Organising and the other forms of urban people power

By Amanda Tattersall

First published in German, in Community Organising (2022)

When I first encountered ‘community organising’ I sawit as a distinctive practice for making change in the city. Its particular form and method sat in dramatic contrast to a different type of change-making that I had tried previously, mass mobilisation.

In Sydney Australia in 2003, I was working in the union movement helping to build a social movement to try and stop war in Iraq. At one level, the movement was remarkably successful – in the shade of the enormous Fig trees that line Hyde Park on the 16 February 2003 we organised the largest demonstration in Australia’s history with over 250 000 people overwhelming the centre of Sydney. That march, in turn, was part of a global wave of protest on the weekend of 14-16 February 2003. That weekend’s coordinated mass demonstration was the largest global protest ever staged in human history. Yet, despite all of this, the movement was unsuccessful – the war went ahead. On top of this, the coalition that coordinated these protests may have been large, but it was built very quickly. There was a lack of trust between the groups and soon after the war began, it fell apart. For me, this contrast between the bigness of the protest and its coalition and our lack of impact was a watershed moment. It drove me to search for a different way to make change.

16 February 2003, Walk against the War in Sydney

Years later in 2006 while in the United States researching coalition building, I met and participated in a five-day training held in a seminary school in New Jersey run by the Industrial Areas Foundation. There I encountered the principles of organising. I learnt about power and the possibilities of building ‘power-with’ through building deep relationships. We discussed the role of institutions and leaders for anchoring democracy, and the role of public action and evaluation. This pedagogy of change-making was captivating and irritating in equal measure. It challenged many of my earlier assumptions about how to build people power. Yet at the same time, it was a relief. Perhaps this approach could work in ways that protests had failed?

A year after that training I returned to Sydney and established the first IAF organisation in Oceania – the Sydney Alliance. It was hard work building community organising in the antipodes, far away from successful case studies and in-person mentoring. But thanks to regular Skype chats with my mentor Joe Chrastil, alongside generous visits from other IAF senior organisers, we built a large alliance. At the Alliance’s founding assembly in September 2011, we launched with 49 organisations spanning religious organisations, community organisations and unions, welcome by thousands of trained leaders.

Sydney Alliance Founding Assembly, 15 September 2011

Despite all of this, I harboured a niggling reservation. Organising had tremendous strengths, most profoundly its ability to cultivate leaders and bring together very different people. But we struggled to scale the issues that we sought to prosecute beyond localised site fights. The urban geography was challenging, leading us to build 11 districts across Sydney’s sprawling suburbs, yet the distributed nature of the work made it difficult to identify a systematic battle on a key issue like housing or transport. We found it hard to generate the political drama that could match the scale of a mass mobilisation. The media were curious about our assemblies, but not so enamoured by our negotiations to give them significant coverage.

Taken together, my time as a mass mobiliser and then as a full-time organiser left me questioning an implicit ‘silver bullet’ approach that I had built into my change-making. For decades, through my social change practice and through my doctoral studies, I had been on a quest to find the ‘right’ answer for how to make social change. But by 2016 I was wondering if this was wishful thinking. My thinking began to shift, and instead of seeing organising, or mobilising, as a single mutually exclusive ‘correct’ approach to making change, I began to consider if these approaches could be seen as two examples of a larger group of knowable strategies by which people exercise power.

Teaming up with a colleague Kurt Iveson, who was both active in the Sydney Alliance and an urban geographer at the University of Sydney, we began researching social change networks and alliances across the world.  Five years of field work led us to identify ‘five forms of people power.’ These ‘people power strategies’ describe discrete, powerful ways in which movements, organisations and alliances draw people together into public collective action to make change in their city. The approach recognises the contribution and value of organising as a particular form of people power, but at the same time understands that organising exists as part of a broader network of people power strategies that are deployed across the cities of the world.

People Power in the city

The phrase ‘people power’ first came into popular use in the Philippines. It was the name of the mighty and enormously successfully democracy movement that ended the rule of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. While people power is a term that is used somewhat vaguely in social change conversation, referring to a nebulous array of collective action strategies, we have appropriated the concept to identify a knowable set of strategies that people use to make change (Tattersall & Iveson, 2021).

In looking at people power we have focused on the city as a particular scale and space. The city is strategic for a variety of reasons. Over half the world’s population live in cities, bringing global significance to the Jeremiah verse “seek the welfare of the city … for it is in its welfare where you will find your welfare” (29:7).  The city has long been a site for staging political action. Mass demonstrations like those around the war in Iraq occur in urban public spaces. But the city is also an agglomeration of people, capital and political influence, and a space where people can make tangible their aspirations and identifications. Cities are spaces where people can re-negotiate how they live their everyday lives, where people use their power to change any number of issues that are both deeply personal and shared across a place – housing, transport, work, education, healthcare, policing, racial justice and climate change. Similarly, the city is a space for democratisation, a site that can anchor sustained participation in politics. Cities are beset with dramatic challenges yet all cities are very different, meaning that a contextually-driven set of people power strategies are crucial for an urban politics of emancipation.

At a planetary scale, especially when taking in the vast urban social movements of the Global South, community organising is just one of an array of powerful, creative and transformative strategies for change. In researching people power we undertook a mapping exercising, documenting urban alliances and organisations in over 950 cities on every inhabited continent. While 98 cities had IAF style affiliates, many did not. That said, vastly more than 98 cities had engaged with Rules for Radicals, yet interpretations on the ground ran wild with variation! And even in the cities where IAF affiliates organised, we found other networks of equally powerful or more powerful actors. Our response was not to suggest that one strategy is better or superior to another, but rather to map and document the variety of strategies we encountered. The aim was to identify the strengths and limitations of each, and to understand the circumstances under which particular people power strategies emerged and worked well with each other, and when they did not. Our cursory finding was that when a rich mix of different strategies were present and worked together, then people were more capable of achieving change. The place where this was most evident was Barcelona, which is discussed below.

The remainder of the paper will run through each of the people power strategies, using an example of a city where the strengths and challenges of that strategy were most evident. In the conclusion I will identify some thoughts about what people power means for community organising.

Playing by the rules is a form of people power where people either individually or collectively use the formal avenues of democratic engagement to influence their city. Examples include people’s use of petitions, lobbying or participation in a consultation process. This form of power draws authority from the state in democratic contexts. As such, it can be relatively uncontroversial, safe to utilise and difficult to completely ignore. The weakness of this approach is that ‘the rules’ – like timelines and the scope of intervention – are set by the decision maker (Tully, 1999).

In Austin in the USA, decades of debate about zoning have been fought primarily through liberal democratic tools like consultation, voting, petitions and court processes. The best ‘players’ were well resourced middle class (often white) communities. Recently the most successful was the group Communities not Commodities who had experienced lawyers in their membership, who were capable of running repeated litigation to disrupt council processes. Since 2016, zoning debates have been ferocious and deadlocked. The City Government has been unwilling to negotiate with the more anti-development Communities not Commodities, and Communities not Commodities’ legal strategy (sometimes combined with mobilising people to attend hearings or gather votes on petitions) has not been powerful enough to set an alternative, successful agenda for the city.

Mobilising is the most visible form of people power. Examples include a large march or a stunt, often staged at symbolic sites to attract media attention (Castells, 2012b). These events measure power quantitatively – signified by the number of participants (Chenowerth & Stephen, 2011), often combined with the amount of media coverage. Mobilising often mixes digital and face-to-face communication to turn people out to events (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013). The strength of mobilising is that it is fast, and it is able to bring people together quickly in the face of a threat. These networks, however, can be hard to sustain overtime. Mobilising often reacts to a crisis – emphatically declaring ‘no’ but often struggling to identify a widely agreed upon concrete solution to a problem.

Hong Kong Island, June 16 2019

In Hong Kong, the 2019 protests and the 2014 Umbrella Movement that preceded them showed the possibilities of sustained mass mobilisation on the streets and online. In a growing authoritarian context, mobilising had advantages over organising – the relative anonymity of mobilising provided a shield of safety. Through the use of digital decision making, and the division of the movement into complementary factions of ‘peacefuls’ and ‘braves’, protesters were able to stop the regular functioning of the Legislative Council, and then the city, in ways that large street marches on their own could not (Tattersall, 2019a, 2019b). In many ways this movement overcame the limits of a no campaign, with the 2019 movement transitioning from a campaign against the Extradition Bill to one for universal suffrage. However, the pandemic and authoritarian patience of Beijing eventually saw the passing of the National Security Act that ended most of the protests and jailed many of the movement leaders.

Organising is a type of people power built by connected and skilled leaders, capable of collective action through their involvement in institutions and alliances (Chambers, 2003; Han, 2014; McAlevey, 2016; Tattersall, 2015). Organising supports, trains and builds relationships between leaders through institutions across a city in order to generate unusual coalitions that can stand for the whole of the city and develop positive solutions to problems. However, as noted through the example of the Sydney Alliance, organising can be slow and struggle to scale. It can also be hard to identify powerful demands within diverse broad-based networks, where compromise between groups may cause claims to be resolved to the lowest common denominator (Tattersall, 2010).

Our research took us across the IAF network, conducting interviews with over 40 IAF affiliates across four continents. Three of our case studies featured the IAF (Austin, Hong Kong, Sydney), and our organising case study was centred on Sydney. The great strength of the Sydney Alliance was its capacity for sustained action, generated through the presence, identification and training of a diverse network of thousands of leaders over 14 years. Its weakness was that it was slow to build power and it struggled to scale that power to prosecute systemic, ‘domino-like’ demands that could transform city’s intractable problems in housing, transport, work or education (Lakoff, 2005, 2009). In Sydney in particular, it also struggled to build power because of the political jurisdictional structure of the city – the dispersed local government structure (30 separate councils) meant that it had to engage with a state government that was hard to influence from the base of the city alone.

Prefiguring is a form of people power where people demonstrate, model, or ‘prefigure’ what they want to change in the city. Instead of demanding that an external target like the government or a corporation acts, prefiguring is a form of withdrawal and construction, where people act out in the present what they want to see in the world (Boggs, 1977; Wright, 2010). Prefiguring disrupts an understanding of what is possible. It was frequently used in occupations like those in Spain and New York following the Arab Spring in 2011, where the occupations embodied forms of democratic decision-making, modelling their goal of ‘real democracy’ (Castells, 2012a; Graeber, 2013). A key strength of prefigurative people power is that the people’s activity authentically tells the story of what they want and demonstrates that it is possible. A weakness is that prefiguring requires people to take a high-barrier action that is hard to sustain.

We saw prefigurative power in Cape Town, where a housing movement called Reclaim the City staged a multi-year occupation of disused hospital precincts to create inner city emergency housing for black working class people. When Reclaim the City formed, no inner-city public housing had been built in the city since democracy in 1994. In an attempt to desegregate the city, they initially campaigned for affordable housing development, and when their mobilising and legal strategies failed, they began occupations in two disused health precincts in 2017. As of 2021, these occupations are still running, and a narrative about the need for, and creation of, affordable housing has dramatically changed. The power of this strategy is its impact – these occupations are providing housing now, not only making demands about the future – but the story of this action shows that radical change is possible. The challenge is that prefigurative work is a form of high-barrier action, it is often illegal and maintaining it requires a lot of work (such as providing for simple needs like eating and sleeping). Occupations can result in exhaustion and burnout.

Parties and platforms refer to the strategy of forming political parties or city-based electoral platforms to contest elections and run for office. Power comes from using the levers of the state directly to make change. Political parties and electoral platforms are a distinctive form of social organisation with a close relationship to the state, and this has seen them excluded from most social movement literature (McAdam & Tarrow, 2010, 2013). However, since the financial crisis in 2008 there has been a rapid expansion of new urban political parties and municipalist platforms focused on issues such as housing (Barcelona en Comú, Bookchin, & Colau, 2019). Not only are voting strategies important in their own right, but we agree with McAdam and Tarrow (2010) that there is often a transfer of strategy between movements, while also noting that these boundaries are sites of tension. One of the strengths of a political party is that they hold together an agenda (‘a coalition of interests’), rather than a single issue or single constituency (Dean, 2016). Parties, however, can depart from the interests of their core constituencies to pursue a majority constituency to win elections. Political jurisdictional boundaries can influence the power of parties. City governments are not all the same size, many are not coterminous with the metropolitan area, and there are often jurisdictional limits on city power.

Ada Colau winning the 2015 City Elections

Parties were a novel and powerful strategy in Barcelona. Arising out of the 2008 financial crisis, a variety of organisations and movements emerged to respond to the failure of housing policy and the rise of mass evictions. La PAH (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages) used an organising strategy to work with people threatened with eviction. The Indignados 15M social movement rallied and occupied town squares to demonstrate against austerity government. Years of advocacy however, did not result in change – and eventually a series of La PAH leaders in Barcelona ran for local election. Their platform – Barcelona en Comú – was successful, and former housing activist Ada Colau became the Mayor. A raft of positive housing reforms were introduced. The strategy demonstrated the power of taking state power, while also revealing the limits of parties. Their need to win and the hierarchical culture of the elected body can separate representatives from movements and create tension between change-makers overtime. The city has been a site for the repeated negotiation between movements, organisers and party politics, where there were both moments of great coordination and also major cultural tension between the different forms of people power.

Reflections: People Power and Organising

Importantly, city change-makers and community leaders do not necessarily stick to one of these people power strategies. While some groups make ethical and/or ideological commitments to one strategy over another, we frequently see movement participants experimenting with (and arguing over!) different combinations of people power strategies.

A people power approach helps us locate organising amongst an ecosystem of change-making that occurs in the city. At one level, it places it amongst an array of other strategies. This approach makes clear that organising cannot possibly be the only strategy for change, or even the only powerful strategy for change, and that in certain circumstances, other change strategies are needed and might be more useful. This is not a new perspective. Mike Gecan from the IAF has long made a powerful argument about the different strategies for change needed in a crisis, and that organising is just one approach – alongside mobilising and service delivery (Amanda Tattersall, 2020). However, the people power strategy argument goes further and invites – indeed encourages – organisers to see the strengths of other traditions.

At another level, some organisers might react to this approach with the exclaim ‘we do all these things already.’ There is a truth to this too. Organisers play by the rules and mobilise thousands of people for major assemblies. In our case studies, IAF affiliate Austin Interfaith created a prefigurative jobs program called Capital IDEA. While the IAF is aggressively non-partisan, notable organisers have sought to influence party politics in the British Labour Party and through the practice of Deep Canvassing in the US (Graf, 2020; A. Tattersall, 2020). This is not our point. By breaking down these different practices as explicitly different approaches to how we engage people, we can identify the differences in each approach – no matter who is doing them! Mobilising focuses on counting numbers (like organisers do at an assembly). That has its place but isn’t powerful all the time. Prefigurative power can exhaust organisations that organise. Prefigurative housing work in 1960s Chicago saw some Chicago neighbourhood organisations like The Woodland Organisation shift away from organising into service work (Horwitt, 1992). Modern IAF organisers have reflected that prefigurative work is best housed in new institutions that sit at arm’s length from any ‘power-building’ organising alliance (personal correspondence). The people power strategies approach also allowed us to see strengths beyond the IAF network. In our interviews we were repeatedly told by IAF outsiders that IAF city coalitions “didn’t play well with others”, they were too “inward focused.” By breaking down these different strategies and their theories of change, we make an argument that the IAF would do well to craft more external relationships with groups that may never join their coalition but powerfully use different people power strategies.

This approach also goes some way to answering my own dilemma about organising and its limits. One response to the challenge around time and scale is not that we need to organise harder or faster or raise more money and employ more organisers. The people power approach makes the case that organisers need richer partnerships with people who build people power differently in order to change our own power. In the same way that the IAF argues that we need to ‘stand for the whole’ of a city, the people power approach argues that we need to reach out to others with a different approach to making change in the city. We need to find those who make powerful change, even if they are different to us, and explore how we could relate. The approach complicates the somewhat simple community organising expression that ‘power equals organised people and organised money.’ These people power strategies show that people come together in a variety of ways – many of which are powerful even if when they are not ‘organised.’ We need less of the flippant phrase ‘they don’t get it’ and more of the curious mind that seeks to understand what they are doing and why, and if and how it could connect with our purpose.

Yet there is nothing simple about creating connections between forms of people power. These strategies have radically different cultures that create real structural barriers. Parties pursue an electoral victory through a majority vote, whereas organisers and mobilisers seek to prosecute demands with a narrower constituency. This means that parties often have a more distant interest in specific communities, and a lack of time for deep relationships. Mobilisers and organisers value leadership differently. Mobilisers hope to create leadership through action, organisers cultivate leadership in every element of the work that they do. This means that mobilisers have a different approach to time – mobilisers are fast and organisers are slow. Mobilisers and organisers define their constituencies very differently, mobilisers build power with people who already agree with each other. This is narrower than an organiser’s goal which is to create common cause across people who are different. For each of these practices it is easy to place normative judgements and see one strategy as inferior to the other. Cultural conflict between these practices is commonplace. Yet our finding is that the strategies need each other if people are to be truly powerful in the city.

These are difficult times. Crisis not only invites us to keep doing what we are doing but asks us to explore how we can partner with those who do it differently. Organising has an immense history, but on a world scale it is one of a variety of strategies for change in our cities and across our nations. There is evidence that connecting organising with other forms of people power strengths the change we can achieve. That is the kind of people power we need today.


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