Learning how to talk to each other

Maribeth Larkin #1

At the heart of organising is the simple idea of building a community where people learn how to talk to one another, suggests US activist Maribeth Larkin.

Dictionaries define the verb “organise” as an action to form parts or elements of something into a structured whole. For Los Angeles based Roman Catholic nun Maribeth Larkin, organising is a passion and a career.

Maribeth was in Australia to mentor members of the Sydney Alliance, a network of 52 member institutions.

The Sydney Alliance provides training and mentoring so that individual groups are able to form coalitions representing different political, geographic, economic and cultural strata of society, in order to exercise power for the common good of their community. The NSWNMA is a founding member.

As a social worker and a nun in the Benedictine order of the Roman Catholic Federation of the Sisters of Social Service Los Angeles, Maribeth saw early on in her career the limitations of institutions working alone.

Her job was to attend welfare offices with clients to whom the system was impenetrable and unhelpful.

“Because I’m white, from the church and a professional social worker I was recognised as somebody who counts and needs to be paid attention. Whoever was with me felt relieved but also very aware they didn’t have that kind of standing. I was very uncomfortable with that aspect of my work.”

This was in 1976, a time when many churches, schools and labor unions in Los Angeles were talking about combining their power to challenge institutions that had become insensitive to the impact they had on their clients.

“That made sense to me and I started to think ‘why doesn’t our church become part of this so we’re not just doing the emergency crisis charity work.”

OneLA, an organisation of 65 different organisations, was founded in 2004. Since then it has created the LA Mortgage Modification Program, using up to $10 million in federal funds to develop principal reduction strategies to save homes and communities. Other achievements include educating students who would otherwise fail high school maths and assisting more than 500 families to receive permanent modifications, allowing them to stay in their homes.

This year OneLA has smoothed the path to enrolment of 20,000 people into ObamaCare, America’s Affordable Care medical insurance for low-income people. It has educated them on what is required to enrol and set up a system to immediately check and challenge rejections, 99% of which it knows will be made through computer error.

OneLA (onela-iaf.org) is an affiliate of Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF – www.industrialareasfoundation.org) America’s oldest network of local faith and community-based organisations, made up of religious congregations, non-profits, civic organisations and unions. It operates in the US, UK, Germany, Canada and Australia. Maribeth was in Sydney in her role as a senior organiser with IAF.

She says the first question Sydney Alliance members need to answer is “how do we get those folks like [NSW Premier] Barry O’Farrell and others to recognise us and work with us, and not just blow us off because they think we’re a bunch of bleeding heart or bomb throwing liberals?”

Her answer, of course, is to organise. “Build a community where people learn how to talk to each other.”

One of her first experiences of the power of organising was partnering with unions, health care workers, schools and congregations in a campaign to prevent the closure of emergency rooms in Los Angeles’ seven public hospitals. The reason might sound familiar to Australians — a budget crisis.

“We did it with such a resounding win it hasn’t come up again. That’s always the problem in politics, you can win once but it’s going to be back around. So you want to win big when you win so you stave off that possibility.”

When an unprecedented freeze in Los Angeles caused a 300-car pile up on a major freeway, and hundreds of people went to public ER departments, “It was all over the news ‘what if we were to close those hospitals?’

“I began to realise that all of us can learn to operate differently as public persons. I could do okay in an argument with a caseworker or a police officer but I didn’t see myself as having the capacity to stand before people and talk about my experience. I was too shy for that.

“I found out in organising that my skills and perspective on who I am changed dramatically, and I saw myself in a series of relationships with hundreds of people and thousands of people, far less prepared for public life than I was, by education and by experience, who were gaining the confidence to stand up for themselves and become actors in public life.

“That’s what I love about organising, it teaches us to take ourselves seriously and learn skills and capacity to build relationships across the things that divide us in society.”