I was on a tour bus, fresh from being hired by Greater Homewood Community Corporation. The tour was being sponsored by The Center in Baltimore. Providentially, I was getting to see the sights and sounds of what would shortly become my new city. I was sitting next to a gentleman from Danville, Kentucky. He asked me what I did, like you do when you meet someone new. I told him, I had just been hired as a community organizer.
“Community organizer, huh? Well… we know how that ends up,” he said with a grin.
“Don’t worry, sir. My political aspirations are pretty low”.
It’s been a week on the job. It’s been a fantastic, whirlwind of a week. I work with some amazing people. I have so enjoyed finding my way around Baltimore and I know that there is more of that to do. I’ve felt purposeful in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time. And… I’ve had to answer the same question over a dozens times.
So… what is it that you’re doing?
One thing that Obama’s campaign brought to the surface is that most people have no clue what a community organizer does. And that’s fair. Unless you are in a community that needs organizing, why would you? And unless your community has been historically, and dare I say intentionally, disorganized, you would have no reason to have an organizer.
I like the way that my organization talks about organizing. Simply put, we are there to build the leadership capacity of communities that have been largely underserved. We knock on doors, we listen, we train people to become civically engaged. We connect people and neighborhoods to anchor institutions that have the resources to enact change. We advocate to politicians on behalf of the communities in their jurisdictions. We get people out to meetings. We connect people with their neighbors. We help to build community. In fact, my official title is “community builder” which I like much more than “organizer”.
When I was in Pittsburgh, I interviewed for a community organizing position that was focused around education issues and school quality. The organization I work for now is a more holistic in its scope. We certainly are concerned with school quality. In fact, many of my new colleagues have been making pilgrimages up to Annapolis to oppose cuts to education proposed by the governor that would incredibly damaging effects on Baltimore city schools. Our scope, however, does not end with education. We are focused on crime and drugs. We are concerned with business development. We’re looking at housing and blight. We’re looking at greening and beautification. We’re looking at all of the components that go into making a community healthy and vibrant. We put our energy into the places that our neighborhoods feel need to be addressed.
The people and places that we serve are those that often feel disconnected from and disenfranchised by democratic processes. Empowering people to know that their voices matter is a huge part of the work. So, that’s what I do. That’s what I will be doing. In some ways it feels like a huge job. In other ways, it feels that, if I do my job well, I won’t actually be doing much work at all. I will be giving people the tools to make their community better. Sure, that’s not as easy as it sounds and it will be a lot of work to get all of the moving pieces of community, government, organizations, and individuals into place. But it’s exciting work. It’s meaningful work. It’s the work of building community. It is the work I feel like I was made for.