Friday, September 5, 2008

Community Organizing 101: Building community, strengthening democracy, and getting things done.

It's true, most people don't know what the heck I mean when I say that I'm a community organizer. But even though the term is unfamiliar, I think most people would readily recognize "organizers" in their own communities as leaders and connectors - the proverbial "movers & shakers." Anyone who's ever put together a community event like a fundraiser, service project, strike, boycott, or protest; started a new club, organization, union, or other group; asked people to sign a petition, contact their representatives, speak at a public meeting, or vote for a certain person or proposal was probably doing some community organizing.

Community organizing encompasses a really broad range of activities and issues, and many different kinds of people do it. Some are volunteers or concerned citizens, while others do it professionally; some do it as part of a congregation or organization, while others do it independently. But there are a few common threads that I think are the most important parts:

1. Making changes & getting things done. At the most fundamental level, community organizing is a process by which people get together - "organize" - to get something done. This could be changing a rule or policy, getting someone elected, starting a new group or program, stopping something hurtful to the community, or starting something needed and helpful. Whatever it is, people come together to make a plan and then do it together.
2. Community. Communities of people are built and strengthened by the process of community organizing. When a good organizer runs a campaign or project, the community is stronger when it's over, regardless of whether they actually won or accomplished the original goal. The people involved have built relationships, skills, knowledge, and confidence that make them more active and effective participants in their community, and make future community organizing projects easier and more successful.
3. Power, Equity and Democracy. In theory, a democratic process means that people who are affected by a particular decision get a equal say in how it's made, or at least an equal say in who gets to make it (i.e. through electing representatives). But in reality, that is often not the case. The dynamics of power, privilege, and profit in our society mean that the system isn't always fair, and some people can't get what they need through normal channels. Maybe they can't get pollution out of their air or water, can't get their child's public education improved, or can't get a fair living wage. Community organizing helps to correct injustices and fix an inequitable system by bringing people together to exercise their power as a voting block or a customer base, and demand the changes they need.

In our work at Toxic Free NC, this shows up as parents who want to get their schools or childcare centers to stop using pesticides, farmworkers or farm neighbors who don't want to be sprayed, consumers who want better access to food grown without pesticides, and lots of other things too. So, we work with these groups of people to help them get what they want, and in the process we build community and correct imbalances of power that create injustice and weaken our democracy. It's pretty heady stuff, and we're proud to be doing this important work in North Carolina.

Interested in getting organized in your community, and reducing pesticide pollution? We're here to help - please contact us!

Interested in becoming an organizer? It's a pretty great job, if I do say so myself. Here are a couple of my favorite resources:
Midwest Academy
The Community Toolbox

PS: I really like this quote I just found from Mike Miller of the Organize Training Center:

Organizing does two central things to seek to rectify the problem of power imbalance - it builds a permanent base of people power so that dominant financial and institutional power can be challenged and held accountable to values of greater social, environmental and economic justice; and, it transforms individuals and communities, making them mutually respectful co-creators of public life rather than passive objects of decisions made by others.

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