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Alternative organisational models for community-based change

Here we discuss some alternative modes of work, which fold in community collaboration with systems thinking.
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The task at hand is to move away from traditional (non-profit/governmental/market) models for change towards more fluid, community-centric approaches.

Situational analysis might be necessary to map where and who is to be involved, but it is not sufficient to act.

Our focus here is thus on providing examples of alternative models of organising and organisation to foment change from the community.

We start with a free meal.

Direct action and service

White environmental do-gooders from Cambridge and Black Panthers from Oakland might not seem to have much in common. Yet diversity across ascriptive/ideological identities shows how unique community-based action – including building community through offering free meals – can go a long way.

Food Not Bombs logo Logo designed by Keith McHenry and colored by Sue Eaton. Vector graphic drawn by AquitaneHungerForce; public domain.

Food Not Bombs is a collective whose origin story includes dressing up as military generals to host a bake sale, to make the point that the government underfunds schools while overspending on military bombers.

Its focus now is to ‘recover food that would have been discarded and share it as a way of protesting war and poverty’. This has spawned action in over 1,000 cities to progress their goals.

Top third of flier announcing the Black Panthers’ breakfast program. Detail from flier, “Panthers expand free breakfast for children program: 1970” by Washington Area Spark; CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed.

Meanwhile, a ‘Free Breakfast for School Children Program’ doesn’t sound very political, but was central to the Black Panthers’ success.

The group was created to stand up to racial police oppression with radical politics. Yet the community that the group worked in engaged it with more pedestrian economic and social needs. This led the Panthers to offer community services that would ‘build community self-determination’ (Pien 2010).

Middle third of flier announcing the Black Panthers’ breakfast program. Detail from flier, “Panthers expand free breakfast for children program: 1970” by Washington Area Spark; CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed.

Among the community services offered – their first and most widely known – was the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, started in 1969. Thirty-six cities later, the Black Panthers were feeding more school children than the state of California. Their organising ‘won liberal whites’ and moderate blacks’ support’ in ways that terrified the FBI, leading to concerted efforts by the US to eliminate the group.

Bottom third of flier announcing the Black Panthers’ breakfast program. Detail from flier, “Panthers expand free breakfast for children program: 1970” by Washington Area Spark; CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed.

Here we see how community building can foster a sense of belonging and shared purpose, so that communities can become more resilient and better equipped to advocate for their own needs.

At the same time, these examples are direct actions that challenge existing power structures directly, by providing alternatives to/in the system. Clever.

In this way, direct service to community organisations can provide immediate relief or improvement in situations, serving the needs of a community while understanding the systemic barriers that contribute to those needs.

The examples below show how evolving tactics underscore the importance of adaptive, community-driven actions in challenging existing power structures, and will hopefully offer insight, inspiration and a possible inception towards conversations you can have in your own communities and organisations about how to come together and collaborate for change – even if it starts with a free meal.


Beyond organising a free meal, organising itself can become complex.

Decentralised, community-based movements, organisations and other types of groups must be open to alternative ways of making sure their communities are heard and priorities actioned.

As one example, the radical experiments in organising during Occupy Wall Street provide documented alternatives for decision-making by community consensus, without expected organisational structures.

Thus we see direct and messy decentralised power relations creating a community and enabling/constraining its movement. What OWS called ‘consensus’ were methods of intricate and precise organising emerging community action.

While the video below shows what this looked like while occupying the financial district of New York, the work being done was itself based on published accounts of building activist–community consensus from years earlier, and codified in documents for future movements.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

And for what it’s worth, OWS had a pretty messy situational map.

While the community built through OWS has moved on in terms of issues, it remains strong in terms of organising (results). For instance, the Debt Collective has made significant strides in debt relief. In 2012, their Rolling Jubilee initiative abolished over $32 million in various debts via crowdfunding donations. This money was used to purchase portfolios of people’s debt on secondary debt markets in order to cancel them.

Not satisfied with these methods, by 2015 the collective led the first national student debt strike, striking over $2 billion in debt and influencing federal law changes. True to form, the ebook of their manifesto is 100% off (AKA free). As they frame their success:

When we first raised the demand for student debt cancellation during Occupy Wall Street, the media scoffed. In 2020, thanks to our efforts, most Democratic candidates in the presidential primary ran promising some degree of student debt cancellation.

Across these diverse ideas and actions there are innovative, non-hierarchical approaches to fostering diversity, collaboration, and community empowerment. There are also critiques of what’s known as the non-profit industrial complex, arguing that community-based initiatives can be more effective in creating societal change.


How might your own community or organisation engage in some of the ideas around organising covered in these examples?

How might you actually include diverse voices in your community projects? How would you sustain those viewpoints in adaptive organising?

Share some thoughts in the comments.


Debt Collective. Our History and Victories. Debt Collective.

Food Not Bombs. FAQ. Food Not Bombs.

INCITE! Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. INCITE!

New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square. (2011). Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. No Turning Back: Ten Years After Occupy.

Pien, D. (2010). Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program (1969-1980). BlackPast.

Rothstein, A., & Butler, C. T. (1987). On Conflict and Consensus: a handbook on Formal Consensus decisionmaking. The Anarchist Library.

Schragis, R. The Flowchart of the Declaration of the Occupation of Wall Street. (2011). Rachel Schragis.

© Deakin University
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