Alexandra (Alex) Nicholas is a project manager, community organiser, organising trainer and coach at Ko Awatea. Her organising work has focused on social justice and equity for Polynesian youth. She was lead organiser of Handle the Jandal, a youth-led campaign unleashing Polynesian youth leadership to enhance mental health and wellbeing. Alex has presented her work and led community organising training in the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand, contributing to global learning on the impact of social mobilisation and organising as an approach to fostering youth agency to improve health.
Community organising is an approach to social change that enables the people most impacted by an issue to be the authors of the change they need. It works by developing leadership to build collective agency – the ability to act to achieve a result.
Community organising works well in situations where the people who want change lack the resources, ability or power to bring about the change they want. As such, it has a long history of use in social and political spheres, and has been used successfully to tackle inequality in health.
While most community organising movements originate from the grassroots, it’s possible for a healthcare organisation to set the seeds. In New Zealand, Ko Awatea initiated Handle the Jandal, a community organising campaign which tackles mental health and wellbeing among Polynesian youth.
But, as a healthcare organisation, when should you use community organising to improve the health of your population? And how can you start a community organising movement and keep it going?
Ask three fundamental questions
Three questions help to identify when it’s appropriate to use community organising.
• First, can you identify the target community which is most affected by a particular health issue?
• Second, does that group want to create change? Is there energy from within the community that you can harness to address the issue?
• Third, where does the power sit? Is there an outside power maintaining the status quo?
Community organising is appropriate when there’s a definable target community and the people in that community want to make change, but a lack of leadership and power prevents from doing so.
Understand the risks
Because community organising mobilises people around issues they care about and develops their ability to lead change in those issues, healthcare organisations must be willing to hand control of the movement over to the community for it to work. This means trusting the community to determine the focus and direction of the movement based on what’s important to them – which may not reflect the organisation’s perception of what should be important, or align directly with organisational priorities or performance targets. For this reason, it’s important that senior leaders in an organisation have a good understanding of what community organising entails and are willing to trust the community to take the lead.
When Handle the Jandal began, Ko Awatea allowed Polynesian youths set the focus of the campaign. The youths identified the pressure of living in two worlds – the Westernised society of New Zealand and the traditional Polynesian values of their family culture – as the critical determinant of their mental health and wellbeing. Despite the many pressing health priorities for the Polynesian population in South Auckland, such as reducing diabetes and obesity, Ko Awatea’s leaders accepted that members of the community were the experts in what mattered to them.
Identify community leaders
Identify the leaders who represent the target community. One or two committed people are needed who are passionate about the cause and well-connected in the community.
For Handle the Jandal, Ko Awatea invested in a full-time lead organiser from the Polynesian youth community. As the campaign grew, a second lead organiser was employed. These paid positions were important because community organising requires a substantial time investment to develop genuine, strong relationships between people involved in the movement.
Invest in training
Lead organisers need training in community organising practices, as well as ongoing support from a coach with experience in the approach. Training is also needed for members of the community who are recruited to the movement in its early stages. Training costs reduce over time as participants become proficient enough to train their peers.
Consider support infrastructure
The community may need ongoing support to sustain the organising movement. This will vary depending on the characteristics of the community involved, but examples may include support with communications and publicity, a venue for meetings, vouchers for petrol or public transport, or phone credit.
Activate, then step back
Finally, the most important thing is not to impose. Activate the community, then step back. Be an enabler – your role is to open doors and remove barriers for them to create the change that’s important for that community.
1. Han H, Nicholas A, Aimer M, Gray J. An innovative community organizing campaign to improve mental health and wellbeing among Pacific Island youth in South Auckland, New Zealand. Australasian Psychiatry. 2015 Dec;23(6):670-4. doi: 10.1177/1039856215597539.