Friday, September 05, 2008

Community organizers do have responsibilities...

Sorry. I'm sure about two hundred other community organizers have written rants about this, but well, I was leading a team of canvassers knocking on doors in rural new england yesterday, so i was busy with my responbilities until now.

The Republicans have used "community organizers" as a punchline and a punching bag these last few days. It's not often I hear something I've been doing, in one form or another, for more than a decade, get laughed at by a room (well, half a room) full of people on national television. And so I wanted to spend a little time today on my blog talking about what community organizers are, even if it's preaching to the choir, or the converted, because community organizers play a critical role in the world, and in our country.

Community organizing is what it says it is, that is to say, it is organizing communities, and organizing within communities. Think about that for a minute. Ever put together a neighborhood watch? Start a parent music boosters or sports boosters organization? Find a place and set up a structure for a bunch of people to pray together because they don't have a priest/rabbi/cantor/pastor/building? Set up a communal day care plan? School carpools? Get a group of people to put a stop sign/stop light in an intersection you thought was unsafe? Reach out to your friends and neighbors to vote for a school budget? Work with people to put together an afterschool program, or an intramural sports program? Asked a store to not carry particular items because they were unsafe?

Have you ever joined a union? Registered someone to vote as part of a larger effort? Worked with a group of people in your building to get the heat turned on, the rent not raised, the building fixed? Circulated a petition? Demanded justice for yourselves? For your families? For your friends? For people you don't know?

Put another way, community organizing is about working together with people to empower yourselves and help fill the needs of the community and make things better. Whether its organizing something for a few people, or working with communities around the country or world, it is about taking action to fill a void and/or make something right.

What certain people who have been knocking community organizing need to understand is that often times, community organizing happens _because_ of needs that aren't being met, _because_ of rights that aren't being granted/respected, _because_ of injustices that aren't being addressed. And many times, at the end of each of those phrases, you could add "by the government." Let me give you an example.

Right now, women have the right to vote. It didn't always used to be this way. Messed up, right? I mean, they should've been able to from the beginning. But no. And so, a bunch of people, primarily women, fought like hell for 50 years, doing everything from handing out leaflets to reaching out to other organizations, to setting up meetings everywhere to pushing for hearings with Congress (and got one every year for 50 years) and finally, they did enough organizing in their communities to push Congress to move a Constitutional amendement (something I'm not sure I'll ever see in my lifetime) honoring the right to vote for women.

Put in another, short hand perspective: Child labor laws? Right to form a union? The weekend? the minimum wage? the Montgomery Bus Boycott? the Civil Rights movement? From critical things in individual lives to larger, broad social justice movements, all can thank community organizing for that. Concerned people standing up for themselves and what they believe in, and fighting for that. Pretty important, no?

Maybe former mayors of town great and small have a problem with community organizers because they are a particular thorn in their side? Because they bring up needs that the city/town/hamlet/sleepy village of 5000 isn't addressing? Because they bring up responsibilities that the local/city/state/national government AREN'T LIVING UP TO OR MEETING? Another example:

You may have heard there was this storm a couple years ago that hit the Gulf region of the country, called Katrina. Well, while Brownie was doing a heckuva job and the government apparati were failing the people of the gulf, organizations like Common Ground were doing the work the government was supposed to be doing, on a shoestring budget and hundred hour weeks from its staff and volunteers. Think about that for a moment. A small non profit doing the work the government was supposed to be doing. Working fast to clean up and tear down houses, get rid of mold, get drinking water, food, shelter and other needs to people. Functioning where the government failed. Maybe these people hate community organizers because we remind them of their own shortcomings?

So maybe their problem is that community organizing is also a profession. There's a cadre of paid community organizers out there. No one can argue that. I mean, the hours are insanely long and the pay is usually shit, but its true that people get paid to do this work. Now, leaving aside for a moment the idea that they are attacking a profession who's main purpose is to help people empower themselves to fight for their needs and for justice, let's talk about responsibilities. Community organizers, volunteer or paid, do have responsibilities. The biggest one is helping people educate andempower themselves to have agency in their lives and fight for theirown interests and for a better world. They have responsibilities to themselves, to the social justice organizations that hire them, and the member donations that pay their salary. To the people that contribute money to hire them to help them fight, to help organize more voices, more people to stand up and speak. To the people in the communities they are helping to organize. To the town/city/state/country/world that is not helping people meet their needs and to do everything in their power to make this world more just, more fair, more equitable, more responsive, the world it can be.

Some people leave everything to do this work, their families, their friends, everything they know and everyone they love to try to make the world a place it can be. Other people do this work IN ADDITION to working hard at their jobs, raising families and living their lives. Whether volunteering from home, teaching their children how to take agency in their lives, or working 60-90 hour weeks to help people take action, whether building community run schools or lay lead prayer communities, standing up for people with autism, organizing rent strikes or union strikes, whether speaking for themselves or speaking for themselves and for people halfway around the world that need to be heard here in America, all are critical contributions to making this world a better place.

Susan B. Anthony. Martin Luther King Jr. Gandhi. Harriet Tubman. Abraham Joshua Heschel. Mother Jones. Malcom X. Cesar Chavez. Jesus. Saul Alinsky. John L. Lewis. Fannie Lou Hamer.


Community Organizers. We have responsibilities. To ourselves. To each other. To the world.


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