by Romy Garrido
The soft glow of church lighting surrounded a captive audience in Calgary, Alberta on October 17, 2019 — though it wasn’t a Sunday, and the congregation wasn’t listening to a preacher. Instead, Knox United Church played host to the newly formed Calgary Alliance for the Common Good, a strikingly diverse coalition of labour unions, religious groups, universities, and community organizations representing more than 30,000 Calgarians.
Though the official founding assembly took place that Thursday evening, a group of determined volunteers were building the Alliance over ten years ago off the side of their desks.
Their mission? To organize the power of communities to shape a just and compassionate city.
Looking for More Than Just a Band-Aid Solutions
Ryan Andersen has been with the group since its early days, and today he works as the Alliance’s Lead Organizer. Once a parish pastor, Andersen has always been engaged in social issues. As an example, his congregation volunteered at homeless shelters, though they soon realized this common temporary solution wasn’t solving the problem.
“If someone is bleeding, they need a band-aid, but ultimately there’s a need to address issues at a deeper, structural level to get at the roots to make a difference in people’s lives,” Andersen says, “Homelessness isn’t rocket science—what people need is a home.”
And so the work began as the founders decided to build power by adopting a community organizing structure. Andersen speaks of power as a core concept for the alliance. He describes different sources of power, for instance those that have power over others by force, manipulation, or financially.
“We are more interested in the ‘power with’—power that comes when people begin to work together,” he says. Though working together didn’t always come easy. Andersen says there’s a culture in Calgary where people are more focused on building their own organizations.
Unions See Value in Community Organizing
It’s something union leader Neil McKinnon realized in his own work with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 583.
“The labour movement realized quite early that you can’t do it alone, you have to work with everybody else, you have to see the bigger picture,” he says. ATU 583 joined enthusiastically over three years ago, and McKinnon now leads the Alliance’s strategy committee.
Though unions are no strangers to organizing, McKinnon envisions them as “so much more than what kind of contract we have at work, or if we are going to win at grievances and arbitrations. Labour has always been at the forefront of societal change.”
He points to the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ winning of maternity leave and benefits, not only for public sector workers, but eventually across the board.
“What we have, we desire for all,” McKinnon says of labour’s victories. “It’s always been a part of our DNA to worry about the community as a whole.”
The Alliance launches Keep Calgary Strong campaign to fight municipal budget cuts
The Alliance’s first significant public showing was in the summer of this year in response to Calgary City Council’s abrupt $60-million budget cuts to city services, including cuts to transit and accessible transit services. Through a campaign dubbed Keep Calgary Strong, the Alliance organized over 200 people to fill Calgary’s Council Chambers on a Monday morning—though Council barred the group from speaking.
This was contrasted by Council’s decision earlier in the summer to let a group of business owners speak and advocate for lower property taxes, which was achieved by mandating the $60-million budget reduction. Eventually, Council reversed their initial decision, letting the Alliance speak for the most vulnerable. Though the cuts moved forward, they were revised to preserve some services due to the group’s strong showing.
While continuing to react to government decisions is in the books, they have worked hard to research and take proactive action on four key areas: mental health and addictions, social isolation, truth and reconciliation, and the environment. But Andersen says it’s about more than the issues, as the Alliance’s primary organizing focus is to develop strong leaders.
“If you win an issue, you’ve won one issue,” he says, “but if you can develop an effective leader, connect them with a network of people who have the power to win, you can win multiple issues over decades.”
Modeled after the Saul Alinksy school of organizing, the Alliance aims to build enough recognition in order to sit with those in positions of power and ultimately negotiate how societal change can happen.
As for the unions, McKinnon is glad to see this type of organizing finally happening in Calgary, as the ATU has been doing community coalition work for years across North America to save transit ridership. He says in the Alliance’s last round of City budget discussions, it wasn’t just the ATU pushing transit messaging forward—the environmental and low income advocates had expressed the need to preserve transit services before it was even his turn.
“I just said, wow, thank you guys, this is great, it was wonderful,” noting that making common cause with those like minded is not only refreshing, but makes the work very fulfilling.
Learn more at www.calgarycommongood.org/
Follow Romy at @RomyYYC