What we should all learn from community organizers

Community organizers have never been so high profile. Our President used to be one, for crying outloud. We’re sort of rock stars.

And yet not.

The reality is, though, that while relatively few professionals identify themselves as a ‘community organizer’, the most successful nonprofit (and, likely, for-profit) professionals are putting community organizing skills and practices to work every day. I’d even be willing to argue that if everyone had more community organizing experience, we’d see more effective, vital, engaged organizations at all levels…and be on our way to a more just society.

Just the other day, I read an article on nonprofit fundraising that said that marketing in today’s social media age requires finding your organization’s ‘fanatics’ and developing them, since they are the ones who will sell your organization/cause to the broader world. Sounds like community organizing to me.

And there have been long threads of conversation going around the blogosphere about authenticity among nonprofit ‘brands’ and the need for people to build real relationships that are meaningful yet not entirely personal, built around mutual self-interest yet genuine and accountable. Um, that’s the first and last thing you learn as a community organizer–these are among the most powerful relationships you’ll ever form, but you’re not making friends, you’re building a movement.

I was discussing job seeking in the digital age with some students last week, and they talked about having to manage multiple ‘versions’ of your own life, and being okay with the dissonance that arises from operating in a world with diffuse boundaries. That’s precisely the point I make in class when we talk about how community organizers have to learn to practice ethically in a world without black and white roles for ‘practitioner’ and ‘client’.

And when I talk with nonprofit executives about their desire to see their agencies do more effective advocacy and yet their fear for the conflict that may accompany it, I wish that they had more of a community organizer’s soul–the realization that conflict is not only inevitable but oftentimes quite invigorating, and that sometimes it’s only by finding out who the ‘other’ is that we get a full sense of ourselves.

It’s a function of how demanding, draining, and all-around hard community organizing is that one meets so many ‘former’ community organizers, especially in the world of social policy change. At the same time that we advocate for working environments that enable many more organizers to stay within their vocation, let’s ensure that all of us, former community organizers and those who wish they were, retain some of the best lessons that community organizing has to offer.

25 responses to “What we should all learn from community organizers

  1. First time reader of this blog – I love the content and will begin to follow. I read an article recently in Harvard Business Review that I thought might be of interest. http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/03/the_world_needs_more_social_entrepreneurs.html

    • Thanks so much for the link and the comment, George. I did enjoy the article–just yesterday, my 3-year-old and I were reading a Mexican legend about La Llorona, and he asked, “Mommy, why didn’t other people share money with her so that she could feed her kids? Then she wouldn’t have been so sad.” (Yes, Mexican folk tales are often quite morbid!) So hopefully I’m succeeding at least somewhat on the empathy question! Again, thanks for sharing.

  2. Melinda, your point that if we all employed more community organizing skills, we’d be closer to a just society really resonates with me. We (social workers in general) tend to focus almost exclusively on the relationship with our clients, but many of those same principles of relationship building transfer to community work. It is so interesting that so many of the executives you speak with shy away from confrontation when front-line workers must continually deal with confrontation and challenging relationships. I certainly don’t intend to imply that the parallels between the skills of front-line social workers and community organizers means that community organizing should appear easier to agency administrators, but I do think it should make it more obvious how relevant and needed that work is. To me, community organizing seems to be a natural extension of more clinical skills (or vice a versa depending on your perspective.)

    • Yes, Anna; I think the differences are mostly in venue, not in skills utilized. Great points, and a reminder why we need to build organizations that empower workers to use and share their expertise! Thanks for your comment.

  3. I absolutely agree with you that if we had more people trained in community organizing we would have a much more productive and positive community. Even if people did not use this education for professional development, I believe that it would benefit them in their own communities. It would teach them how to initiate change, become community leaders, and how to make their community work for them. This would also teach people how to model leadership in their community and eventually would help establish relationships that would not have otherwise been made. On a professional level this kind of education could help nearly every type of profession. Community development involves all members of society and in turn affects the day to day activities of local businesses and non-profits. As social workers we are naturally drawn to helping others and establishing supportive relationships with clients and members of the communities around us. Developing community development skills would benefit anyone, no matter their profession!

    • If we think about ‘community development’, broadly, as any activity that enhances a community, then shouldn’t all social workers (and, really, all people who are part of and want to contribute to a community) think of themselves as community developers? How would our communities look and feel different if this was really the case?

  4. I was just talking to my Field Liaison the other day about potential job opportunities, and we were discussing my passion for community and community change/ development. She was making some of these same points that you have mentioned, and really tried to engrain in me that I may not find a job with the job title “community developer” or “community organizer”, but I would have to weave that work into my daily tasks in order to keep my passion alive. I know that she is right, but I must find an agency that is supportive of doing so. Community work is such fundamental part of many social workers’ jobs (at all levels), and they do not even realize it.

    Thanks again for your insights Melinda!

  5. Really, how can anyone–ever–do social work without a community orientation? It’s really impossible to think that we can be the entire context for our clients, or that we could ever contain everything they might need. I look forward to seeing where and how you find a community niche for your social work practice.

  6. I very much agree with the comment “…the most successful nonprofit (and, likely, for-profit) professionals are putting community organizing skills and practices to work every day.” There was an agency who identified itself as a community organizer. Their organizational mission alone, to support the wellbeing of the community did not seem to vouch for their functions as a community organizer. The most important matter is, as posted here, whether community organizing skills and practices are embedded in their daily operations in ways to build and facilitate community movements. I saw two different executive directors at different time periods at the same organization. The first executive director was always in the community (he was hard to find in his office), meeting with community stakeholders, building community coalitions, fundraising, and facilitating collaborative learning efforts with other community agencies. On the other hand, the second executive director I met was more an “agency manager” managing the details of the staff’s daily tasks. This executive director mostly sat in his office directing staff members. These two different leaderships make the organization look very different. That being said, I agree that “if everyone had more community organizing experience, we’d see more effective, vital, engaged organizations at all levels…”

    • How did the organizations–not just the executives–function differently in each organization? I mean, to me, if one ED was very closed-door, but his/her staff was always out in the community, engaging in social change and community development work, then that, to me, wouldn’t suggest that the organization was betraying its community purpose, just that there is an organizational structure that has other people playing those more visible, external roles. If, on the other hand, the organization without that strong executive leadership was also really abdicating its responsibilities to be externally-facing, then that would tell me that something is breaking down between the organization’s mission and its operations. What do you think?

  7. If the size of community organization is very small, I think the advocacy orientation and leadership of executives matter and significantly influence the practice behaviors of their staff. If such small organizations have a strong organizational structure, that is good, but it could be loose, which may create the ambiguity of roles and goals at the organizational level.

  8. I think the executive role absolutely matters regardless of the size–research shows that it’s one of the strongest determinants of an organization’s advocacy engagement. I just wonder if it isn’t possible, sometimes, for a leader to democratize the organization to such an extent that, while he/she may not be actively advocating to a significant degree, others in the organization have been equipped to do so. But I think you’re also right that there’s a strong chance that things fall through the cracks, such that everyone thinks that ‘someone else’ is going to play the lead advocacy role…and no one takes that ultimate responsibility.

  9. Social work skills work with community organizing, mainly because we have to be empathetic to other peoples wants and needs. Being able to understand other people, helps in motivating them. As social workers, with social justice at the forefront of the mission, community organizing should seem like a comfortable task.
    Community organizing tasks, help social work because everything is related. Looking at everything from a community perspective helps in finding solutions.
    I feel I am somewhat confident in community organizing, having engaged in some of it during my time at HINU. Speaking to people, getting them motivated was something that was natural to me. Most of it depended on how well you could see three steps ahead and being flexible.

  10. Sarah Owsley Townsend

    I had a discussion just yesterday about healthcare and Obama. In it, I said that part of why the Republicans are having such a hard time taking apart the ACA is that Obama was a community organizer. The person I was talking to looked at me like I was nuts. I pointed out that the ACA took a long time to craft because A- it incorporated multiple perspectives and voices (including conservative voices). B- it met the most urgent needs first (lowering the uninsured rates, increasing basic minimum coverage). And C- It served as many people as possible. These are all (to me) community organizing in action.
    This post also made me consider ethical responsibilities as far as dual relationships. I liked where you said that the relationships you build within the community are deep and powerful, but they are not friendships. That is an odd space to inhabit as a social worker. The power dynamic isn’t the same as clinical work, but it isn’t a personal relationship either.

    • Really great insights, Sarah. I have been saying (not that I came up with this insight in a vacuum!) that it was going to be really hard to get rid of the ACA once its provisions took effect, which is absolutely a core principle of community organizing: you look for places where as many people as possible can claim a ‘win’. Actually, I think the ACA almost didn’t happen because of Obama’s community organizer approach. It was hard for him to accept that Republicans were not going to peel off, that they really saw their self-interest as entirely opposed to cooperation, and that he would have to flex his presidential power. When people are used to building consensus, that’s not an easy conclusion to reach.

  11. My job title post MSW will be Community Engagement Coordinator – which will have a lot of elements of community organizing. Some of the descriptions are: building up the volunteer base, organizing alumnae, developing advocacy strategies, and enacting an outreach plan to explore and expand services. I am excited because a lot of this has to do with relationship building, which I love. I foresee many 1-1 conversations that Molly Fleming stressed as key to community organizing. I am tapping into our community and taking a closer look at what people want, where our gaps are, and how we can fill those in. Of the many groups I’m working with (clients, volunteers, alumnae, potential clients, and board members) it is exciting to think about ways to connect and build our organizations “fanatics”. There is a lot of potential and I am looking forward to digging in. I joined some sessions (led by Molly, Diane Burkholder, and Pakou Her) aimed at gathering and developing more community organizers of color in Kansas City. The sessions have been amazing, and it was awesome to watch people from all different backgrounds and professions stand up by the end and claim their identity as a community organizer. I have not really thought about my upcoming job identity as a community organizer until reading this, and now I do see the elements within that identity. I generally disconnect it from my work life place it in my free time activities, and I wonder why?! You are right though, the community organizers I personally know if KC are definitely rock stars, and it is awesome to see more stepping up.

  12. Before starting this program and really ever learning about macro-level social work, I had a very narrow conceptualization of what community organizing looked like. Specifically, I had only really considered it be akin to grassroots policy organizing. It was standing on street corners with clipboards and knocking on peoples’ doors. Maybe that’s because I studied political science and not social work as an undergrad. However, this program has taught me a lot about what community organizing can really look like and is summed up well in this post. It really exists in so many elements of every agency’s work like their values, mission/vision, programs, and other activities. Unfortunately, I just don’t think that many people are educated or trained to view their work in this way and thus end up not being as effective as they could be at the community level. Our profession’s orientation towards social justice, systems theory, overcoming social/political barriers, relationship building, collaboration, self-determination, empowerment, and the strengths perspective all naturally lend themselves to community organizing work. I hope that upon leaving this program I will find a professional opportunity to engage in more community oriented work since much of my experience thus far in life has been in direct practice. I am looking forward to using these skills that I’ve learned to help create more just communities for others.

    • I think community organizing is almost like a mindset, or a lifestyle, more than a job description. I mean, yes, some people work full-time as ‘community organizers’, but even more people approach their work–in advocacy or outreach or direct practice–in ways that seek to engage the public, build a sense of community, and help people claim and wield their own power. They are organizing community, even if they don’t call themselves ‘community organizers’.

  13. Thank you so much for writing this! So much of what you said resonated with some of my own thoughts around the subject.

    As a macro MSW student, community organizing is something very appealing to me, but am not sure if I will ever be a community organizer as a formal, professional role. Regardless of where I end up professionally, community organizing skills will be vital to practice. The social work profession’s very roots are in community organizing (Jane Adaams, anyone?). We will never fully realize our vision for a more just society without engaging and mobilizing the community to act.

    This post also makes me think of the power dynamic we as a community organizer may have with a constituent or client base as opposed to a social worker in micro or clinical work. Our relationships with those we work with may look more like an egalitarian partnership rather than a worker-client model. Again, this is very appealing to me, for a number of reasons. But it also makes me reflect on the way this dynamic may have different ethical implications than for social workers employed under a more traditional service delivery model/setting. As someone else mentioned above, dual relationships will be something a social worker will need to be cognizant of and be intentional about tending to with care.

    • That’s an important point, Marion, about how community organizing can be a way of orienting to practice, as much as a ‘formal’ professional role. To a certain extent, many (most? all?) social workers need to incorporate dimensions of community organizing (particularly, around power dynamics and participatory practices and leveraging of existing resources and charting intentional paths to transformative change), regardless of the specific domain and venue of their practice. Thank you for reminding us that it’s a continuum, more than a dichotomy.

  14. Christina Cowart

    Loved reading this post! My current practicum placement has given me some really great opportunities around community organizing and coalition building. I believe that the skills necessary for this kind of work are transferable to any type of professional setting. Networking with members of the community, identifying organizations with common goals, recruiting volunteers, soliciting the work of experts, facilitating conflict among coalition members, event planning, policy strategizing, etc. I’ve always felt that these are skills that the business sector uses, except for social workers these skills are focused on social justice efforts rather than meeting sales quotas. Even clinical social workers implement similar types of skills when working with clients individually or in small groups.

    I appreciate that you mention the different identities or “versions” of ourselves we must balance as community organizers. When you’re building professional relationships outside of a standard clinician/client setting, the boundaries can seem muddy. For me personally, this has forced me to establish a clearer vision of my own social work values, as well as the values of my organization. Having to work out in the community in many different contexts and among diverse groups of people, I found that it was important for me to be able to clearly articulate the mission and values of my practicum placement, sometimes in the face of opposition and disagreement. While my experience with community organizing is minimal, I imagine that this is part of the challenge of community organizing; finding ways to respect the values of fellow coalition members without compromising your own social work values or the mission of your own organization.

  15. Thanks, Christina–I am so glad that your practicum experience this year has been such a rich one! I appreciate your emphasis on the aims of this work–which is one of the most visible points of departure from others who are, similarly, trying to build relationships and persuade others to affiliate with them, but often for reasons other than social transformation. And, excellent point about the need to clarify our own values, as we potentially experience ‘sticky’ ethical situations with overlapping relationships and other entanglements. Certainly, ensuring that we are clear about who and how we are, is the essential first preparation for good practice.

  16. I agree with your point Melinda, community organizing if done well can equip you with so many skills and tools that can translate to your work within an agency. Being able to gather up the troops, communicate effectively, gather the information, relate and connect helps mobilize people for a cause. Finding that passion does sometimes come from disagreements and conflicts and more often than not getting to know the other side motivates me to do better. It helps me evolve my message and my audience and I hope we see more community organizers get acknowledged in our spaces. I think that they often are dismissed or not offered the resources and tools they need to effectively captivate an audience on a specific message. These barriers create hurdles but I do believe they can be crossed with how we choose to do the work. This is why it becomes difficult to engage in community organizing because it takes skill, time and patience. It requires energy and support and we should give just that to the people who take on these roles in our communities.

  17. “And there have been long threads of conversation going around the blogosphere about authenticity among nonprofit ‘brands’ and the need for people to build real relationships that are meaningful yet not entirely personal, built around mutual self-interest yet genuine and accountable.” I think this is such an important principle for community organizing and social work practice in general. The most effective helping relationship is always built on authenticity, a mutual understanding of goals and the work to be done, and a meaningful but “not entirely personal” relationship. I think building relationships is one of the most important parts of social work practice on the micro and macro level and is intrinsic to community organizing work. I am really drawn to community organizing, yet I worry that I don’t have the right disposition for this work. Do you think it’s possible to be a community organizer and an introvert at the same time? I’ve been working on social media advocacy/digital organizing for my practicum and I think this might be good niche for me but I’m not sure about the job prospects in this field.

  18. I haven’t ever read any research about community organizers’ personality types or anything, Whitney, but my sense would be yes–that commitment to the work (which starts with a deep conviction that people should be central to decisions that affect them) and earnest affection for humanity are the essential elements for community organizing, not extroversion per se. You could even make the argument that introverts are well-suited to organizing, in that they may value relationships more, if they come at a greater cost. The question about job prospects is an important one; I don’t know of many nonprofits that have dedicated social media organizers (except the larger regional/national ones), but you may be able to position yourself by pitching this as part of your skillset, within a larger body of responsibility.

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