Blog | March 30, 2011

This article was originally published in Vue Weekly on March 30, 2011

By Samantha Power

The idea of hope in politics is often greeted with a slight cringe by experienced political activists. David Shirley doesn't want to take anything away from those who have worked hard for often elusive change, but the educator and activist is hoping people will take some inspiration from his work.

Giving a talk titled "The Inspiring Future of Public Interest Organizing" at this weekend's conference on political activism, Shirley hopes to share some of his experiences educating communities on effective methods of political change.Co-author of the book The Fourth Way, Shirley helped to define a new field of educational organizing.

"Community organizing with school improvement work," explains Shirley. It's a field that is expanding into curriculum plans, even here in Alberta. Shirley was involved in a recent review of the Alberta Education program Alberta Initiative for School Change. The program looks at ways to improve the learning environment for students and parents, but also has a civic component, something many education programs are lacking.

"In schools we teach about being a citizen, but it's very abstract," says Shirley. "Especially if don't go on to college, there's no one there to demonstrate how citizenship works." That's the key in Shirley's organizing technique which is built on organizing from the grassroots of communities.Going into impoverished communities in Texas, Shirley focused on assisting community members to achieve direct results. Things like crosswalks at schools provide visible examples of change created by community members.

"There's a strategy around engaging people around their passions," says Shirley, but he maintains the first step is to invite everyone out to a meeting: "'Ya'll come out' is what we say in the South. It's undifferentiated."From there leaders are discovered, people who can take on more of the workload to create change built around a community's passion. Although it's what can often lead to burn out, leadership is thought of as a reward as well.

People begin to think of themselves as leaders and Shirley believes that this helps to dedicate individuals to a life of social justice. And he emphasizes that not all leaders come from the group believed to be obvious contenders: of course there are those community members who bring out four or five or eight different people to one meeting, but there is also the unlikely character."An angry parent is an opportunity, as one principal put it," says Shirley.

The opportunity is in channeling that anger into productivity.The act of teaching someone the tools to engage with city councillors or school trustees can be empowering, and lead to further political action that may be more abstract.

"I've heard people say, 'I just thought of myself as a mother, but people are calling me a leader and now I think of myself that way.'" Shirley says it can inspire them on to jobs in the social justice field, which is something he's hoping will create a continuum of political involvement rather than just something done in the years after college.

"Politics should be that life long endeavour," says Shirley. "There can be social justice careers, a person can be a teacher, a social worker and then a community organizer, and seeing it as a ladder and not just something that's a flat career structure."Instead of leaving individuals on their own to figure out how to create change, there is a recognition that there needs to be active work in creating communities.

"It is something that is labour intensive," says Shirley. "It's very hard work. There are days when it really does feel just like a grind and so every once in awhile we have to step back and see a lot of progressive changes."

Thu, Mar 31 – Sat, Apr 2 Mobilizing for a Better Alberta, Chateau Louis Conference Centre

Read the full article on the Vue Weekly website.