Community organizing

October 12th, 2016

What is community organizing?

The first time many Americans heard the phrase community organizing was when it was listed as part of Barack Obama’s resumé in the 2008 election; however, the church has been doing community organizing since its early days. Jesus organized disciples. Within a few hundred years, the whole Mediterranean region was evangelized. John Wesley was a pastor, a reformer and a community organizer. His early Methodist societies reformed prisons, worked to end child labor and established public schools.

Community organizing is not a job with a recognizable uniform, equipment or typical job description. Organizers are more like social entrepreneurs. A community organizer helps a group of people understand their common interests in creating change and build power to change and act.

A community can be a group of people who live in a neighborhood or a group of people with a common interest. Barack Obama, for example, worked in a geographical area with people in the Altgeld Gardens housing project in Chicago to get a city job office in their neighborhood and to address an asbestos problem. A community organizer could also work with cyclists who want better bike infrastructure in their city, parents in poverty who want higher-quality education for their children, disabled persons who want better access to public places in their community or formerly incarcerated persons who want to have their voting rights restored.

It’s often the case that a community doesn’t yet know that it’s a community! Individuals or families struggle along with their own problems, unaware that their pain is a symptom of a larger social problem that others share and that it could be solved if they would work together. One of the first tasks of a community organizer is to build a network by getting people to talk to one another about their lived experience.

Disrupting the old narrative with a new one

I talked with Phyllis Hill, the Southeast regional director of LIVE FREE, a campaign to end gun violence and mass incarceration with an emphasis on eliminating systemic racism. She shared with me some of her thoughts about community organizing and reflected on her experience in the field.

She explains, “Community organizing is really about people recognizing that God has given them innate power and a sense of agency.” She says that we are “co-creators with God” of a new way of living in the world. “Community organizing begins to retell the story for people of faith about who we are in the world. We have to tap into that story in us and in our community to be able to create more healthy, more just, more racially equitable communities.”

Because so much of community organizing depends on casting a vision or creating an alternative future for people to buy into, it depends very much on storytelling and testimony. Hill says, “The transformation begins when people realize that they matter, that their voice matters and their story matters. Somewhere along the way they were probably silenced by someone or by trauma. This can be very healing work. It’s about connecting you to your original purpose.”

A lot of this storytelling happens in one-to-one conversations. People meet to have conversation about the things they’re most passionate about: what worries or concerns they have and what their hopes for their community are.

Often people have a negative narrative in their heads. We begin listening to that narrative instead of “listening to who God says we are,” says Hill. Disrupting the dominant narrative is part of community organizing.

One oppressive narrative says that people who have gone to prison are simply criminals, not human beings with rights: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” In many states, former prisoners lose the right to vote, sometimes forever, and have trouble finding work once released. This narrative doesn’t acknowledge that people may change or that they may have been innocent in the first place. (Using DNA evidence, the Innocence Project has exonerated nearly 350 people who were wrongfully convicted.) An alternative narrative might say that David, Moses, Rahab and Rachel were all people who broke the law — and yet lived exemplary lives of faith. Joseph (Genesis 39–41) was a wrongly convicted faith hero. Jesus ate with sinners and was wrongfully arrested, convicted and lynched, yet he offers second chances and grace to everyone. In real life, not only do innocent people die, but people who make mistakes can also change.

Getting someone to talk about their experience as a prisoner and listening to their story are essential in addressing the oppressive narrative and creating a new one. If returning citizens are too ashamed to tell their stories, they can’t connect with one another or get other people to listen. Empowering them to share their testimony — a basic Christian concept — is part of the work of the church.

In Christian theology, we talk about “the kingdom of God,” a vision of the world the way God intended. Our relationships with God, with one another, and with the world are just and peaceful. But we also acknowledge the power of evil, which resists that kingdom. We acknowledge both of these concepts when we pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Getting specific

Phyllis Hill also talks about community organizing as a way of putting that prayer into action. In the case of people who have served their time and paid their debt to society, we can advocate for their voting rights to be restored or for job applications to “ban the box” so they will have better access to employment. We can pressure specific legislators, judges and policymakers to enact specific policies.

She says, “We have to be intentional about naming race — not just identifying abstract problems, but who is specifically affected, and who are the beneficiaries.” Because black people are disproportionately affected by our criminal justice system and disproportionately have their voting rights removed and employment prospects diminished, we need to see this as part of a larger story of racism. As Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, it’s now perfectly legal to discriminate against formerly incarcerated people in the same ways it was once legal to discriminate against African-Americans.

All of this means that community organizers have to understand power. Martin Luther King Jr., who was both a theologian and an organizer, said that while Christians are very good at talking about love, they don’t talk enough about power. Yet one without the other is not effective. If we’re not, as Jesus said, “wise as snakes and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), we will fail to understand our own power to create change, or we will ignore the power that’s used to oppress and harm.

Disciples as community organizers

In my work as a church planter, I’ve become a student of effective community organizers, and I’ve realized that much of what the church does is community organizing. We reach out into communities and have deep one-to-one conversations about the important things of life. We uncover hidden areas of need. We raise up leaders to address those needs. We build alliances with other faith communities or workers in the community to extend and deepen our reach.

Reaching out to community organizers in your area is one way the church can connect with the needs of specific communities or groups. But it’s important to remember that transformational work is driven by practices and relationships, not programs. We often compartmentalize our community church work into boxes such as “social justice” or “evangelism” or “missions and outreach.” But in reality, churches that are involved in community organizing are doing it all at once. It’s something we’ve been doing for 2,000 years, bringing good news to the poor and setting the oppressed free.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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