Democracy Beyond the Ballot Box

Exploring How Communities Organize to Build Power and Win 

Cebu City, Philippines

After three decades of struggle, thousands of urban poor gather in the Philippines to reignite campaign for slum improvement. 

Tired of being criminalized, marginalized, and living with their homes under constant attack, an estimated 2,000 members of the Urban Poor Alliance (UP-ALL) celebrated Philippine Independence day last month with a lively and dynamic gathering in Cebu, the country’s second largest metro-area. Their aim was to set out a new vision on how the local and national government should combat urban poverty.  

Their solution is strait-forward: “Don’t build unaffordable houses, make inadequate houses livable. Don’t build new homes, upgrade our existing ones.” Read more

Talisay City, Metro Cebu, Philippines

"You get the justice you have the power to compel"

San Pio Village is a social housing project run by the Catholic Order Society of the Divine World. It exists to serve the most vulnerable families in the city – the “marginalized squatter and garbage scavenger families of Metro Cebu” as the plaque dedicating it reads.

When Glenda Navidad, a resident of San Pio, received her eviction notice from the village, she thought there had to be some kind of mistake.

Glenda had broken no contract, and she was up to date on her rent. The grievous “offense” for which she and her 160 other neighbors were being thrown out of their homes was their attempt to organize an official neighborhood association to tackle local issues that amounted to little more than littering and safety. This was, felt the priest in charge, an unsuitable question to his authority. Read more

Komkhulu, Eastern Cape, South Africa 

How an indigenous group from South Africa’s Wild Coast won their battle against an Australian mining company by uniting their community.

“All this land you see around you,” Nonhle Mbuthama says with a gesture to the rolling green hills that run from the horizon on one side to the shores of the Indian Ocean on the other, “would be an open air titanium mine, had it not been for the bravery and unity of our people. Our great-grandparents fought to save this land for us, and we do the same today for our grandchildren. This is our ancestral land, and we defend it with our lives.”

The 250 community members packed close under the shade of our white-canvas awning greet Nonhle’s words with proud and disciplined applause as they respond with cries of “Amandla ngawethu!” (power to the people!). But they are not the target audience for her opening remarks. Instead, her words are directed at the row of well dressed politicians arranged along a table facing the assembly. All are candidates for the May elections who have come to seek votes. Read more

Friday, April 26 - Durban, South Africa 

South Africans Organize ‘Unfreedom Day’ on 30-year Anniversary of Democracy

South Africans celebrated Freedom Day and the anniversary of the end of apartheid on Saturday, 27 April, with official ceremony and a public holiday. But 30 years after the election of Nelson Mandela as president, millions of black South Africans are still waiting and still fighting for their freedom.

For families who still live in shack settlements without running water, electricity, and access to sanitation, the spectacle of this celebration was especially bitter. 

Many feel grievously let down, and physically threatened, by Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC), which has been in power since 1994 yet failed to deliver on constitutional commitments for safe and fair housing. Read more

Monday, April 15 - Durban, South Africa 

For decades, apartheid South Africa seemed unshakable. Trevor Noah, former host of the Daily Show and native South African, described it as “perfect racism” – a system of subjugation based on the color of one’s skin that had been scientifically honed over centuries. A complete compendium of apartheid laws would run more than three thousand pages, all created to maintain power in the face of the country’s rising and restless black majority. 

To develop this system of total control, Noah writes, the South African government “set up a formal commission to go out and study institutionalized racism all over the world. They went to Australia. They went to the Netherlands. They went to America. They saw what worked, what didn’t. Then they came back and published a report, and the government used that knowledge to build the most advanced system of racial oppression known to man.” Read more

Wednesday, March 21 - Cape Town, South Africa 

I stepped into the hot shower. From the nearby door where I had left my phone, I could hear The Best of Bob Dylan playing on shuffle over the noise of the running water. All alone in a remote corner of Northern England, I finally closed my eyes and let myself relax. And in that far off hotel bathroom, on the outskirts of a town whose name I still hadn’t learned to properly pronounce, I heard Dylan pose a question that – despite being incredibly cliche – gave words to a growing feeling that I had been unable to articulate for myself over the past few months: 

How does it feel?

To be on your own

With no direction home

A complete unknown.

If I had to convey what the past 226 days have felt like on the Watson, I would recite this chorus – cliches be damned. Read more

Tuesday, March 5 - Preston, England 

For the last 14 years, England has been awash in a sea of policies designed to slash tax rates, gut social systems, and increasingly erode corporate regulation. While many progressive local governments tacked to the center under this pressure from Parliament, one remarkable city has managed to do the exact opposite.

Sandwiched between Manchester to the South and the Scottish border to the North, in the historic heart of the industrial revolution, sits the City of Preston. It’s a place of anomalies. Nearly 10 years ago, Preston embarked on an ambitious program of ultra-localism that sought to redirect wealth back into the local economy, and place control back into the hands of people

So far, these policies have kept hundreds of millions of pounds in the local economy, strengthened small businesses, drastically improved the standard of living, and much more. The success of their policies even garnered recognition from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which named Preston the UK’s “most improved city” in 2018... Read more

Tuesday, January 29 - Preston, England 

In terms of people, money and relationships, universities are by far [one of] the powerful pillars of civil society – but too often they are just another inaccessible building for local people.” - James Asfa, Lead Organizer with Citizens UK 

Faith based institutions (churches, synagogues, and mosques) are still the glue that hold many communities together, and so they remain at the heart of the community organizing tradition. But a new generation of community institutions are coming onto the scene, and innovative Organizers at Citizens UK are taking note. 

Just as the Catholic Church was at the center of the Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1940s, today it is Universities (especially small, public ones) that represent a crucial new institution for community power. Read more

Friday, January 19 - London 

“We somehow have a narrative in our head that people can’t win change. And that is a damn shame, because people win things all the time.” 

- Jane Macalevey 

As the tide of voices grew louder, we introduced ourselves. I asked how he felt about the evening so far while folding away the pop-out desk on the arm of my chair, leaning closer to hear his voice over the hubbub. 

Instead of the energetic response I expected, his answer was prefaced with a lengthy exhale,  puffing out his cheeks and filling the silence with a thoughtful pause. “I’ve worked in the NHS for 20 years,” he said… “and it feels good to see things get done.” Read more

Tuesday, December 5 - London 

This is a guest post by George Gabriel, former Lead Organizer with Citizens UK who also helped to build Safe Passage. 

A crowd can be gathered in a moment and dissipate the next, they tend to principally empower the person with the megaphone, and because of their short time horizons they tend to be best for expressing protest and knocking things over. Organisations have deeper roots and so are more persistent, capable of developing complex agendas, negotiating terms, and of building lasting participation among those shut out from public life.

Community organisers build these organisations through one on one conversations – really getting to know people and what they care about, developing and uncovering webs of relationships, and using these interests and connections as a foundation for action.... Read more

Saturday, November 25 - London 

I arrived in London at 4pm on a Thursday afternoon. As the bus dropped me off on a street corner amidst the gray expanse of the outer city, it started to rain. Staring out at the dozens of dark-suited businessmen hurriedly walking by, collars turned up against the cold, I was immediately struck by how different this was going to be.

After three months spent building my home in Barcelona I had figured out a way of doing things. Now I had to start all over again. 

In Catalonia, people took to the streets by the hundreds and thousands when something was wrong. Here that type of action is something that needs to be deliberately taught. But that’s why I came; because despite lacking the seemingly natural inclination of Catalonians, communities in the UK have built one of the most strong and stable networks for community organizing anywhere outside of the US. And with it, community leaders have won significant change on the local, regional, and national level... Read more

Sunday, November 11 - Mondragon (retroactively)

There is an old legend in the region about a dragon that once terrorized the people in the valley of Mondragon. Every year the dragon demanded the villages sacrifice one of their own to satiate its appetite. 

The villagers, unwilling to pay this costly tribute, deceived the dragon. When it arrived to carry away the first victim, it was instead given a life-like wax-statue disguised as a young woman. 

When it began to eat the figure, the wax melted in the dragon’s mouth. Now unafraid of the dragon’s fire, the villagers fell upon the monster and together and killed it with their tools. 

The lesson is unmistakable: other towns pleaded for St. George to slay their dragons. Here they did it by relying on one another... Read more

Saturday, November 4 - London

This letter marks the end of my nearly three month life in Catalonia. You already know many of the stories: neighborhood celebrations, international protests and police brutality, community meetings and public debates, participating in actions to block evictions and negotiating fair rental agreements. 

Three months spent in pursuit of understanding how people in this remarkable region have developed an instinct to reach for their neighbor when they see something that is wrong and go do something about it... Read more

Monday, October 9 - Barcelona

The growing cooperative movement in the US – spearheaded by groups like the Spokane Workers Cooperative – represents an important opportunity for the future of community organizing. Just like churches, schools, or community-managed social centers, co-ops like Great Harvest are another way for people to build organized power and address the challenges facing their community – be that fair pay, sustainable agriculture practices, healthy food or beyond.

To dig deeper into this idea, I sat down  last week with the Co-Founder of the Spokane Workers Cooperative, Joel Wilkerson, to swap ideas about the intersection of the cooperative movement and community organizing. Read more

Monday, October 2 - Barcelona

In 1976, less than two years after the death of General Franco and the collapse of his dictatorship, the City of Barcelona built a cement factory at the heart of the neighborhood of Neu Barris in northern Barcelona. The city was expanding, and the plant was created to provide construction materials for a nearby highway. 

Spread along the foothills of the Collserola mountain range that rings the northern tip of the city, Neu Barris is known as one of the poorer areas of Barcelona, long composed primarily of immigrants and working class families. As the factory began operation it discharged clouds of fine gray powder that soon shrouded the landscape in a year-round snow of dull ash-like particles... Read more

Sunday, September 25 - Barcelona

 “Shit,” I thought in the split second before jumping away from the pillar I had been leaning against. “This doesn’t look good.” 

I raced backwards with 200 others as Riot Police charged forward into the crowd, their balaclavas pulled up to cover their faces and intimidating black helmets glinting.

We surged away as the police raised their batons and brought them down violently on those in the front. They pushed forward into the crowd until they reached their target. From the chaos they pulled a tall man with straight brown hair who would have appeared immaculately dressed had he not just been covered in bright-blue powder and caught in the crush of humanity racing backwards away from the black batons... Read more

Friday, September 15 - Barcelona

... Prodding a step further, I asked Victor: “What happens if the government threatens to take away that money unless the community organization does what they want it to?" 

He gave me a puzzled look, his shoulder-length curly brown hair framing a serious face. It was as if I had asked him why pedestrians don’t try to stare down oncoming cars in the notoriously belligerent Barcelona traffic.

"Here,” he replied simply, “the government knows that if it threatens to take away money from the community, there will be thousands of people in the street tomorrow to get it back." Read more

Tuesday, September 5 - Barcelona

... I lean across the table to Agus, raising my voice to make it heard, and ask if he is happy with the night’s turnout. He looks tired, but nods enthusiastically. “We are still rebuilding from the pandemic” he admits, “pero esta noche estamos tejiendo el tejido de nuestra comunidad” – “tonight we are reweaving the fabric of our community.”

 Read more

Thursday, August 24 - Barcelona

"Barcelona has taken the lead in all insurrections, against every established authority: the low populace... being always ready to raise the banner of revolt. A difficult language, rude manners, a distrust of strangers, and proneness to revolution, make this a disagreeable city."

- Richard Ford, 1845

Why Study Organizing in Catalonia?

Today, Barcelona and the surrounding region of Catalonia are known mainly for their beaches, the architecture by Antoni Gaudi, and a bustling tourism industry, yet for nearly a century this region played host to the heart of the labor movement in Western Europe. As workers around the world fought for improved conditions, better pay, and the right to organize, they looked to the rebellions, strikes, and armed conflict  taking place in the city of Barcelona... Read more

Tuesday, August 15 - Barcelona

Who would say no to a year-long trip around the world? It seems irrational even to second guess it, I know. But at the same time, it is a year away from my partner of 6 years and my family, a year away from a career that I love, and a year on my own for the most part since the Watson restricts all personal visits to a maximum of two weeks. Not something to be entered into lightly. 

So this first post is dedicated to illuminating the reason why I am pursuing this opportunity. It is the story of how I came to the work of Community Organizing and why I think that work is important enough to put the rest of my life on hold for 12 months... Read more

"But mass nonviolent demonstrations will not be enough. They must be supplemented by a continuing job of organization. To produce change, people must be organized to work together in units of power... More and more, the civil rights movement will have to engage in the task of organizing people into permanent groups to protect their own interests and produce change in their behalf. This task is tedious, and lacks the drama of demonstrations, but it is necessary for meaningful results." 

– MLK Jr., Where Do we Go from Here

About the Author

Cameron Conner is  a Community Organizer and 2020 Watson Fellow focused on exploring cultures of democratic self-governance and bringing these ideas home to the United States.