What Exactly Is a Community Organizer?

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Barack Obama was a community organizer before he moved on to do somewhat different things. Sarah Palin was a small town mayor, a job she describes as “like an organizer, only with actual responsibilities.” So what exactly is a community organizer? So far from this election, you’d think it was a short-term job for young people, waiting around to grow up.

As a long-time professor of community organizing at City University of New York’s Hunter College School of Social Work, I’d like to offer for counterpoint a few stories on who community organizers are, what they do, and what happens to them as they move along in their careers. Some folks might be surprised.

The roster of every organizing class is different from others that I teach: last year’s included a Korean-American interested in electoral activism; a Dominican-Filipina training in spirituality as well as social justice; a young white guy who rides with the biking network that drives the NYC police commissioner crazy; a senior activist back in school to expand her influence; and a leader of her Black church’s youth fellowship hoping to make a difference in teens’ lives. Others were involved in the rights of the mentally ill, those with HIV-AIDS, and the developmentally disabled. And, yes, there were a couple who didn’t know what they’d gotten into and later in life will be happy to organize their closets.

So students of community organizing start out looking as scruffy as the young organizer Obama did; many have Palin’s edge, minus not the lipstick but the designer outfits. They arrive engaged in issues a lot of us don’t think about: undocumented workers; the isolated elderly; LGBT kids of color living on the streets. Living on student loans, they prepare lunches with strange green and brown colors, washed down with a non-Starbucks cup of coffee.

Of course, starting with fire in your belly is easy at 25, when there’s energy to burn and responsibilities, as Palin suggests, seem to be less than when one has a family. What happens to those young organizers twenty years later? Maybe they start committed to social change, but what happens at 40?

Rosita Romero entered organizing class quietly, never saying a word for the first month. However, in her small group on a community needs assessment of Washington Heights, her own neighborhood, she came alive, bringing a mix of Palin-like passion and Obama-esque clarity to her classmates as they struggled to make strategic sense of demographic data. Twenty years later, she is executive director of the Dominican Women’s Development Center located in that same neighborhood, still an advocate for Latina women in the areas of child welfare, domestic violence, and immigration. Her story is a carbon copy—oops, a burned CD—of Patricia Eng’s, who, just as quietly passionate, has spent those twenty years working with Asian-American women on the same issues.

Rodney Fuller was never quiet. A young African-American man with a great smile and a compelling strategic purpose in his work, Fuller was on the fast-track to executiveship. He became an executive director of a Connecticut community center at the same age Obama started organizing and Palin joined the Wasilla PTA. Two years later he was back in New York, working for half the salary and twice the hours to co-create Fresh Youth Initiatives, an award-winning youth organization. In 2008, he’s executive director of Art Start, an after-school program focused on those parts of students’ lives unrelated to testing: music, art, culture.

Eric Zachary was the most intense student in his class, a white man finely attuned to the racial slights and elitism that can creep into any classroom. Beginning as a union organizer for 1199, Zachary soon took his love of the grass roots back to the local community, starting a parent leadership program that has grown to be the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, a community-union collaborative that is a grass roots voice to Chancellor Joel Klein’s reform agenda, using social change tactics to push for more parent leadership and teacher mentoring as lynchpins to quality education. Co-Director of the Annenberg Institute for Education and Social Policy, he’s hard to get on the phone because parent organizing is evening work.

So what binds these four stories with those organizers starting out? If you are or have been a community organizer, your work flows from five core principles:
1. People from the margins deserve a voice at the table, too.
2. Some problems that individuals have require collective solutions.
3. Diversity-- racial, gender, age-- is an asset, not a burden.
4. Change for change’s sake doesn’t matter if it doesn’t have a plan.
5 .If planned change is to make a difference, see points 1-3 above.

In November, may the best organizer win.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on October 6, 2008 1:44 PM.

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