Reflections on Organizing and Community Engagement

The best moments in my working life have come from working with people to discover their shared power and instilling a sense of agency in them, both as individuals and in the groups we were forming. That has always felt like the work I was meant to do.  So, when MACDC’s strategic plan identified building the power and voice of lower income people and people of color to shape the future of their communities and their own lives I was excited. But, of course, that is easier said than done.

I have spent a lot of time both at MACDC and at NeighborWorks America (it was called Neighborhood Reinvestment when I worked there.) working to help housing organizations either take on community organizing or do it more effectively.  After all those years you would think I would have come up with a step-by-step recipe for CDCs to successfully build community leaders and community power.

1. Start with leadership (at both the staff and board) that believes that community members are partners, with skills and expertise.

2. Add the resources to hire and support a skilled community organizer.

3. Mix in the opportunity to organize around an issue that will make concrete changes in peoples’ lives and in their community.

Rare as they are, these ingredients are just the start of the process – only what is needed to start the work.  Once the work is going everything gets harder. If a CDC is really working with community members in an honest way, language barriers need to be addressed, decisions take longer to make, conflicts arise, more meetings are needed and they need to be facilitated well and, so on and so on.  It is no mystery why CDCs can be skittish about community organizing and struggle to do it well.

MACDC has certainly worked hard to help CDCs take on community organizing. The Ricanne Hadrian Initiative for Community Organizing (RHICO) raised over $1 million to grant to CDCs for organizing work. During the 8 years of the RHICO all the participating CDCs also benefited from technical assistance and peer learning.  MACDC still provides technical assistance and peer learning for organizers to this day.

Sometimes I get discouraged by the fact that after all these efforts, there is not more organizing being done. But, just today, I reminded an organizer that this work takes a long time, and you have to hang in there. I am glad to report that MACDC is hanging in there. This fall we are putting a major focus on community organizing and community engagement.  The Mel King Institute is launching a new program, The Resident Leadership Academy, which will provide training to community members on how to organize and work together.  The program will be officially launched on September 23, but the truth is we are already doing the work.  On October 14, MACDC will release a report on the State of Organizing at an Innovation Forum where we will discuss some of the challenges CDCs face in doing this work and how those challenges may be overcome. In November, the Mel King Institute will roll out the Organizers Core Competencies Toolkit, which is designed to support the professional growth of community organizers and community engagement staff. And December 1, the Mel King Institute will offer an Introduction to Community Organizing training.

When talking about organizing, Myles Horton, a co-founder of the Highlander Center, would paraphrase the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado: “We make the road by walking.”  I am glad to be walking along with MACDC members as we keep moving towards more (and more effective) community organizing and deeper community engagement.