Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 19, 1999
The 'voice of the voiceless'
Citizens from across Edmonton organizing to change community life
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Power holders, watch out! Citizens from across Edmonton are organizing to change community life.
Growing slowly in the city is one of the largest citizens' organizations ever attempted.
Called Greater Edmonton Alliance, the coalition, which is still being planned and is perhaps years from becoming a reality, already has the support of labour unions, social service organizations and religious institutions.
One of its aims is to use the combined power of member groups to establish a city-wide agenda based on a set of shared values. Some organizers already call it the "voice of the voiceless."
At least 15 Edmonton groups, including churches and religious congregations, are behind the project.
The alliance is patterned after the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a training institute in the United States that acts as a consultant to beginning organizations.
Over the past 40 years, IAF has created 62 broad-based organizations in 25 states.
Coalitions created by IAF are known for their stance on poverty, labour, housing and other issues.
But at an April 10 workshop, Sister Christine Stephens, an IAF organizer, urged leaders to avoid the rush to identify specific issues.
"Build the organization first, then make an agenda of multiple issues because this is an organization of multiple interests," she said.
"This is not going to be a Christian group or a union group. This is going to be a diverse group."
Stephens, a Sister of Divine Providence, is a member of the national staff of the IAF in Texas. Close to 50 leaders from across Edmonton attended the workshop at St. Timothy's Anglican Church.
The workshop taught people how to organize coalitions and helped plan strategy to set up a broad-based alliance.
"We don't do actions just to get media attention. We do actions to get a reaction from people in power," Stephens said. "The first thing is to get people in power to recognize that you have a legitimate right to speak on certain issues."
Stephens said citizens' organizations are non-partisan and should gather people of different political perspectives. "We don't have permanent enemies or permanent allies, only a diversity of interests."
Plans for a broad-based organization began last October, when a 12-member pre-sponsoring committee was formed to recruit key community leaders and raise funds for a broad-based organization.
Pre-sponsoring committee chair Sue Scott, a professor at the University of Alberta, said the committee's goal is to create a city-wide coalition to work on issues in the interests of all member groups.
Scott said the alliance may be still three years away from becoming a reality.
"The aim of the Greater Edmonton Alliance (GEA) is to restore some individual and collective control over the forces that shape our lives and to reinvigorate community," reads a GEA statement of values.
"Greater Edmonton Alliance is an 'organization of organizations' founded upon values of community and democracy shared by a diverse group of local community sustaining institutions."
John Lynch, coordinator of the archdiocesan Social Justice Commission and a pre-sponsoring committee member, said he looks at the organization with "guarded hope."
Right now the social justice movement in the city struggles to have its voice heard. "My feeling is that if we get this off the ground and create an alliance with 5,000 supporters, the government will have to listen."
He described the proposed coalition as a value-based organization where representatives of member groups work for the common good.
Citizens coalitions in Chicago and Boston receive substantial financial and moral support from the Catholic Church and Lynch predicts an Edmonton coalition would enjoy similar support.
"So far Bishop (Thomas) Collins is very sympathetic," he said. The bishops of the Anglican, Lutheran and United Church have also shown support.
United Power for Action, a Chicago citizens' coalition, has 212 member groups and has mobilized hundreds of ordinary citizens since it was founded at a rally of 10,000 people more than a year ago.
A similar but smaller movement, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, begun in November at rally attended by 4,500, is moving in the same direction.
Both organizations are regional in scope, and attempt to forge links between city, suburbs and outlying districts to address societal problems.
They use professional organizers from the IAF, the group founded by the late community organizer Saul Alinsky 48 years ago. At least three Edmonton leaders have already received training.
In their formative stages both the Chicago and Boston coalitions have focused not on specific issues but on building personal relationships, especially among citizens who might be expected to have different, even conflicting agendas.
Edmonton may follow a similar model. But for now organizers can only predict that the alliance, if it ever gets off the ground, will be a voice for the voiceless and a vehicle to act on the social justice aspects of the Christian faith.
Another workshop to examine the proposed alliance will be held May 15 at St. Timothy's Church, 8420-145 St.