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.