Community Organizing Basics with the Mel King Institute
When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why they were hungry, they called me a communist. – Dom Helder Camara
The Mel King Institute’s Harry Smith began our May 12th AmeriCorps Community Organizing training by asking just what we think a community organizer does – an apt question given the skepticism that’s recently obscured the term. But even a political mire can’t complicate the idea that people coming together is powerful. Smith defined community organizing this way: “People get together to build collective power in order to improve their lives and to find solutions to community problems.” Basically, we achieve more together.
Smith asked the group to consider a hypothetical scenario: a community center is scheduled to be defunded and closed, and we are tasked with saving it. In groups, we thought about consequences and developed strategies including collecting community testimony and data, contacting media, sending letters to representatives and fundraising to save the center. Smith explained that potential solutions to problems exist on a power dynamic continuum. For example, while direct service (i.e., a soup kitchen) answers a need – hunger— it does not change the basic structure that allows for such a problem in the first place (does not change the power dynamic). However, discussing causes and solutions with affected community members and pressuring those in power to take action does change an underlying structure. That collective effort to produce real change – that’s community organizing.
Through group discussion, we began to realize that the key to effective organizing lies in finding a problem’s underlying causes, or in the case of the community center closing – its unintended consequences. In our hypothetical effort to save the center, we not only thought about the center’s cost, we also considered the cost of closing. How many people would be affected, both directly and indirectly? What would happen to this community without the center? With clear causes and consequences in mind, we could organize people to enact solutions. To save the community center, the group thought a combined approach could work: self help (fundraising, cutting costs), advocacy (educating the public) and community organizing (engaging the larger community and demanding long term solutions).
Smith’s presentation was enlightening. It led me to imagine my future after AmeriCorps including not only ongoing civic engagement, but also active community problem solving. Through the community organizing overview, we learned how problems, broken down into precise issues, can become momentum for effective action.
To conclude our training, two former AmeriCorps members, Devahn George and Angela Kelly, spoke about their community organizing experiences. Devahn’s story was particularly moving – he grew up around violence in Dorchester, and was “tired of it.” He and some friends organized programs in an effort to positively change their own neighborhoods. The programs he began in Dorchester still continue even now that he has moved on, but someone had to start them. I hope we’ll all be able to follow Devahn’s lead – and become leaders, working collectively to produce the changes our communities sorely need.