Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The importance of community activism

We community activists are stubborn folk. We know that the chances of success are often slim. We know that Governments in the name of efficiency and effectiveness will over-ride us or, worse, destroy the things that we have worked for. Yet we go on.

Up in Bellingen, the community is still fighting for its hospital. I haven't written on this for a while, but the campaign continues. The Facebook page now has 3,515 supporters. I think that the Government simply hopes that it will all go away, that the system can outlast the campaign.

Down south in Wollombi, Peter Firminger is using the intenet to unite the Wollombi community. After 36 months, Wollombi Valley Online has over 380 members and attracts over 50,000 visits per month (currently averaging around 1,633 visitors per day viewing 3,552 pages per day). This is just one of a number of community sites that Peter has developed.

At our Hunter Valley new state lunch I asked Peter why he did it. After all, he has yet to make any money from it. The reverse, in fact; he has to subsidise the sites from his own business earnings. Not only that, he is on the committee of many if not most local organisations. He does so because he considers it to be important.

We community activists are not always right. Sometimes we support causes that are very local, very specific, very much nimby (not in my back yard). Sometimes we win when, arguably, we shouldn't. Yet these failures, if failures they are, are more than offset by the long term gains to community and country.

Our very democratic processes depend upon the activists. Not so much the career activists like Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard who go from University politics through the union and/or party machines to parliament, but to the thousands who turn out each election to pass out the how to vote cards or to scrutineer. Without them, our system would collapse.

Then there are the tens of thousands of volunteers who man our fire brigades, our emergency services, who provide meals on wheals, who run the fund raising BBQs and stalls for a variety of local causes. As we go to vote at the schools and halls around Australia, we collect our how to votes and then pass the BBQs and cake stalls raising funds for the local P&C.

The contribution of any single person may be small. But, in total, these activists are in fact absolutely central to Australian life. Without them, our community would be impoverished. They mark the difference between a successful and failed society.

The thing that stands out to me when I look at the warp and woof of life at a local level is not so much the successes of party and politics in meeting needs, although this can be important in individual cases such as Henry Parkes and public education in NSW, but the way in which community activism provides the base for later developments.

Today we live in a measurement world. Yet when I look at the huge variety of performance indicators, and I spend a lot of time doing this, most don't matter a damn in a long term sense. The most that they can do, and most don't do this, is to improve performance at the margin. To my mind, the real changes to Australia in twenty years will actually be determined by what community activists are doing now.                 


jacqui said...

I agree whole heartedly.How do we get our youth to become more involved though?Because this is the generation we need to inspire to lobby for personal and social rights.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Jacqui. My feeling is that we don't need to worry about this too much, at least so far as personal and social rights are concerned. There may be a bigger problem in terms of the delivery of certain types of services.

I base this observation on my own daughters (21 and 23) and their friends as I meet them and see them through things like Facebook.

Sometimes I do get depressed. Then I look at their attitudes and activities and depression lifts.

This is really worth a post in its own right to try to explain what I mean. For example, eldest is a netball coach for the youngies, youngest is a driver in the Macquarie Ancient History Society. Essentially they do things, as do their friends.

Their attitudes are different from, say, their mother on things such as gender equality. They just take it as a given. They and their group, and this is part of the networked tribal young,are adept at using social networking tools to organise things.