We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do--and Why

We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do--and Why

Hardcover(Library Binding)



Community organizers work at their jobs because they are passionate, because they believe that change is possible, and because they enjoy working with people. Although it's not an occupation that leads to great wealth, community organizers can make a living at it. They get salaries, pensions and health insurance. They raise families. They do well by doing good. This book explores the world of community organizing through the voices of real people working in the field, in small towns and city neighborhoods--women and men of different races and economic backgrounds, ranging in age from those in their twenties to those in their sixties. Fourteen in-depth profiles tell the life stories of a cross-section of the diverse people who choose the life of an organizer. Other chapters, focused on issues of organizing, are tapestries of experience woven from the 81 interviews the authors conducted.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826515544
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 06/29/2007
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Kristin Layng Szakos is the former editor of The Appalachian Reader, a quarterly journal about citizen organizing in Appalachia.

Joe Szakos has been the Executive Director of the Virginia Organizing Project since 1994. He was the founding coordinator of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (1981-1993), as well as one of the founders of the Southern Empowerment Project and the Hungarian Environmental Partnership.

Read an Excerpt

We Make Change

Community Organizers Talk About What They Doâ"and Why

By Kristin Layng Szakos, Joe Szakos

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2007 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1555-1


What Is Community Organizing?

Organizers across the country struggle to find a single definition that encompasses what they do. So far, no single phrase seems to fit the bill. There are almost as many kinds of organizer as there are organizations. But all share certain core qualities:

It's getting people to work together

I'm changing the world. I'm making the world a just place. That's what organizing is about. There are many ways of doing that, but in the end that's what it's about. We're helping people change their reality. We're facilitating so that people can create a better world. —Guillermo Quinteros

I help get together people who care about an issue. I help provide them with training and give them opportunities to speak out and make a difference on those issues that they care about. —DeAnna Woolston

The organizer is the one who helps people to move from complaining to action to resolve the problem and get it fixed. —June Rostan

A community organizer is someone who helps citizens organize effectively, work together effectively to make the changes that they want and to make their communities a better place. It's part teacher, part rabble-rouser, a whole lot of things. I guess one of the things I like about it is that there are a lot of different parts to it. —John Smillie

A lot of it is just talking to people. There's that Cesar Chavez quote. Someone asked him, "How can you be a great organizer? How do you do it?" And he said, "Well, first you talk to one person. Then you talk to the next person." It's not quite that simple, but it takes that patience. —Abigail Singer

A community organizer is someone who works with members of the community to identify their concerns and problems and issues and hopes and dreams, and then brings those together in the form of an organization to act collectively. —LeeAnn Hall

An organizer is someone who brings people together to make change, to solve problems in their community or state or workplace by helping them develop the tools they need to work collectively. —Janet Groat

I actually like the NOA [National Organizers Alliance] definition, which is: "An organizer is someone who builds a democratic organization that develops the leadership of people to take public action." I think it's broad enough to encompass a bunch of people but also it should be clear that if you don't do one of those three things that's not organizing. —James Mumm

An organizer brings people together to sort out specific changes they want to see in the life of the community, develop strategies to get there, and then move into action to make the changes happen. —Ellen Ryan

In my journey to where I am now, I've had different and deeper understandings of what a community organizer does. In college I was exposed to the concept of community organizing at its very base level—what it is. That hasn't necessarily changed, but what I found out when I began to actually do the organizing work is that it wasn't just about turnout numbers, that it wasn't just about the campaigns, but rather the challenges around leadership development and development of political consciousness and crafting it together—what it means to craft an alternative world view. —Vivian Chang

I'm just thinking about how I got into organizing. I remember looking at this job description of the community organizer position for ORA [Oregon Rural Action] and all the things that are involved with it: Working on local issues. Working at the grassroots level. Talking to people about what interests them. Traveling around the region and getting to know a particular region and the issues in that region really well. Doing all of that in an effort to make positive change and make a difference in how people can realize this idea of democracy. And to get paid for it, not a lot, but to have it be a real job. It was almost a no-brainer for me. —Brett Kelver

Organizing is a way to help other people see that there are things other than going out and buying something new or having a few drinks, or all the other things we do. I think action is a great antidote to pain, and I want other people to know what I've experienced. And there's no other way to do that except jump in the middle and go for broke. —Pennie Vance

It's about democracy

It's about citizenship—not the kind you get by being born in the USA or by swearing your allegiance to the flag, but what it means to be a member of a democratic society.

One of the things about democracy is that people have to participate. One way that an organizer works is to get people to participate and to help shape the decisions that affect their lives. —Betty Garman Robinson

I'd like to think of a community organizer as an engine of the democratic process—the person who is facilitating citizenship. A lot of people talk about organizers empowering citizens. We don't. The fact is we show them that they already have that power, what power that you have as people. Even the word citizenship bothers me a little bit; I'd like to think that we're open to talking to people who aren't citizens. But in the more general sense of citizenship, we have rights living as human beings and we have responsibilities as well and that is informing people of both those rights and responsibilities and allowing them to decide. —Matt Sura

In many ways I'm a teacher, not in a traditional classroom but in congregations and schools and neighborhood centers and union halls. We teach people about public life and how to claim an active citizenship, living out the democratic notions of citizen participation and the republican notion that there are civic virtues that have to be taught. —Perry Perkins

My job as an organizer is to really be a facilitator—get information to folks so that they can participate in the legislative or governmental process in ways that'll help them. —Presdalene Harris

An organizer wants the group of people she is working with to understand how the system works, as well as how to get what they want, and be able to bring enough pressure of various kinds to bear on decision-makers in order to win. A community organizer isn't as interested in a specific issue so much as interested in moving lots of people into active roles in public life. —Ellen Ryan

Community organizing is about getting people to work together for a common good. What's so hard about that? Oftentimes people can't agree on what the common good is. —Scott Douglas

It's about developing leaders

The role of the organizer is to use the language that exists in the community and tell them, "You already said it. You already know it." The idea is to reinforce it and to validate that voice that has been trembling to say something, to help articulate it." —Diana Bustamante

A community organizer is someone who's catalytic. The best organizers don't have high ego needs. They're willing to submit themselves, in Biblical terms, to others. They're willing to subjugate their own ego needs in honor of the development of other people. —Gary Sandusky

I think the definition of organizing is not even much of a big deal to me as much as it is how good you are at building relationships with people so that you can then go back to them over and over again and you can continue to work on things together. —Donna Uma Aisha Brown

A community organizer is somebody who has vision for a more just and sustainable society and is working with members of whatever organization they work for to try and bring that vision into reality. The role of a community organizer is to develop leaders and to work with the leaders to be the spokespeople of the organization and control the strategy of the organization. I think that's probably the most important function that a community organizer serves: being a trainer, a motivator, somebody who assists thinking through strategy, somebody who, more than anything else, asks the critical questions that help our members think about "Where do we go from here?" with whatever issue we're working on. —Aaron Browning

I think a community organizer is someone who is there to motivate people, to encourage them, to help figure out strategy, access resources. To draw people into the work, to draw people into participation in the organization. To try to identify and cultivate leadership. —Brett Kelver

An organizer, basically, is a person who sits in the back of the room and just watches people grow. He doesn't take a leadership position; he just asks the right questions so that people can, on their own, realize that we already have all the answers. In the end people can walk away from it with a sense of "I did it myself. Nobody came in and did it for me. I did it myself and as a result of having done it myself I know that anything that impacts my community, anything that impacts my fundamental quality of life, I can now handle." —John McCown

A community organizer is somebody whose full-time job is to look for leaders and connect them with each other and with a strategy that the leaders and the organizers think makes sense around issues that they think are important, so that then they have power to do something on justice issues that are important to them. But the core of it is looking for leaders, finding leaders, developing leaders, and then connecting leaders to an organization and a strategy to build power. —Allen Cooper

It's about power

We bring people together in the community to struggle for social change and political power. —Jon Liss

An organizer is someone who works in a community to build a grassroots base of power to affect social and political change. -Leah Ottersbach

I think that the community organizer is meant to mobilize people and help them build the power that they once believed that they didn't have to win on issues of justice in the community. —Makiva Harper

A community organizer is someone who builds relationships with leaders and uncovers their self-interest, and gives them an opportunity to work in their own self-interest and address problems in the community that they could not address by themselves. —Jana Adams

Community organizing is about power and empowerment. I think a community organizer helps people who are not used to having power and not used to having a voice be able to come together and build people-power so they can make change happen. —Holly Hatcher

I really believe that long-term change is dependent upon community organizing. You can't sustain those victories without community organizing. I think you can bring about change, but the likelihood that that change is long-lasting significantly decreases, I think, if you don't have an organized group of people who are willing to defend those victories, and are willing to hold the people that they elect to the different branches of government accountable for those victories. Or accountable, too, if they were to try to undermine them in any way. You have to be able to build the changes you make in society into the political culture and social culture of the state you're working in, or the country. I don't think you can do that without grassroots organizing. —Aaron Browning

I think as a community organizer, my job is to shift people into reframing how they think about what's going on in their lives and get them thinking about what they can do. Community organizing gives people the voice and the courage to work together to make long-term changes in our society. —Cathy Woodson

I don't like to think of it as empowerment, because I think it's not about giving them power but about activating the power that is in people. We all have it, it's just that sometimes we don't know we have it. Sometimes we've been suppressed or oppressed or depressed for so long until we've lost connection with our power. So I think it's about helping to power up individuals and communities. —Sheila Kingsberry-Burt

It's kind of like ...

I think of being an effective organizer as similar to being an effective coach. A coach needs to know how to play the game, but doesn't play the game for the team. A coach makes sure the team knows how to play the game, makes sure each player improves his or her skills, makes sure the team has a game plan suited to their level of ability and the opposing team they are confronting. Telling people, "Yeah, you really can do this!" or "No, you can't do that, you better practice first," is a key organizing skill. So you need to be able to be diplomatic, but also direct with folks. Sometimes being an effective organizer just involves showing people the ropes and calling a time out once in a while to rest and regroup. Other times it's teaching the fundamentals of the game. —Ellen Ryan

Some organizers are architects, who become impatient without big monuments, and others are like teachers, and feel like their job is to make incremental contributions in a long stream of other people that will also make incremental contributions. I think the teaching-type tend to plug along and to stay in the work. — Jeff Malachowsky

An effective organizer is part empowerer and part storyteller, telling the stories that persuade people that they can make a difference. Part cheerleader. Part leadership scout. You need to have the ability to recognize abilities in people that they may not have seen in themselves and talents that you can cultivate. —Kimble Forrister

There are people who know the techniques well. There are techniques about how to run a campaign. Sure. We know how to identify people, get people out, and do phone banking. That's a piece of it, but it's not organizing. It's mobilizing, maybe. It's part of organizing, but it's not all of it. My take is that [an organizer is] really a facilitator who helps develop capacity in the community. The organizer is somebody who facilitates that whole process. In certain places there are organizers who are also leaders, because they come from that community. They are leader-facilitators. I don't see them as people who can completely disengage or be completely separated from what they are doing. — Guillermo Quinteros

It's not ...

Being an organizer is not the same as being an activist. For me, there's a distinction between working on issues that I care about myself, where I'm working as a volunteer with friends and neighbors to get something done. In that case I'm an activist, or hopefully a community leader, myself. When I'm functioning as a community organizer, I'm listening to other people, listening to enough people to identify patterns in what they are saying, and pulling those people together to develop a strategy and take action on something they want to accomplish together. —Ellen Ryan

It's not for you to go in and solve people's problems for them, but to help people to come together to find a means to bring an end to their own problems. —Steve Bradberry

I think the difference between service providers and organizers is that service providers just try to cover, or take care of the needs today but not tomorrow. As an organizer, you look at the long term. You help them to figure it out and become more conscious of how they can move from where they are now, from point A to point B. Because if you really want to make social changes, you have to base it in and engage with that which is in the community. —Edgar Rivera

Organizing is not inherently progressive. There are a lot of right-wing organizers who do this, too. I'm only interested in what a progressive organizer is, which is that you have to do the work in a way that creates justice, peace, equity, and dignity for people, in a way that protects the environment. It lets people love whom they want and worship how they want, without doing harm to others. That's the kind of organizer that interests me. —Kim Fellner

A key feature is that the community organizer, for reasons of accountability, has to be grounded. They must be the exponent of some viable community organization. I think there are people who say they are community organizers who kind of float and do good. But if there's going to be a shift in power, unaccountable floating will not lead to that. Or it will not lead to a sustainable shift in power. —Scott Douglas


Excerpted from We Make Change by Kristin Layng Szakos, Joe Szakos. Copyright © 2007 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. What is Community Organizing?
Profile: Brian Johns--A Day in the Life of a New Organizer
Profile: Don Elmer--35 Years and Going Strong

2. Where Organizers Come From: Childhood Memories
Profile: Teresa Erickson--Organizing in the West

3. How I Started Organizing
Profile: Nicholas Graber-Grace--Organizing with ACORN in Florida
Profile: Kelly (Corley) Pokharel--Just Starting Out

4. Why Organize?
Profile: Rhonda Anderson--Organizing for Environmental Justice

5. What Makes a Good Organizer?
Profile: Vivian Chang--Bridging Cultures

6. Changing Lives While Making Change
Profile: Guillermo Quinteros--Urban Organizing in the Northeast
Profile: Jana Adams--Faith in the City
Profile: Scott Douglas--Organizing in the South

7. Achievements and Victories
Profile: Dave Mann--Consulting (Life After Organizing)

8. Disappointments Are Inevitable
Profile: Jerome Scott--Educating a Movement

9. Advice to Aspiring Organizers
Profile: Abigail Singer--A Young Organizer in Appalachia
Profile: Dave Beckwith--Funding Community Organizing

What Organizers Read and Watch
Where Organizers Work
What They're Doing Now

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