Yes, everywhere: “real-life” applications for community organizing skills

What does Vacation Church School have to do with community organizing, you ask?

Um, in my world, a lot.

Over and over again, I find that I apply my community organizing experience to all kinds of situations, and that that perspective shapes how I approach so much of my life, from how I parent to my engagement with nonprofit boards, to my neighboring to my volunteer service. In some respects, that can be problematic: I’m sure that some of my friends wish that I’d stop including “have you talked with your senator about immigration reform?” at the end of an email to them, and my husband has wondered aloud why we still send Christmas cards to several current and former elected officials as well as a scattering of immigrant advocates around the state.

But, for the most part, I find that almost all of life’s challenges are more successfully conquered through community organizing tactics, and I’m continually struck by how amazed people are at what one can accomplish by leveraging the tremendous power of organized people.

  • I ask people to do things that fit their passions and skills, instead of putting out a “I’m sure everyone is too busy for this, but could someone please?” plea. It makes it much easier to recruit volunteers for Vacation Church School, yes, and it also gets parents to testify at a PTA legislative forum and neighbors to take on planning a block party, too. People want to be valued, and that’s not just true for major campaigns for social justice.
  • I make relationships part of my to-do list. People are more likely to say yes, not just if the ask fits with their lives, but if the asker is someone they trust and care about. That’s why I make it a point to send notes, or make calls, fairly regularly to a wide spectrum of people–those with whom I serve on Boards, other advocates, even some of my kids’ friends’ parents. Some would say that relationships are cheapened, somehow, if there’s the potential for an ask to enter the equation at some point. I counter that organizers legitimately care about people as people, absolutely, but also see relationships as our single greatest asset. And assets deserve continual investment.
  • I’m short on protocol but don’t skimp on process. I have very, very little patience for formality; committee rules and complicated chains of command tend to discourage new participation and stifle real accomplishment. But I absolutely believe in giving people an opportunity to voice their experiences, on the PTA and at the conclusion of last week’s Vacation Church School and after my son’s class end-of-year celebration.
  • I believe in multiple entry points; I want to give everyone a way to say “yes”. So, okay, maybe this sometimes looks like persistence bordering on stalking, but, when someone says no to my first ask, I follow it up with another. A good friend of mine, Jake Lowen, who is also an awesome organizer, talks about jumping ahead to a huge ask and then dialing it back to something that seems, in comparison, modest, and I guess that’s what I do. I found a role for everyone in Vacation Church School, including the folks who initially told me no. Because I want people in the door.

    So none of this work is going to change the world, right? I mean, I hope that building a better community for my kids and for others’ kids plays some small role in making a better society, but it’s not like I’m organizing a revolution. But what approaching all of life like an organizer means for me (in addition to the fact that I couldn’t turn it off if I tried) is a chance to keep my skills sharp. I also truly believe that it exposes more people to the real possibilities within themselves, when they join with others. And, that, of course, is precisely where revolutions come from.

    I want to hear from you about how organizing spills into your “regular” life, and about how applying organizing skills in other contexts has made a difference for your work. And what are you facing that could benefit from some organizing energy?

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