On the need for community organizers

One of our former interns wrote this piece in the Stanford Progressive on the need for community organizers, and I wanted to share it with you. FIRM, as a project of the Center for Community Change works with Generation Change- a youth and talent development program for the non-profit sector. This program is an amazing catalyst for growth in the non-profit sector and I highly recommend you check it out HERE

Want a political job? Consider Community Organizing

By Alyssa Battistoni

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a major league baseball star.  Original, I know.  But my dream was different than most - I was going to break the gender barrier, be the female Jackie Robinson.

There was just one problem: I couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield.  I eventually conceded defeat and decided to become a marine biologist instead, settling for swimming with dolphins. I certainly never considered becoming a community organizer. It’s doubtful I even knew what one was, even though I grew up in a politically active environment and was well-versed in the history various social movements - Bob Moses, Cesar Chavez and Susan B. Anthony were household names to my family. 

I went to women’s rights rallies with my mother and cried watching footage of civil rights marches, but I never seriously thought about the work that was necessary for planning such an event beforehand or for translating an action into power after it occurred.  I didn’t think that organizing a movement could be a career.

By the time I went off to college, I wanted to do something politically related, maybe working in the government or on campaigns, like the people I saw on the West Wing.  Once here, I got involved in progressive student groups and did some volunteer community work but considered those extracurricular activities to be just that - extra involvement, not something that could become a sustainable career. 

Over Thanksgiving break of my sophomore year, I went on a week-long service trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, three months after Hurricane Katrina. When I got back to school, I couldn’t get the experience out of my mind. I decided to take a leave from school during the upcoming spring quarter in order to spend several months volunteering in New Orleans.

During the months I spent working in the Ninth Ward, a primarily black, low-income neighborhood that was hit especially hard by Katrina, I met people whose government had failed them at their time of greatest need, and people who were so used to being neglected by the government that they weren’t surprised.  I met hundreds of volunteers with potent energy and a genuine desire to help, but no knowledge of how to actually do so. 

As a result, most of the seasoned organizers had to spend much of their time doing damage control and managing volunteer logistics rather than working to organize residents.  The high turnover rate and constant need for leadership meant that a week after arriving, I found myself in control of a major project area and a participant in long-term planning meetings. 

I came away from New Orleans exhausted and disillusioned with both government inattention and disorganized organizations.  I was not returning to school but to an internship program in Washington, D.C. and was confused about where I wanted to work.  When I had applied to the program the previous winter, I had imagined that I would intern at a U.S. cabinet department or maybe a senator’s office, but now I wasn’t sure I wanted to work for the government at all. 

After my experience in New Orleans, I didn’t want to work for the establishment; I wanted to work somewhere that would acknowledge the strength of people who are not a part of the established power structure. I found that organization in the Center for Community Change, a nonprofit whose mission statement said it all: ‘Helping low-income people, especially people of color, build powerful, effective organizations through which they can change their communities and public policies for the better.’ 

It is at the CCC that I have begun to really understand how many of the people I have admired throughout my life - Moses, Chavez, Anthony - had actually been community organizers of some of the most potent social change movements in American history - the civil rights, farm worker justice, and women’s rights movements, respectively. By doing everything from organizing boycotts to electoral work, they brought attention to the concerns of marginalized communities.

But I was dismayed to learn that there aren’t nearly enough trained organizers to address the concerns facing today’s communities - everything from gay and lesbian rights to fair labor practices to immigrant rights - and that the shortage will only get worse as baby boomers who became organizers in the politically charged atmosphere of the ‘60s and ‘70s begin to retire.  As the list of issues demanding attention gets longer and more varied, organizations are finding themselves with fewer and fewer talented staff able to tackle them.  I had seen the evidence of that firsthand in New Orleans. 

So I was excited to be working on a project at the CCC that was aimed at training a new generation of organizers and named, appropriately enough, Generation Change.  Along with my coworkers, I was helping to develop a program that would recruit and train new organizers at different stages of development, from people just starting out and getting a taste for the job as interns to those who had been organizing for several years and needed mentoring from an older, more experienced organizers

One of the best parts of working on the project was the people I got to meet. Like Marissa Graciosa, a Generation Change mentee and organizer for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights who voiced my own thoughts when she told me ‘I never knew that organizing could be a career.  I wanted to do good things for good people but thought that maybe I’d be a lawyer.’ 

She had stumbled into organizing at the ICIRR after college, though, and was the director of a program that registered over 16,000 immigrant voters for the 2006 elections. Then there was Aaron Bartley, who did go to law school but organized a living wage campaign that resulted in substantial pay raises and health benefits for 2,000 low wage workers while he was there, then started his own organization in his hometown of Buffalo.  And Gaby Pacheco, who organized college students in Florida to demand education opportunities for immigrant youth so that young people whose parents had brought them to the U.S. illegally, as hers had, wouldn’t be penalized when it came to getting a college education. 

Through the stories of these people and many more, I learned what a critical role organizers play in making change by bringing people together, training new leaders to work on behalf of their own communities, and encouraging collective action.  Organizers don’t just help other people, they help other people help themselves by building power through organizations. 

And I learned that organizing isn’t just something you can do in your spare time, while still holding down another full-time job.  In fact, the organizers I talked to told me that their work required long hours and serious commitment, and was at times personally draining to the point of being overwhelming. 

Despite these hardships, I was struck by how passionate the organizers I met were about their jobs.  Marissa described working on immigrants’ rights freedom rides and huge immigration marches as part of a greater cause.  ‘Being a part of history like that - that’s why I can have no other job.  I’m a part of something bigger than myself - it’s a movement.’  

According to one organizer, ‘it is the best job that you can have... something beautiful happens every day, and I don’t know if that happens anywhere else.’  One of the things that Eric Walker, an organizer at People United for Sustainable Housing, loves about organizing is ‘the personal satisfaction of being able to rest easy...you’re not waffling about whether or not what you’re doing is right.’ The inspiration and fulfillment that these organizers got out of their work was obvious and compelling.  And they made it clear they were in it for the long haul - as Marissa told me, ‘this is a career. This is something I take very seriously.’

Yet there is a serious disconnect between the thousands of young people who are passionate about social justice and public service and the transformation of that passion into a career as a community organizer.  I know that many students at Stanford genuinely want to make the world a better place, want to do whatever they can to help other people.  But there is an expectation, fostered by ‘cream of the crop’ speeches and faculty attitudes, that we will grow up to be the decision-makers, not that we will help other people gain the power to make decisions about their own lives.  No matter how well-intentioned, that kind of attitude seemed at best out-of-touch, and at worst, downright condescending.

 It’s true that some other jobs offer more prestige and power in the traditional sense.  But as Marissa put it, ‘what makes organizing so great is that you get to be creative in challenging the powers that be. There’s no formula.’  Organizing isn’t just about caring or wanting to do good, it’s about actually building power through strong organizations and coalitions that have the power to win real improvements for the people they represent.  Organizing people to make change seems to me like an ideal career path for the thousands of young people who have been involved in the recent mobilizations for comprehensive immigration reform, the college activists who have mounted successful campaigns to make their campuses sweat-shop free, and the countless young people who want get involved to make things better for society. 

I’m excited to see new attention being brought to the work of community organizers by Illinois Senator and Democratic presidential aspirant Barack Obama’ emphasis on his background as a community organizer in Chicago. Obama’s campaign so far has reflected his grassroots training, most notably in the $25 million he managed to raise with small contributions from over a hundred thousand people and the calls on his website for supporters to network with each other and plan their own local events.  Obama’s words on his experience as an organizer sound remarkably similar to Marissa Graciosa’s: ‘I grew up to be a man, right here, in this area. It’s as a consequence of working with this organization and this community that I found my calling. There was something more than making money and getting a fancy degree. The measure of my life would be public service.’  Maybe some of Obama’s devotees will be inspired to put the organizing skills they pick up on the campaign trail to use in other arenas. 

In any case, a variety of organizations are beginning to work to address the absence of opportunities to get involved in organizing.  The Midwest Academy and Center for Third World Organizing offer internships that offer include both training and a practical introduction to the field.  DART, a national network of faith-based organizations, and the Jewish Organizing Initiative currently provide intensive, long-term fellowships for training progressive community organizers.  More than 250 people a year complete weekend organizer training sessions through ACORN and several organizations provide intensive training on specific organizing approaches or types of advocacy. The Center for Community Change’s Generation Change Leadership Directory consolidates all of these training opportunities and more in one website: www.leadershipdirectory.org. Organizing’s not right for everyone.  But check it out - it may be right for you.

YouthFIRM Admin