citizens is a broad-based coalition of over 100 faith communities, community organisations and trade unions. Its primary purpose is to empower local people with the ability to act for the common good to achieve social change in their communities.

Just one of the issues identified by members of the various organisations that made up London Citizens was the need for serious research and effective campaigns towards a real living wage.

The South London branch of London Citizens had been attempting to negotiate with key executives from the Tate Modern for 18 months without much progress on this issue as the wages paid to catering and cleaning staff were significantly less than the amount identified by the Greater London Authority: London Living Wage Unit of £7.20 per hour.

This brings us back to the crack in the floor of the Tate Modern, which was in reality a compelling art installation by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo called “Shibboleth”. In part Salcedo intended the work to be a commentary on the experience of immigrants coming from the Third World to the heart of Europe and there had been public conversation about the piece’s symbolism of the division between the rich and an excluded underclass in British and European societies.

Bridging the divide

The irony seized upon by those involved with London Citizens was that the cost of it took to produce the installation “Shibboleth” was the same as the increase it would cost the Tate Modern to pay its catering and cleaning staff a London Living Wage for an entire year.

Jessica, then, arrived at the Tate Modern at the invitation of a friend, still wondering whether real people could make a difference given the forces at play in the public sphere.

As she watched, volunteers joined hands, bridging the divide between “the haves” and “the have nots”. They responded to the previous solo voice with rousing collective versions of some other Christmas carols with amended lyrics drawing attention to the way the Tate Modern was participating in keeping some of its workers trapped on one side of the divide.

The participants then moved outside to where various media outlets were waiting to catch the visual images of them waving their placards and banners while continuing their choruses accompanied by a brass band.

The strains of “We Wish you a Happy Workforce” reverberated across the airwaves alongside other “Carols for a Living Wage”, specially prepared by South London Citizens’ lead organiser and writer of the hymn “Christ, be our light”, Bernadette Farrell.

The very next day Tate Modern management sat down with South London Citizens representatives and began negotiations, which led to the Tate Modern joining a group which now includes over 80 employers throughout London who have become Living Wage Employers.

Transformation

Since the launch of their Living Wage campaign in 2001 it is estimated that London Citizens has been responsible for an increase of £24 million towards low-waged workers. Their research also suggests that those who move to become Living Wage Employers experience improvements in job quality, productivity and service delivery among their staff.

Jessica found her calling.

Finally she had encountered a way to integrate her faith and her hope for collective action in response to societal pressures experienced by ordinary citizens in ways that were effective and transformational.

She is now an organiser with London Citizens and participating in its Strangers into Citizens campaign, which is designed to work with key political decision-makers to create a pathway into citizenship for long-term undocumented migrants.

This campaign, endorsed by London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, would enable some 500,000 people who have been refused asylum or overstayed their visas to acquire legal status as part of a “conditional amnesty”.

While it’s simple to focus on the big campaigns, the long and hard work of coalitions like London Citizens can be seen in the relational organising principles on which the organisation in founded.

Deborah Littman, one of the London Citizens trustees, says that its model of organising “is in the tradition of Saul Alinsky, the pioneering Chicago community organiser who set up the Industrial Areas Foundation, an umbrella body of community alliances.

“Alinsky believed that the only antidote to widespread poverty was active, widespread participation in the political process.

“London Citizens’ philosophy begins from the premise that citizen self organisation, civil society, “the third sector”, has been undervalued in favour of the market and the state. Moreover, we see civil society as in danger of disintegrating.”

The hard and long work, then, for coalitions using this model of relational organising is to rebuild a strong civil sector to help counteract the prevailing dominance of market forces and governmental infatuation with “the economy” above every other priority.

Sydney Alliance

In Sydney, this work of rebuilding relationships across faith communities, community organisations and trade unions is being led by the Sydney Alliance. Only two years in the making thus far, the Sydney Alliance has no plans for any specific campaigns until significant one-to-one relationships have been built across the more than 20 partner organisations.

In 2010 the Alliance plans an intentional movement of listening, discernment and research into the pressures faced and hopes held by people from across all member organisations, which are as diverse as the Catholic and Uniting Churches, the Jewish Board of Deputies, the United Muslim Women’s Association, the Western Sydney Community Forum, the NSW Nurses Association and the Public Service Association — to name but a few.

What makes a good city? How can Sydney and other cities and towns within this land become the kinds of places renowned for their embodiment of the common good?

Through the deepening of relationships both between individuals and among institutions an agenda for the common good can come forth. Through the sharing of our stories and investing energy in really getting to know one another as co-citizens with specific values and visions we can identify where our stories and hopes connect.

This is your invitation to participate in a new kind of politics; the kind where you get to bring your faith, your hope, your dissatisfaction with the status quo and your dreams for a world reconciled.

Visit www.sydneyalliance.org.au and www.londoncitizens.org.uk.

Kent Crawford is on the Ministry Team at West Epping Uniting Church and is the Convenor of the Strategy Committee of Parramatta-Nepean Presbytery. His involvement with the Sydney Alliance began in 2008 and he gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Scholarships Committee of the Ministerial Education Board which part-funded a study leave trip to learn more about London Citizens.

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