This student project was very different from the others; it was much more strict ‘community practice’, rather than real organizing or advocacy. I was confident from the beginning, though, that it would be a valuable experience, largely because the students involved are really outstanding. In the end, I think that this project charted a bit of a new course for these student projects, because these students outlined how outreach, community relationship-building, and public education can be integral components of community practice.
Rebecca Heatherman and Loren Whitehorn, the two students in this project, had a goal to assist Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in recruiting new advocates for the program in Atchison County. In practice, this meant building relationships with community-based organizations in a new geographic territory, learning about the relationships among the different players, presenting the organization so as to appeal to potential volunteers, and creating messages that would work for this particular context. It was challenging, particularly in a community like Atchison that is dominated by strong institutions, including a university and the Benedictine Sisters, but, as Loren said, the students’ awareness of the difficulties in organizing in an unfamiliar community, and their sensitivity to these dynamics, demonstrated their openness and improved their reception. It is an important lesson for all of us who organize outside of our own communities; asking questions and proceeding somewhat carefully and showing an abundance of respect are good ways to insert oneself into a new community without immediately being alienated as an ‘outsider’.
Becky and Loren’s specific activities included creating a PowerPoint presentation about CASA and the work of advocates; building contacts at Benedictine College, with community leaders, and the Sisters; giving presentations about the need for volunteers; creating opportunities for CASA to continue to network with leaders in Atchison as the project proceeds; and establishing a reputation for the organization in a community largely unfamiliar with it (made more difficult by the fact that the staff member is still located in a different county). They also faced some resistance from some quarters, but, as all organizers learn to do, they worked around what they couldn’t work through!
I am grateful to Becky for identifying this project and framing it in such a way that it worked for this class, because, again, I think that it really demonstrated that community organizing can take many forms. They were creative; a faculty member at the university will begin offering college credit to student advocates! They were so persuasive in their presentations, too, that some of their classmates were even considering volunteering! I was particularly impressed with how this pair worked together; they had a unity of purpose and really complemented each other’s strengths. As an instructor, I learned to think about advocacy and organizing a bit more broadly and to honor my own ‘rule’ that macro practice should authentically complement direct work with people in need. This project really did that.