“When I was young I had no blood, and people moving things around inside me had to do it by feel. They had to decide by feel alone which things were useful to them. … [whilst] so few things are equally useful…
Everything fed to me made other things…
My body worked so well that eventually all things everywhere were swallowed and digested by me. I grew so large that I ate the world, and all the blood in the world is mine. What am I? You know, even though you are like everything else, and see me from the inside. I am the market.”
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry For The Future (2020).
I first learnt about grassroots organising from being in unions. I’ve always been a union member. I can’t remember why I joined. Probably initially as insurance against employers behaving badly. As a newly-minted teenage supermarket employee, I understood without being told that solidarity meant collective power for the collective interest. What I was less comfortable with was the us-and-them culture: us versus the boss, us versus the ‘scabs’ (a very unkind word usually reserved for non-members), us versus folks stealing our jobs (read: brown migrants). I figured that maybe this mentality was necessary because the corporation by definition had more power and resources. We had to have hard lines to protect ourselves, didn’t we? I kept paying my dues as I moved on to public service jobs, and thought nothing more of it.
In 2007, I ran as the Greens Federal candidate for Gorton. ‘Kevin 07’ was at fever pitch (eew) and I had an awful time trying to be the candidate as well as the campaign manager because our local branch fell away. I was 24 years old, and had joined the Greens only a few months earlier because I had just learnt about climate change and so was keen to do something, anything, that helped to turn the tide on climate inaction. Throughout the campaign I’d swing between seeking the ‘right’ way to run tactics, and just being straight up frantic, having little idea how to campaign but doing it anyway. By the end I was burnt out and broken. If this was what making change felt like, I was tapping out. I quit the Greens.
Three years later, a little wiser and with plenty more climate campaigning under my belt, I rejoined. I’d realised that no change happened without political change, and I had begun to see the Greens for what we are, rather than only what I felt we should be by now.
Our party is a grassroots party of volunteers. How well our movement makes change is completely dependent on who turns up on the day and rolls their sleeves up. It’s okay to be disappointed when a volunteer-run organisation lets us down, but in those moments we have a choice.
We can either judge it for not being ready enough to look after our people, making dumb missteps in responding to manufactured ‘crises’ or ‘hypocrisies’ thrown at us. Or we can accept that our collective is, in some ways, not yet where we want it to be: not yet achieving the cut-through we need, not yet at the scale of people power for big change to happen, not yet anti-racist enough, not yet safe enough for all folks we purport to represent. Not yet. And from there, with patience and optimism, we keep trying and do better.
In 2017 I was preselected to step into the Upper House seat of Western Metropolitan for the Greens, as Colleen Hartland retired from the Victorian Parliament. I spent 2018, an election year, learning how to be an effective member of parliament with a new office of staff and a half a dozen portfolios, as well as building a campaign across 1,300 sq km to get re-elected. Our little dream team of young and first time election campaigners made sure that as we brought new people into our movement, they knew that their volunteer efforts were valued, and shared the story of change that we were trying to build in this nominally ‘safe Labor’ territory. Alas, what we did was not enough and, group voting tickets aside, I left feeling there was so much more we needed to do as a party to build hope in and relevance to our communities across the west.
My next gig, just before the pandemic hit, was to join the National Union of Workers (NUW) as an organiser. I wanted to go do something completely opposite to being in parliament, which had felt surreal. Its conventions and restricted access felt performative and claustrophobic. My socialist mate Timmy had been organising with the NUW, and introduced me to some of the most effective unionists I’d ever met. I spoke enough Vietnamese that I landed a gig with the painfully monolingual ‘poultry’ industry team, in this Labor-affiliated union. Very cute, as I was (and am) vegan and very Greens.
At the organiser level, the camaraderie was real. Above that, the hierarchy disappeared into opaque machinations I was not privy to. I suspect I missed out on a lot of the office politics too, because I was mostly out at worksites and because I was an out-Greens. This suited me fine and I got on with learning how to organise workers in hostile worksites.
Chicken factories across Australia are all virtually the same. Lit by fluorescent white lights, smelling of cleaning detergent and death, and socially stratified. Afghan or African workers in the kill rooms, South Asians defeathering. Vietnamese workers in the boning room slicing cuts off carcasses. White folks in the packing room. The browner your skin, the dirtier the work. The Vietnamese workers were often indirectly employed via contractors too, so even more exploited and less secure than the rest.
At one particular site, my task was to join up new members. We had an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement up for renegotiation within a year. We needed member density to prove union power here. They’d had a Vietnamese-speaking organiser for years there before me, but density was still low.
For the first few months, all I could do was keep turning up. I’d arrive at 2am when staggered breaks started for the night shift. In a big puffy jacket (it was always so frigid in those factories) I’d ring a doorbell and wait to be escorted to the tea room by the manager on duty. Cold stainless steel, under bright white lights, rows of tables set out like a prison mess hall, a small sink and microwave to quickly heat and eat before your 10 minutes were over. I would greet folks as they came in, making eye contact with workers run down by the night shift routine. Most folks would barely give me a nod in return. Maybe it was exhaustion. Maybe it was the surveillance camera blinking in the far corner of the tea room. The boss could be watching. Or not. You didn’t really ever trust your co-workers either. The point was that you were always at risk of being docked shifts, or worse, if you were seen as getting too friendly with the union.
As the months passed, some of the Vietnamese-speaking workers would chat to me. I’d slowly get a picture of the characters in the room and the power they wielded. The head Vietnamese contractor, who had never acknowledged my existence, had drinks at that worker’s place. This other worker had suffered some personal tragedy and now had mental health issues no one knew how to deal with, which management was just ignoring. The white folks resented the brown folks for readily taking extra shifts and being quite competitive with how many ‘pieces’ they got through per shift. The South Asian workers were new, but then they were always new. They would work a few months while they awaited visas to process and for this country’s discriminatory institutions to recognise their overseas qualifications.
After leaving that union organising gig, I’ve come to see what we Greens could take, or leave, from that level of grassroots movement building. For one, grassroots organising requires us to believe that folks most impacted by structural issues are also best placed to come up with the solutions. So, by necessity, we must make sure we are listening to those we are seeking to represent and empower. We listen for what they need to feel safe and we make space for their wholeness. Are our internal processes easy to navigate? Are they accessible for folks with caring responsibilities, disabilities, low levels of literacy? Is it clear that becoming a Greens member means you are welcome, encouraged and have the right to actively shape our movement, making connections and building leadership in others?
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The governance of our party, underpinned by consensus decision-making, is purpose-built for the kind of radical trust, transparency and collective wisdom that comes from empowering the grassroots. The inclusivity and solidarity we cultivate is the very thing that will connect us, cutting across those multiple systems of oppression — it will be the well from which we draw our courage and power to neutralise the master’s tools.
Three weeks ago, homeless people living in a ‘free camp’ campsite were given eviction notices by their local Council.
This is what Victoria’s housing crisis looks like in Central Victoria. Folks faced with low rental vacancies and the need to stay in Bendigo for work and family, have been living in tents in this public park over the past two years. At the request of the City of Greater Bendigo Council, the Andrews State Government had changed the status of Huntly Lions Park to no longer be a ‘free camp’ site, and Council had begun to hand out eviction notices.
There is now nowhere for these people to go.
A dozen of our ‘Country Greens’ had come together on a rainy Spring Saturday in-person and via Zoom, to plan out our campaign tactics for the coming November State Election. Those of us attending in-person sat around Dr Cate Sinclair’s kitchen table, by ceiling to floor windows looking out on open grassy paddocks. Cate had recently been preselected by our local members as our lead candidate for the Upper House region of Northern Victoria.
It’s an election year. Four months until the State Election, in fact. We shared with each other, Greens campaigners from across this 120,000 square kilometre-electorate, what the biggest issues facing our communities were.
Our country hospitals are serving as aged care overflows, so there are no beds for those who need hospital care. If you’re pregnant in Mildura (VIC), you may find yourself having to travel to Adelaide (SA) to give birth. If you’re a young person from Castlemaine in a mental health crisis, you’ll be waiting over 12 months to access acute mental health care. We reflected on the neglect of public services, the recent laws passed to persecute our forest protesters, and the plight of these homeless campers under housing stress. We built solidarity over delicious homemade scones & jam Cate had put on for us. We were fired up.
I revelled in facilitating yet another wholesome meeting of folks who believe in their bones that politics needn’t be so disgraceful and that, importantly, we — people who give a damn — could do something about it. The preciousness of this optimism in our Greens movement is not to be understated.
Really though, do we dare look around us at a world on fire and dream of a safe climate and human needs being met with dignity?
Yes. Yes, we can.
In grassroots organising workshops I’ve run over the past few years for the Victorian Greens and other activist groups, I make sure to field a discussion about power, privilege and the master’s house. The master’s house is a powerful metaphor evoked in a 1984 speech by African-American civil rights activist Audre Lorde.
Imagine three vast intimidating pillars of the master’s house: capitalism, white supremacy, and Patriarchy. These systems of oppression are the pillars holding up its roof. Each system has rules and institutions which legitimate and manifest their power over our society.
Who retains control of resources and social norms? Whose labour is controlled or exploited? What is valued as a commodity? What is deemed worthless? Whose beauty is the standard, and whose bodies are subjected to violence and disdain?
I find the master’s house a helpful metaphor with which to illustrate how oppression works across complex and mutually reinforcing systems. In very material ways, the pillars of the master’s house prescribe how we live, who we can love, and how much we are worth to those who hold power and make the rules to suit themselves. It’s helpful, for instance, for explaining why a representative authority such as a local council can feel it owes so little to its homeless population that it moves to boot them out of their last resort for shelter.
The master’s house is why the language we use matters. It’s why the energy and intentions we bring to movement building determines whether we’ll ultimately be successful in dismantling these systems of oppression. How we care for ourselves as we throw ourselves into activism, and how we treat those who are allies, comrades, or otherwise, matters. Because if we’re not careful in how we go about creating change we may inadvertently rebuild the master’s house, refashioning its systems of power and oppression.
This is why trans rights and visibility is our struggle. First Nations justice and truth telling is our struggle. Protecting the world’s environment against biodiversity collapse and for the wellbeing of future generations is our struggle. Multiple, complex and often invisible acts of domination and oppression seamlessly entwine to keep the vast majority of us down.
If our politics is to be truly transformational, it needs to be built upon solidarity across all communities left voiceless and unseen from the master’s house. Together, we can unlearn our collective learned helplessness. We can back each other whilst we each cultivate courage in our own vulnerabilities, as our whole selves. Because, as we should know by now, no one is free, until we are all free.
In March 2020, the Victorian Greens took a temperature check on our membership called the ‘Futures Project’ – a ten-month party-wide consultation process to gauge what the membership wanted for our party. This member-led process found that we Greens understand ourselves as the political arm of progressive social movements.
I read that to mean that our membership knows that, sure, as a political party we necessarily participate in electoralism. We’ll do our darndest to try to win seats in parliament and best our opponents on the streets and with media airtime. But we also see the Australian political system as a racist, colonising institution serving the master’s house. And we recognise that our movement needs to function beyond simply mobilising for election campaigns and chasing votes.
We know that’s what it will take to dismantle these invisible systems of oppression. But how? How to conspicuously maintain our rage against these systems? Against their institutions, language and cultural tropes just as we participate and wrestle within them.
We need to forge a new language, find new metaphors, and create new systems of being human together to knock down the pillars that currently uphold power and privilege. Against us. Over us.
We need to organise.
On one of my many treasured trips to the Commons Library I realised I had never seen a Greens’ ‘theory of change’ explicitly spelt out. A theory of change can be a simple though powerful story or map that we as a movement share of our intended path (those steps we are willing to take) to make an impact (the change we seek) within a given context.
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Defining a theory of change helps to clarify underlying assumptions that we may be relying on. It can also help us test and understand how well each step we take is aligned with our intended impact, which, in turn, helps us focus our collective energy and resources (the necessary inputs that ensure our work happens). Importantly, a theory of change needs to be compelling and convincing to be effective.
IF (we do these things) THEN (this will change) BECAUSE (of some persuasive logic).
At the time, I was pulling together some workshops for the first Victorian Greens Women’s Leadership Program. I was seeking to make sense of what I was noticing by instinct in my organising practice. I had to give defining our theory of change a go.
A Green’s Theory of Change
In order to bring about a healthy future for all of us on a livable planet (impact we seek), the Greens seek to become elected representatives and compelling thought leaders shaping Australian politics to ‘win the debate’ about our collective future (intended outcomes).
We do this through the strength of grassroots participation (output) and solidarity with progressive social movements in Australia & around the world (output).
As a member-led organisation, the Greens develop practical and evidence-based policy, help empower those who are marginalised, and hold political agents to account (activities/tactics).
We are founded on the four pillars of ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, social justice, peace and non-violence (our guiding principles).
It’s a bit wordy, but feels about right to me. Four pillars to stand upon the ashes of the master’s house.
With this theory of change over the last couple of years, I’ve come to see the ways that deep grassroots community organising has been the missing piece from our movement’s ‘how’.
Unionists, from the rank-and-file to the Secretary, are skilled storytellers. This is the power of collective imagination, resilient to changes in union leadership or disruption to union power.
Around the factory tearoom we’d hold delegates meetings, training sessions, issue written updates, and tell stories so that all members could see the bigger movement we were a part of and know what it means to be union.
We Greens are already finding this is the most effective way to have persuasive conversations at the doors. Go to where people are, physically and politically. Listen without judgement. Connect their concerns and aspirations with our values. Tell the story of how we can make change together. Each of us needs to know and share our own story, our own ‘why’, so that others who share our values can recognise themselves in our movement. Storytelling keeps us connected to each other and helps us stay true to our collective purpose.
As union organisers, we were trained to demonstrate that the union would always be there ‘one day longer than the boss’. Our story of worker solidarity underpinned everything we did. We stand together to wear the boss down. We are a headache to the company. That’s to our advantage. Remind all workers we’re here to stay. We used tactics to demonstrate the contrast between being ‘union’ (being a paid up member and acting as a mob) and being a ‘scab’ (choosing to benefit from union-won gains without paying your dues and wearing the risks that unionists undertake to win these gains). As organisers, you listen for opportunities – opportunities to work up the workers, to demonstrate union power, to build on the solidarity narrative. Only address issues that workers bring if they are a member, or are willing to become a member. And then only take up fights that have the potential to build power on site, and the density of members at your worksite.
I witnessed the union truism for growing the movement: ‘activity begets activity.’ The more you can get folks to do meaningful things together, the more they are willing to do more things. And as you organise, you keep an eye out for potential volunteer leaders, prospective workplace delegates, to skill up and empower. These are folks that are great at building relationships. They’ll have a genuine interest in the story and the wellbeing of others. They’ll demonstrate a willingness to take risks for the greater good, perhaps because the solidarity they had experienced of being in the union had given them real safety and camaraderie.
I felt a unique privilege in being at these worksites as an organiser, seeing the persistence and love that went into building hope for workers at a site. I knew that whatever we won here would become powerful stories of union power and hope that we could take to strengthen worker solidarity at other sites. And what we couldn’t win became hard-won lessons or battle stories for the next fight.
This union really went after exploitative and unsafe workplaces, and sat with folks in precarious migration and employment situations. We protected these workers and helped them protect each other. Your organising practice as a unionist – the way you build the movement and our collective power – is in essence the work you do developing leadership in others and constantly sharing these stories of solidarity to build real connection across the collective.
In what ways could we Greens grow our movement like a real grassroots member-led union?
For the past few years, being on staff at the Victorian Greens, I’ve turned all my projects into deep organising work. Supporting branches to find preselection prospects? Grassroots organising. Ensuring local teams hit their marks with polling booth coverage? Grassroots organising. Troubleshooting issues with our processes and interpersonal conflicts within our membership? Grassroots organising.
My practice is simple. Tell me your story of how you found yourself joining our movement, and I’ll share stories of how we’re building a movement worth joining. And whilst we’re at it, let’s get you into the habit of doing the same with others. ‘Grassroots greens organising’ is part-consciousness raising, part skill share, and part solidarity building.
Over fifteen years of being a member of the Greens, I’ve asked thousands of members why they joined the Greens. Most folks will state one of two reasons they took the step to sign up as a Greens member.
So many said they got sick of yelling at the TV news and joined the Greens to “do something” about the state of politics. They’ll recall a moment when another conservative politician made yet another abhorrent comment about refugees. Or the rate at which First Nations people are still dying in custody. Or another commitment from the major parties to sleepwalk us into climate catastrophe with straight-faces calling it ‘climate action’.
Commonly, folks will often also mention a dear friend, neighbour or colleague who supports the Greens. They tell of how they went along with this mate to a Greens event or activity and ended up volunteering themselves. After a moment’s reflection, our members will say: “It was a long time coming, to be honest. I just finally went online and signed up.” They had been waiting to be invited, then invited themselves.
As an organiser, this anecdotal longitudinal survey of sorts tells me that people join the Greens to take meaningful political action. And they stay because of our people. With these members self-selecting and primed to take action, ready to connect with others who are committed to doing the same – a movement we will build.
This means being wary of shaming ourselves for not being where we’d like to be yet. Or fighting ourselves when we uncover racism or transphobia still residing in a few of us. All that this disappointment really tells us is that there is more work to do. We’re up against big corporate money and vested interests no less. The master’s house is not fussy about where it gets its resources. But we know to do better and we mustn’t lose our nerve.
This means teaching each other how we want to be seen and cared for, and what we each need to speak for ourselves in this hostile political moment.
This means laying out invitations for folks to join us in everything we do.
This is movement building at the speed of trust.
The rain had stopped, and outside the world looked clear and green across Cate’s property. We each shared what we hoped to do next, recapping the plan we had pulled together upon the wisdom of the group. I brought the meeting to a close, and released the folks on Zoom to enjoy the rest of their weekend.
That was wonderful, we all agreed. What an incredible team of humans we’re gathering to demonstrate the politics we need. Another quick round of cuppas before we traipsed the crushed rock driveway back to our cars and took the freeway home.
I relish these moments in between meeting agendas and campaign activities. It’s a genuine delight to get to know our people a little better. The women around this table have shared with me stories of divorce, mental health crises, caring for loved ones in cognitive decline, parents dying, moving away from city life, and their adult children making their own lives.
We are bearing witness together and through each other to what life is like under the master’s house, and building our practice in seeing the humanity in everyone. We are proving the case for building our collective power through connection, courage and compassion. Deep grassroots organising will transform the Greens from Australia’s third largest political party into a political movement to be reckoned with.
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Huong Truong is a community activist, mum of two, and a practising visual artist living on unceded Wurundjeri land of the Kulin Nation. She is a former Greens member of the Victorian Parliament and currently works as an organiser for the Victorian Greens. @huongtru @huongtweets