Coalition building in Calgary to defend the common good

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Image: Chadillaccc/Wikimedia

Ryan Andersen is the lead organizer of the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good, a coalition that brings together around 30 faith groups, union locals and community organizations representing about 35,000 people to organize, advocate and mobilize for a more just and compassionate vision for their city. Scott Neigh interviews him about the organization, about its slow and steady approach to community organizing, and about the victories it has won so far.

In the last few decades, those of us who live in rich countries have been bombarded with the message that we must think of ourselves solely as individuals, fragmented and isolated from anything greater and shared. Margaret Thatcher's iconic decree "there's no such thing as society" set the tone, and cuts to social programs and other forms of collective provision drove it home. Sociologists like Robert Putnam have identified a dramatic erosion in collective civic engagement. Yet despite the range of powerful political compulsions and very real shifts over the neoliberal era, there are many people who have never given up on the idea of the common good, and on the hard but satisfying work of collaborating across differences to bring it into being.

Andersen grew up in small-town Alberta. He first started asking big questions about society and about injustice after he spent time in an exchange program living on a First Nation in Saskatchewan and then in Guatemala. He says, "Encountering two genocides just sort of shook up my view of the world."

His questioning eventually led him to train as a pastor at Harvard University in Boston. During his training, he worked at an inner-city, largely African-American church, where he received a crash course in community organizing. He got to witness first hand a process in which different faith groups, community groups, unions and more took up the struggle for affordable housing, and ultimately made some big gains.

Fast forward a bunch of years. By this point, Andersen was a parish pastor in Calgary. His church did many of the things that churches do to address urgent needs in the community in a direct way, but he was well aware that they weren't building towards the kinds of structural change that might get at the roots of the problems people were facing.

So when someone sat down with him and said, hey, do you think maybe we could build some kind of organization that does community organizing, he thought back to his time in Boston and replied with an emphatic yes.

That began a long, challenging process that stretched out over quite a number of years and finally led last fall to the formal founding assembly of the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good. At a certain point along the way, Andersen stepped away from his work as a pastor to become the group's lead organizer. The group draws on the organizing model of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which has been doing this kind of work in the United States and beyond since 1940.

The fundamental building block of the alliance's work is what they call the relational meeting -- sitting down with someone one-on-one and doing a lot of listening to who they are, what their lives are like, and what matters to them. From these meetings, they construct larger processes that involve determining issues that people might be willing to work on, building networks of active members, and identifying community leaders. Active participants are given plenty of opportunities to receive training in community organizing skills. The alliance has various committees and teams with responsibility for specific issues and tasks, and it is ultimately governed by an assembly of representatives from each member organization.

Over a year ago, the alliance initiated a process in which they trained 50 people who then went back to their home organizations and had one-on-one or small group meetings with around 1,000 people to identify key issues that people wanted to fight for. They issues they came up with were mental health, social isolation and community building, the environment, and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. In each of these areas, the group has been identifying demands and establishing campaigns. Along with these longer-term initiatives, they have also shown a capacity to respond to issues as they arise, including with their highly successful Keep Calgary Strong campaign, which Andersen says played an important role in winning the reversal of around $77 million of proposed municipal budget cuts last year.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out their website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Chadillaccc/Wikimedia

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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