James Whelan remembers a young man called Max who had been working with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition alongside several other organisations to encourage banks to divest from coal. Max was a graduate of the Community Organising Fellowship, the program that James has run since 2014. It wasn’t long before Max was working for the Australian Conservation Foundation, and from there, James ‘headhunted’ him to work at Environmental Justice Australia, where James also works. Max has been there six months now, leading the team’s parliamentary advocacy. This is how the fellowship can work: connecting people with organisations, causes and campaigns for community benefit.
There have been 150 Fellowship graduates since it started six years ago but they have shared their new skills with more than 10,000 people in their teams and communities. That impact is recognised this year with the Environmental Philanthropy Award to the Melliodora Fund for the Change Agency’s Community Organising Fellowship.
The Fellowship is a unique way to build campaign capacity for environmental justice. James came to the role after working on training programs with a wide range of civil society organisations. He was approached by a donor to design a training program for community organisers and activists to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels. The work included establishing links with the largest and oldest grassroots environmental campaign organisation in the US, the Sierra Club, which has 700,000 members.
From there, and over several iterations, James shaped the focus – and ultimately, the framework – for what would become the fellowship program that is currently funded by the Melliodora Fund, a sub fund of Australian Communities Foundation and nine other funders, and auspiced by the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales.
“We don’t teach our fellowship candidates about the problems they are confronting, or indeed the solutions,” James says. “We bring people together and they form trusted relationships that enable them to work together.”
The six-month program features 17 days of structured learning, but it is the relationship-building for its 25 participants that sits at its core. As one graduate, Gemma Borgo-Caratti, explains it: ”I’m still in contact with every single person I did the training with. It’s these relationships that make our movement more connected and powerful.”
It is not easy work. Campaigns can go wrong, fall over and fail. The wins can be few and a long time coming. Environmental issues, whether it’s climate change, sustainability or conservation are often characterised by conflict, opposition, scepticism and even rancour. So those who are selected for the fellowship need to have something special.
“You are really working with the best people: they have big hearts, big brains. They are courageous, and they are passionate about the common good,” James says.
The work is varied and demanding, and the Fellowship captures those practical realities. “The Community Organising Fellowship helped me a create a whole new way of approaching my work,” graduate Dr Nic Aberle, Environment Victoria’s campaign manager, says. “Whether it’s joining with constituents to hold a local MP accountable to their commitments, facilitating a workshop in a front-line community or developing cross-movement strategies with other NGOs, I have become much more effective,” Nic says.
So, what makes a good campaigner? It was a question at the centre of James’ PhD, so he has plenty of research and loads of contemplation to back up his analysis of campaigning success.
“You need to know the facts about your campaign area. You need to be able to bring people together. You also have to have a tool kit of social action skills and tools for political analysis,” James says. “It’s an understanding of the bigger picture.”
The other fundamental requirement is to be healthy. “I’m talking about personal development and life skills. The challenge can be trying to maintain a positive perspective,” he says. That challenge can be even more profound in areas such as advocacy for climate action where public interest advocates can encounter conflict and discord. “Conflict is natural, and you have to be able to deal with adversity,” James says.
There is one other element that is often underappreciated: creativity. “It’s super-important. Campaigning is problem-solving. It’s like playing chess,” James says.
Outside of the desire to have those common traits, there is little that unites the campaign cohort. Over the years, they have ranged in age from 19-years-old to 78, from urban dwellers to members of rural and regional communities, from church leaders to Indigenous leaders. What James is aiming for – other than a transformative outcome – is something more esoteric and arguably inspirational.
“When you equip people with the right tools, they can feel hope. They’ve got something to hang on to,” he says. “I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have hope. People are incredible. We’re such resourceful creatures.”
The award is presented in partnership with the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network (AEGN).