Making a Community Action Net (work): organising in the times of COVID-19
Community Action Networks in South Africa bring residents from varied backgrounds into collective action to find solutions to COVID-related issues.
In March 2020, a group of teachers, doctors, and artists dreamed up “Cape Town Together” (CTT), a rapid community response to COVID-19 that started out of Cape Town, South Africa. The collective aimed to encourage and inspire people from all over the city to self-organise, to take local action, and to develop ways to share resources. CTT has spawned a network of local community initiatives, known as Community Action Networks (CANs), in neighbourhoods across the city and the country.
In our neighbourhood of Woodstock, the CTT invitation has brought together residents who would not otherwise have engaged with each other. We started with less than 20 people. Now our Woodstock CAN WhatsApp group has over 100 people, with at least 5 working groups initiated by members of the group. But, as with any community organising work, and keeping in mind we are living through a traumatic global pandemic, we’ve also run into tensions and challenges.
Members of our CAN come from very different backgrounds, histories, and lived experiences. It includes community organisers who have been doing this work their whole lives, privileged people who have never been part of community organising, women who have been caring for people in their streets for years, men who are members of community security structures, older people who don't know how to use online technologies, people working full-time jobs, those who have lost their jobs, and many more—all in one virtual space.
Organising to create community must have the goal of creating belonging. Belonging creates the conditions for collective thinking, action, and change.
This diversity, combined with the country’s—and the neighbourhood’s—history of inequality and exclusion has meant that as a collective we are grappling with how these histories and power dynamics play out in our daily interactions. This has been particularly challenging given that we are under full lock down and have had to rely on using online spaces to organise—specifically WhatsApp and Zoom.
In an environment as charged as the current one, we are all looking for clarity and answers. As a result, many people automatically turn to approaches that value control and efficiency, rely on formal roles and responsibilities, and focus on accomplishments and outcomes. However, as a CAN we are trying to experiment—as are a host of other organisers and activists—with new and old ways of community building so that we might create transformation in our neighbourhood that lasts beyond our response to the pandemic.
We think that collective action becomes more possible in community. We have tried to take an approach that says: organising to create community must have the goal of creating belonging. Belonging creates the conditions for collective thinking, action, and change.
Practices for building online Community Action Networks
Below are some practices that have organically manifested in our CAN through conversations, trial and error, mistakes, and conscious intentions.
(1) Focus on critical connections more than critical mass:
Relationships are the foundation of all our work. The quality and strength of these is more important than how many people are involved. In our current COVID context this has meant being conscious about how we create a caring online space.
We have done this in various ways. First, we try to cultivate one-on-one communication by welcoming people with individual messages to create a sense of connection from the start. Second, by creating spaces to be human, we connect beyond just “doing”. Weekly online meetings allow us to hear each other's voices and see each other in our “natural habitats” (homes), making things more personal and human. Third, we ask all members to type messages from a place of kindness, especially on WhatsApp, where tone, humour, and personality are sometimes difficult to convey.
Through all of this, we encourage practices for self-care and personal resilience. We can’t pour from an empty cup. We need to replenish what is used up by the constant onslaught of news, memes, and messages that our brains have to absorb, sort and act upon while simultaneously caring for our people, doing the work in our CAN, and holding down a day job. Balance is hard. This means encouraging each other to be patient and to respect people’s energetic limits and boundaries—making a guilt free zone for people to step back when they are feeling overwhelmed.
(2) Practice collective consciousness:
Community organising is primarily about the community, which means that it is really important to decentre the self. We want to create conditions for people to think collectively (not as individuals in a collective).
We are experimenting with creating collective values and “team agreements” that relate to our purpose and our vision. For example, our CAN WhatsApp group has clear guidelines outlining times when people can post (between 8am-6pm) and asking people not to post general news, articles, memes, and photos about COVID-19. These terms of engagement were created and are moderated collectively. This creates collective responsibility for our group culture, helps people stay focused on the work, and prevents spamming of unnecessary information. We think of our group administrators as “maps” rather than gatekeepers. That is, we aim to be conduits and not hoarders of contacts, information, love, connection, and wisdom. We often do this by connecting people who have similar interests (without interfering or mediating the relationship). This has generated the formation of affinity networks, which are subgroups where people can have deeper discussions on specific issues and develop strategic plans and activities. One example is the Sew4Safety group, which is a mask-making and distribution initiative that started out as an affinity group passionate about this topic. Another is the Feeding Scheme group that is mobilising volunteers, securing donations, and making daily food drop-offs for hundreds of people in the area.
We’ve learned quickly that a big community group is not necessarily the best space to host debates or make plans. But this means we have to make space for others’ ideas and for leadership to grow. If the leader is always there, there is no space for others to explore their ideas and their possibilities.
(3) Move at the speed of trust:
In organising, there is an instinct to move rapidly and respond with urgency, but when relationships are prioritised and centred, then trust becomes the metric that informs action.
This focus on trust means that we share responsibility by encouraging more people to take on co-leadership roles and administrate WhatsApp spaces, so the group is not just hearing one person’s voice. It means that we leave space for different people to answer questions, reminding ourselves there are other people better placed to answer if there is space for them to do so. Also, we’ve learned that it is okay to leave some questions unanswered. And, finally, people will leave the group and we can’t take it personally. In fact, sometimes it might be a good thing for everyone.
Sowing seeds of belonging
These are just a few of the organising practices that we are experimenting with in our online community space. What started as a reactive response to an unprecedented crisis has turned into a proactive space for community organising and community building. Through the conscious intention of building belonging, we are hopeful that these online relationships we have cultivated and nurtured will continue to seed offline.
If you would like to support the Woodstock Community Action Network or donate, please visit https://www.woodstock.org.za/fundraising/.
Ella Scheepers is an organisational facilitator and systems disturber based in Cape Town South Africa.
Ishtar Lakhani is a free radical and advocacy strategist based in Cape Town South Africa.
Kasey Armstrong is a facilitator, change agent, and group process guardian based in Massachusetts, USA.