if the voices of marginalized peoples

What if we all just lived more simply? As Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘Live simply so that others may simply live.”

How might our Peterborough community change if the voices of marginalized peoples (our neighbours without enough to “simply live”) were supported by the collective POWER of everyone with hearts open enough to listen and be moved into action?

How might an Alliance of Communities of Faith, Unions, environmental groups, local businesses, sports clubs, societies, agencies, and ordinary citizens – begin to change the systems that are failing to serve our common good?

What if there was a model for citizen’s organizing with tried-and-true methods for making change? What if such an Alliance of citizens could gather the collective POWER to be a creative force for change?

Do such questions raise memories for you of efforts that asked a lot – but in the end failed to deliver the change you were seeking? Judy Donovan an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation for the last 20 years acknowledges such failures. “Good, dedicated, smart people try to act together, perhaps even achieving some of their goals, but over time, something falls apart and the movement ends.”

I came across the Alliance model for change on a visit to Calgary last spring. Lead organizer Ryan Anderson gave me a thumbnail of how ordinary citizens have been Changing the Conversations in Calgary’s municipal politics.

The Calgary Alliance for the Common Good has successfully gathered ordinary citizens from ordinary civil-society organizations to create an “organization of organizations”. Communities of Faith, Labour unions, clubs of all kinds, service groups, and school associations – are all Community-based organizations that share a common skill-set. They know how to organize their members to get things done.

With roots going back into the American Civil Rights era, a simple grassroots methodology has been slowly winning change after change in the face of seemingly unmovable systemic privileged power.

The Industrial Area Foundations or IAF has some 70 broad-based organizations in the US, Europe, Canada, and Australia. A founding leader, Bayard Rustin, was a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the leading tactician of the civil rights movement. He cautioned that the movement not to be satisfied with, “private, voluntary efforts.”  He urged that what was needed was politics.

“A conscious bid for political power is made, and in the course of that effort a tactical shift is being affected: direct action techniques are being subordinated to a strategy calling for the building of community organizations.”

These IAF organizations

  • build strong relationships within and across local associations,
  • equip their members with leadership and organizing skills,
  • and help them to act powerfully together on concrete issues facing their communities.

These broad-based local organizations are affiliated with the IAF network for training and supervision of professional organizers.  However, each local Alliance raises its own money, works on its own issues, and invests heavily in the development of its own people, who are its leaders.

How does it work? One relationship at a time. Growing trust through exchanges of storytelling. Conducting “Listening Campaigns” to identify where the passion for change is most potent. Empowering Community Organizers with the tools to focus power – first in their own organizations – and then using collective decision-making techniques to identify winnable issues in our community – in the face of seemingly intractable Problems.

If I am to shift my deepest hunger from the pursuit of “belongings” – find an alternative to the “dopamine hit” I receive from retail-therapy – then could I substitute my yearnings and rewards to the gratifications of “belonging” to a movement for social change?

Judy Donovan offers a long-term perspective on our immediate challenges: “Having the right timeline matters.  For the CEO, it’s the quarterly statement. For the bureaucrat, it’s the budget cycle. For the politician, it’s the next election. But for the grandparent, it’s a generation. Those of us committed to social change must have the perspective of a grandparent. Our work is generational.

When done right, we are privileged to help build organizations that outlive the comings and goings of politicians, pastors, executives, and organizers alike by becoming a living and powerful part of the culture of how a community operates. Only then, will we have taken up Rustin’s timely and prophetic challenge to move from protest to politics.”


With excerpts from “IAF SPONSORING COMMITTEES” by Judy Donovan

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  1. C. Lyon

    “successfully gathering ordinary citizens” from local organizations to create an “organization of organizations” will need something more than a “common skill-set” to go to a deeper level of re-imagining the future.

    Such an approach, then, must be open to trial and error, understood as experimenting our way into something different than the “status quo-with-tweaks.” All possible futures must be on the table and tested with trials and errors that are recorded and tracked as way is made toward the larger networking of neighbourhoods into operating as the very SYSTEM of the whole community (town, city, or larger defined areas within those existing configurations.) This is like establishing sound roots.

    “… empowered, active and participatory neighbourhoods, with power and resources devolved to them can boost levels of civic engagement and resilience, help rebuild legitimacy, trust, make bureaucracies more responsive and develop deep sources of social and civic value.”

    These suggestions arise from this source that is very worth further exploration:


    Peterborough has the potential for this! A very early (and premature) experiment in this spirit was that of Participatory Budgeting a few years ago. It lacked the ‘sound roots’ needed to succeed.
    It will take time, patience and commitment to a shared vision to overcome our current culture’s inexperience and conservatism when it comes to truly new ways of acting together hyper-locally (neighbourhoods).


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