Sydney Town Hall, 15 September at 6:45 p.m., the room was glowing with energy and anticipation. Over 2000 were squashed inside while others spilled into the streets, impatiently waiting for an historic event – the launch of the Sydney Alliance.
While this was the public founding of the Alliance, most of those knew a lot about it – the Alliance had been growing for years. Since 2007, community groups, unions and religious organisations had been building relationships and talking about how they could work together differently. At meetings, at two-day and six-day trainings and at other Alliance events, organisations from across our city recognised that they had many shared aspirations. Despite the fact that many of them had never worked together before, and some had a history of tension, they all agreed that they would benefit from: revitalising their organisation by building new community leaders; strengthening relationships with other community-based organisations; and taking action for the common good – particularly on issues that no organisation could tackle alone.
The Alliance grew patiently. Conversations began in June 2007 and by November 2007 there were 13 organisations financially committed to building the Alliance. By November 2008, 22 organisations committed $1 million to funding a three year organising drive. Right now there are around 50 organisations joined together in the Sydney Alliance.
The Sydney Alliance attracts an unusual set of partners. From Western Sydney Community Forum to the Archdiocese of the Catholic Church. Unions NSW and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. The Cancer Council and the Construction Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). Despite the diversity, it works because organisations are not asked to sort out their differences but to engage with their commonalities.
In our first two years, the Alliance focused on relationship building and leadership training. 1500 of our people have participated in one of our two day training programs run all over Sydney.
Between July 2010 and April 2011 the Alliance co-ordinated a 'listening campaign' in order to identify the concerns that were shared amongst our membership. Over 6500 people from 31 organisations participated. In bus depots, school halls, union branches, parishes and community centres people confronted one question: 'if there was one thing that could improve your life and the life of your family, what would it be?'
Together the partner organisations synthesised what they heard. At an assembly of 250 people in May 2011 the Alliance identified the topics that it would focus on in its first few years. This focus came from the grassroots. Our members found three common stories: (1) people were frustrated getting around; (2) people were not getting along, and (3) people were falling through the cracks.
The Alliance resolved to create its first Agenda for the Common Good with three areas of concern – transport, social inclusion and community health and support.
This Agenda was launched at our founding assembly on 15 September. Having developed a vision for each of these areas we are now identifying specific, winnable, meaningful changes that our organisations will act on together.
How we do this work is critical. We have a motto – 'don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.' And, like the Evatt Foundation we have a belief in the importance of rigorous research. Our research, the process of identifying issues and planning our action happens in large teams of people that meet across the city. These teams have members of community organisations, parishioners and union members working together. They get the opportunity to work on issues that affect them and can improve their lives.
The teams are preparing bold visions for what Sydney should be. For transport, the vision is '400:15:1+SCA2'. It means that people should have access to public transport within 400 metres from where they work or live. That transport should come at least every 15 minutes and they only have to use 1 ticket. Transport should also be Safe, Clean, Affordable and Accessible (SCA2).
In 2012, the Alliance is 'going deep' across our city – to start making changes that will make our Sydney a greater place to live. We are engaging in more listening around our three Agenda areas – in the Nepean Valley, the Inner West, Fairfield/Liverpool and Parramatta – to identify specific changes we would like to see. Then, after May we will begin public campaigns.
All the while, the work of the Sydney Alliance is inspired by the success of similar coalitions overseas. While this kind of Alliance is new to Sydney, community organising has had a track record of success in London, the United States, Canada, the Philippines and Germany. The Sydney Alliance is part of a global community organising network called the Industrial Areas Foundation. That network was made famous as the organisation that trained Barack Obama to be a community organiser in the 1980s. More recently, Citizens UK and London Citizens, which have been around 15 years, have made an impact in their city by campaigning for living wages, changes to immigration laws and street safety.
Of course, the Sydney Alliance is different from these overseas organisations because of our distinct political and social context. Plus, we stand on the shoulders of generations of local coalition builders – like Jack Mundey and the Green Bans movement, the Palm Sunday movement of the 1980s or the 8 hour day campaigners in the mid-19th century. We are also fortunate to be able to learn from 60 years of international experience in community organising as we build something new in Sydney.
Sydney is just the start. There is emerging interest in other cities and towns across New South Wales and Australia. Individuals and organisations from Brisbane, Adelaide, the Central Coast, Northern Rivers and Canberra have been exploring what this kind of organising may look like in their communities.
The Sydney Alliance has started something new. While we borrow from a strong history of coalition-building in our city, we bring together an unprecedented diversity of groups and organisations. Acting together, standing for the whole of Sydney, being beyond partisan politics, we are a coalition of thousands of citizens that is organised in order to have a say in how our city is run.
This is a prcise of the talk by Amanda Tattersall, Coalition Director, Sydney Alliance, at a special Evatt dinner at the home of the Foundation's former president and current executive member, Bruce Childs, and his wife, Yola Lucire. Amanda Tattersall. was the President of the National Union of Students in 1999 (NSW Branch), the co-founder of Labor for Refugees in 2011 and is a co-founder, former chair and current board member of GetUp.org.au. Amanda is also the author of Power in coalition: strategies for strong unions and social change, published by Cornell University Press and Allen & Unwin in 2010. Visit the website of the Sydney Alliance.
Suggested citation Tattersall, Amanda, 'A real Sydney Alliance', Evatt Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1, August 2012<https://evatt.org.au/real-sydney-alliance>