Organising in Aotearoa New Zealand

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Last December/January, Miriam Brittenden (our Director of Leadership) visited Aotearoa New Zealand – and spent the last part of her trip with a community organising alliance in Auckland, New Zealand to reflect on organising in our respective contexts, and organising with faith institutions. In this blog she reflects on the visit.

Te Ohu Whakawhanaunga (Te Ohu) is an emerging broad-based community alliance of community organisations, faith groups and trade unions. It’s inception was in 2017 when, based on the success of the broad-based organising of the Living Wage movement in New Zealand – a group of leaders from key institutions decided to build a broad-based organisation founded on a vision of solidarity across diversity. Later in 2023, Te Ohu will be formally founded (currently they have a ‘commitment to found’) and begin public campaigns. 

Te Ohu Whakawhanaunga’s name was gifted by the Māori Women’s Welfare League, and literally translates as ‘the group for making connections with kindred peoples’. The alliance now has 37 organisations, community groups – including a number of migrant organisations, 7 faith groups, and trade unions. 

Auckland (Maori name:Tāmaki Makaurau)  is the largest city in New Zealand, based in the North Island – with a population of around 1.5 million (though small compared to London, pretty hefty when considering the total population of New Zealand is just shy of 5 million!)

It was interesting to note both the similarities and differences in context – for example during a broad-based listening campaign in 2022, housing emerged as the top concern – in particular access to affordable housing, a familiar story here in East London. On the other hand, during a meeting with an organisation called Migrants Action Trust – I heard about how the lack of public transport options (not something we encounter so much in London, though certainly in other parts of England)  in Auckland makes it incredibly difficult for recently settled migrants, and was inspired by a socially entrepreneurial community driving school they had set up – offering free and subsidised lessons for migrants from the profits of standard lessons. 

My guide and host for the week was Jocelyne (Jo) Vicente-Agelese. Jo has been one of the main organisers engaged with founding the alliance. She and her family moved from the Philippines to New Zealand a number of years ago. Jo brings over 25 years worth of community organising experience with her, largely in the Philippines – operating with and through local churches, including in contexts of political repression and instability. She is a deeply committed Roman Catholic Christian, and what radiates out from her is a deep and tenacious spirit of generosity, patience and hope, as well as an evident vocation and gift for nurturing the vocations of other organisers.

We met a number of church lay and institutional leaders over the course of the week, but two who particularly inspired me were Sisters Anne and Margaret, based in Wiri, a relatively deprived and diverse community in South Auckland. They had lived in a missional house for 35 years, and engaged in  a range of justice and mercy activities from prison visits to housing advocacy, and now Margaret is one of the founding trustees of Te Ohu (transitional governance board) and a member of Te Ohu Whakawhanaunga Tamaki Makaurau (Te Ohu Tamaki). I was also privileged to meet some of the lay leaders from their parish, engaging in a reflective discussion about connecting prayer with organising.

What particularly stayed with me was a story Margaret told about a decision taken in the late 1990s to cease all of the formal activities Sisters of Mercy had been undertaking, because ‘we saw that other people were doing it…we felt God was calling us to something different’. The power to let go, particularly in justice and kingdom-building work, is often a crucial part of discerning God’s will – enabling the space for new life and opportunities to develop. That enabled the Sister of Mercy to play a significant role in the founding of the Living Wage Movement in New Zealand, and now they have discerned a need for broad based organising, helping to build the Te Ohu alliance.

One of the things that I enjoyed most about the week, was the rich discussions we had about the practice of organising within our respective contexts, and how similar the shared challenges and creative tensions are. In particular some of those we highlighted were challenges around funding, how to measure something as intangible as leadership development and the complexities of working with different kinds of institutions (particularly those which might have more traditional hierarchies and structures).

I facilitated a workshop for a number of organisers and church leaders – an opportunity to have a reflective together on  the challenges and opportunities of organising with and in churches. As well as challenges around recruiting churches (and other faith institutions) to membership, the biggest challenge we reflected on was how to actually embed a relational culture within churches and go beyond organising being something that just the church leader, or a couple of engaged lay leaders occasionally attend meetings for. How does organising really transform and enliven churches from the inside out?

I was able to share some reflections from the Wagstaff programme – in particular how organising can help lay people identify their vocation as people of faith in their specific context, and support them to develop their leadership capacities.

I came away from my time in Auckland energised and inspired by how organising is transforming a city on the other side of the world,  as well as feeling convinced of the specific value of having a space to reflect specifically on church and faith based organising. These reflections are part of a wider ongoing conversation we are having at CTC about all that we have to learn from organising in other contexts around the world.

I am excited about the potential of continuing the conversations and relationships started in January. 


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