“If people don’t think they have the power to solve their problems, they won’t even think about how to solve them.” – Saul Alinsky
The word power has come to be regarded with suspicion in our era, associated by many with only one kind of power: domination. Rightly so then, many of us reject the notion of wielding power as we reject participation in oppression. Yet Saul Alinsky, a Jewish community organizer who began his organizing work in the 1930’s following the Great Depression, understood very well that failure to build more lateral, collaborative power, and then wield that power for justice, would only lead to further oppression of the most vulnerable.
Building upon his experiences organizing the meatpacking industry of Chicago, Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and went on to develop the art and science of broad-based organizing, building alliances among civil society organizations, as a means of bringing the needs of all people to the attention of those in power. Through uniting churches, unions, business organizations, and non-profits, people with a vested interest in the common good of their communities, he built a base that made those in power listen.
Greater Victoria Acting Together (GVAT), an affiliate of IAF, carries on the work of building broad alliances with the power to make positive change. Today GVAT is a coalition of 32 diverse organizations representing more than 100,000 people in Greater Victoria.
The Anglican Diocese of British Columbia was an early supporter. Motivated by the needs of our city, long before the spectre of COVID-19 came to haunt our every move, Anglicans were dreaming of ways to turn things around in Victoria. Worthy of mention specifically are Peggy Wilmot and Patty Lane, two parishioners of St. John the Divine who put their heads together to dream of how the Anglican church could play a leading role in strengthening civic relationships and addressing the thorniest problems our society faces. From their organizing efforts, reaching out to their communities, they gathered the support of churches, unions, synagogues, frontline service organizations, conservation groups, and student societies, and GVAT was born.
For GVAT, real organizing starts with listening to the people in its member organizations, and then discerning where there are common concerns to be addressed politically (in a strictly non-partisan sense). Supported by a generous financial donation from the diocese, GVAT works to take on the toughest questions of our day: the need for affordable housing, lack of access to quality mental health and addictions care, and the looming threat of climate change. These three areas of common cause each have their own Action and Research Team (ART), shared study and campaign development groups composed of interested individuals from member organizations.
On housing, GVAT has partnered with The Existence Project (www.theexistenceproject.ca), an organization that breaks down stigma and connects unhoused and housed community members through storytelling. The partnership has been hosting free neighborhood workshops with storytellers speaking from their direct experience of homelessness. GVAT will then equip the group with the tools for effective local organizing to counterbalance the more polarizing voices in the community and build support for supportive and truly affordable housing.
Initiatives like this one and others related to alternative crisis response teams, protecting old growth forests, and nurturing authentic allyship with Indigenous people, spring from pooling the collective imaginations of GVAT’s members. “You can’t build what you can’t imagine” is a frequent refrain heard in GVAT circles.
Yet solving big problems like the housing crisis will require more than dreams. We will need real power, the power we have when many of us find common cause and act together.
At the root of our own Sunday morning gatherings, the Greek work for “church,” ekklesia, translates roughly as “the assembly that speaks out.” We at GVAT are looking to build the collective power to heal the rifts in our communities, to speak out and write a new story in common. In this we may become political, but as Pope Francis has said: “Politics is the highest form of charity.” Charity here, derived from the word agape, refers to the highest form of love, the kind we are called by Christ to carry into the world.
Over the last few years, the Engaging God’s World vision implementation team has been discussing how to cultivate partnerships to tackle economic, climate, and social justice. The diocese was an early supporter of GVAT through the Vision Fund, and its collaborative approach and compelling campaigns align with many of our causes. The synod office is arranging group membership in GVAT allowing parishes in Greater Victoria to attend meetings and learn more about the organization. Please have a look at GVAT’s website (gvat.ca) and contact Brendon, vision animator at the synod office for more information.