Saturday, January 31, 2009

Meet a Commuity Organization: USAction

Today I will start my daily review of all the major national and regional community organizations in America to present a more complete picture of the scope of the on the ground organizing work that goes on everyday. This will span well over 81 organizations in all 50 states. The first organization is USAction which can be found in the cyber world by punching in into your web browser.

Based in Washington, D.C., USAction is a national organization of 23 local community organizing affiliates dedicated to advancing a progressive agenda around issues such as better health care, green jobs, lower dependence on oil, relief for struggling families, etc. They achieve these objectives by building power through uniting people around issue and election campaigns both locally and nationally. William McNary is currently the president of USAction, and he has a background in labor organizing, legislative lobbying, and journalism (he graduated from Iowa with a degree in journalism). Some of USAction recent local victories include passage of quality and affordable health care for all in Wisconsin and Oregon in 2007, and they are currently working on the economic stimulus package that is moving through Congress.

Th organization holds an annual Progressive Leadership Awards event in Washington D.C. to honor various outstanding progressive leaders. Past honorees included Eli Pariser (executive director of, Senator Richard Durbin, Leo Gerard (president, United Steel Workers of America), and then Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

You can contact USAction by phone at 202-263-4520 or email at

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Little Engine Who Could: How a Small Village is Creating Green Jobs

I just got back from visiting another province, Chiang Mai, here in Thailand. I went to observe an organic farming project that my friend Mike worked on and came away very impressed.

Mike's Thai counterpart, Pe Chai, effectively "greened" his community's entire economy by finding a way to make organic farming profitable and then organize all of his neighbors to do it too. As a result, he was able to create a organic farmer's union that represented 83 families and with enough farm product bulk to export their goods directly to Europe and Asia without the help of a middleman, which increased the average family's profits by over 50 percent.

Also, the profits from the organic farming business has increased the tax base of the community. Therefore, more money has also flowed into daycares, school, local health clinics, elderly groups, and other community assistance programs.

Moreover, just about every job in his village is based on organic farming. There are the actual farmers who grow and harvest the corn, rice, peanuts, etc. and then they have a bunch of small food manufacturers that make banana chips, peanut snacks, and other small packaged goods. They also invested in their infrastructure by building a brand new storage facility and rice mill. His village's local economy is booming and he is doing his part to help the environment.

This is an example of the power of using community organizing to create value, and not simply extract something or redistribute the same resources. Pe Chai took a community strength (farming) and applied it in a new way to meet a specific need in the marketplace (organic foodstuffs) to create even more value (essentially grow the pie) for his community to export to the world.

Oh! I have pictures this time too!!

Organic lettuce heads in the field

Pe Chai outside of the banana chip manufacturing

Mike outside of the new storage facility

The brand new rice mill

Thursday, January 29, 2009

It's Better to Die on Your Feet Than Live on Your Knees!

Today I read a report on the current state of community organizing by the Loka Institute. This report was dated a bit (1998), but one aspect of the report peeved me.

The report outlined the great results that community organizing produces everyday, and that the only thing that the field needed is a bigger investment of resources. The next several pages should've been tissue paper for all the tears I had from its sad sob story about how government and businesses have 50 million dollars for Doritos chip research but can only muster 10 million dollars to fund all of the research endeavors within community organizing.

You know, for a field that is so proud of getting communities to stand up for themselves, we sure don't mind begging for pennies to help pay for our work. I think instead of always complaining about what other people aren't giving us, we should spend that time and energy devising ways to get the money that we feel is much needed. When it comes to funding, I think every organizer should take the advice of the great Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata,"It's better to die upon your feet than live upon your knees!"

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Community Based Research: Stepping Down From the Ivory Tower

An interesting development is taking place within community organizing: well intentioned and knowledgeable academics constructively participating in community organizations. This concept is known as Community Based Research (CBR).

In this model, academics help community members in the planning and evaluating process to help them better perform their duties and serve their communities. From experience I can tell you that most community members involved in these organizations are too close to the action to be able to step back and objectively assess their performance and the larger dynamics of the situation. Moreover, many community organizations lack channels to fresh knowledge and thinking that could positively impact the group.

Organizations such as the Centre for Community Based Research (, the Loka Institute (, and a throng of universities and colleges dedicate their much needed resources to advancing community empowerment. I think this is a good way for people who may not enjoy the day to day street battles of organizing to effectively engage in their communities.

Why I Love Organizers

I do not apologize. I love community organizers. They are my most favorite people on this planet and they are the ones I love to help the most.

Why do I have such a man crush on community organizers? Because these are the people who do two things: 1) they protect and serve the poor, needy, and vulnerable and 2) they insure that our participatory democracy remains participatory. Therefore, by helping community organizers do their work I can also help the millions of people they impact everyday. I can't think of a better and more enjoyable way to forcefully advance the good of mankind!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Whites Electoral Influence Wanning?

In a year that witnessed record turnout amongst voters of all backgrounds, one of the most striking yet under reported story lines is how Obama managed to crush McCain (365 to 173 in the electoral college), but substantially lose the white vote by a count of 43 to 55 ( He did this by running up huge margins with ethnic minority groups, but since when did such a strategy lead to certain victory for the presidency?

In every other US presidential race going back to 1980, the victor for the White House also won a substantial amount of the white vote, but never lost it by more than 2 points. Bush won 58 and 54 percent of the white vote in 2004 and 2000 respectively. Clinton only loss the white vote by 2 points in tough three way races in 1996 and 1992. Bush Sr. won the white vote by 20 points in 1988. Reagan won by 32 and 20 points in 1984 and 1980 respectively.

The 2008 race could've been more than the first time an African American won the White House. It could also be the first flash point in what one futurist calls America's cultural singularity, which is a theory that due to the rapid growth amongst racial ethnic groups American society will change so fast that in 20 or 30 years it will be completely unrecognizable to today's society.

If this is the case, then we better get used to more elections of all kinds where more ethnic minorities and women win. Some believe that Obama's victory is an anomaly, I believe that if demographics continue to rapidly change and electoral participation remains steady, then elected minority and women presidents may soon become standard practice.

History 101 Top Ten Style

Community organizing’s bold attempt to address some of the biggest challenges of the last several generations (poverty, equality, ect.) has forged a significant impact on the course of history. This top ten list takes a look at some of the men and women who successfully dedicated their life’s work to a higher cause.

First some rules.

1) This countdown will only be limited to community organizing in America. So, people such as Ghandi and Mother Teresa will be left off.

2) To make my list the organizer had to have made a positive impact on humanity (sorry, Klu Klux Klan).

3) He/She must have made a unique contribution to the field that revolutionized community organizing methodology or solved an outstanding problem for his/her generation

4) Finally, he/she must have dedicated a significant portion of his/her professional career to the field of community organizing

Ok, now that we have our ground rules let’s jump into the much anticipated list starting at number ten.

Wade Rathke
Association of Community Organizations for ReformNow (ACORN)

Rathke founded ACORN in Arkansas in the early 1970s to unite poor and working class families around a common public agenda. ACORN is currently the largest organization of poor and working class people in the United States with a dues paying membership of 175,000 families and 82 offices throughout the US. ACORN has expanded globally with operations in Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Dominican Republic, and Peru. Rathke is also a union organizer as he founded SEIU Local 100 labor union, which organizes public sector workers including school employees, Head Start, and health care workers. Rathke is successful at merging the labor union, community organizing, and traditional political aspects of public life to leverage power for lower income people.


Dolores Huerta (1930-present)
National Farm Workers Association

Co-founder of the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez. She was pivotal to the civil rights movement and labor movement as she helped to score victories for voter’s right to vote in Spanish, and the right of individuals to take the driver’s license examination in their native language. She also complemented her organizing efforts by lobbying politicians for unemployment benefits and disability insurance in California. In 1966, Dolores negotiated the first UFW contract with the Schenley Wine Company. This was the first time in the history of the United States that a negotiating committee comprised of farm workers negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with an agricultural corporation. Huerta has received many honors including the Outstanding Labor Leader Award from the California Senate, induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty Award from the ACLU, the Eugene V. Debs Foundation Outstanding American Award, the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom Award, the Consumers’ Union Trumpeter’s Award, and she was one of three Ms. Magazine’s, "Women of the Year", and the Ladies Home Journal’s, "100 Most Important Women of the 2oth Century".


Ed Chambers (1927-present)
Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)

An Alinsky and Day disciple, “Big Ed” is credited with two major contributions to the field of organizing: 1) He successfully took over as the head of the Industrial Areas Foundation after Alinsky’s death and built it into a powerhouse (it has over 57 affiliates in the US, Germany, Canada, and England) in which several other organizing networks now mimic. 2) He is credited with revolutionizing organizing strategy when dealing with “Big Business”. In 1968, he successfully organized a power group in Rochester, New York, to hold Eastman-Kodak accountable for its hiring practices (at the time, they hired a disproportionate amount of whites compared to blacks). The strategy he used, the “stock proxy” campaign, was the first time that a community group won an issue against a multinational corporation by encouraging key investors to divest stock. This gave birth to a new strand of community organizing known today as “shareholder activism”.


Dorothy Day (1897-1980)
Catholic Workers Movement

Day’s efforts showed the power of religious organizing in America. She founded the Catholic worker’s movement in 1933 amid the great depression. Originally a journalist, she first started the Catholic Worker newspaper, and this led to her organizing a “house of hospitality” campaign in the slums of New York City. This movement soon spread to other cities in the United States, and to Canada and the United Kingdom; more than 30 independent but affiliated CW communities had been founded by 1941. Today, over 100 communities exist in Australia, the UK, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Sweden.


Cesar Chavez (1927-1993)
National Farm Workers Association

Another Alinsky disciple, Chavez went on to score major gains for both the labor and Mexican-American civil rights movements. He co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (presently the United Farm Workers) with Dolores Huerta. The organization achieved several major policy victories including ending the Bracero Program in 1964 (this helped to restrict immigration and increase farm workers’ wages) and helped to get the 1986 federal immigration act passed. Chavez helped to spark the Mexican-American movement, which was responsible for creating Chicano study programs in universities and raising the overall awareness of Mexican-American struggles. He is honored in several places and his birthday is a holiday in four states.

Edith Terry Bremer (1885-1964)
Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA)

Bremer took the community center movement of the early 1900s to the next level when she became the first to exclusively dedicate her work to organizing immigrants. The nearly sixty international institutes in America during the early twentieth century wanted to support immigrant services and programs. The Young Women’s Christian Association hired Edith Terry Bremer in 1909 to lead this effort and, inspired by her leadership, by the mid 1920s they achieved many of their initial social goals, gave up considerable control of local agencies to the immigrant communities, and even pioneered the concept of cultural pluralism. She helped international institutes to better organize immigrant communities so that they could more effectively organize for themselves. These institutes were largely funded by their own members and the YWCA. International institutes had organizations in urban centers such as Boston, Providence, Baltimore, Buffalo, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and San Antonio.

Jane Addams (1860-1935)
Hull House

Addams became the mother who birthed community organizing in America in the 1880s when she founded the settlement house movement. Settlement houses were an early attempt to address the fundamental social and economic disparities created by the industrial revolution. The Hull House, one of the first settlement houses in America, served upwards of two thousand people in Chicago and had a night school for adults, kindergarten classes, clubs for older children, a public kitchen, an art gallery, a coffeehouse, a gymnasium, a girls club, a swimming pool, a book bindery, a music school, a drama group, a library, and labor-related divisions. She is probably most remembered today for her adult night school, a forerunner of the continuing education classes offered by many community colleges today. She also worked with George H. Mead on social reform issues including promoting women's rights, ending child-labor, and helped to mediate during the 1910 Garment Workers' Strike. She was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions.


Barack Obama (1961-present)
44th President of the United States of America

Community organizing methods helped to fuel Obama's remarkable rise to the top. He effectively brought community organizing into both campaighning and governance. His masterful use of combining old school organizing strategy with the latest technological tools will be a model used by politicians for decades to come. Moreover, unlike previous campaighns, he uses the millions of people who organized to help govern the country. Obama's contribution to community organizing is simply bringing community organizing tools to national politics and governance.


Dr. Martin Luther King (1929-1968)
Southern Christian LeadershipCommittee (SCLC)

Although King’s methods weren’t original (he borrowed heavily from Mohandas Gandhi and Saul Alinsky), he was as good as it gets when it came to planning and executing organizing strategy to exploit an enemy’s weakness for the maximum gain. King’s most famous example of this was the infamous confrontation with then police chief Eugene “Bull” Conner in Birmingham, Alabama, when Connor decided to unleash droves of dogs on peaceful protestors. This spectacle shocked America when it was broadcasted on national television, which led to the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and forever crystallized Connor as a symbol of racial bigotry. In addition to his brilliant tactical mind, King’s single most significant contribution to the field was capturing the elusive goal of civil rights in America. This led to several major policy changes such as voter’s rights, affirmative action, and title IX. King’s accomplishments cemented his place amongst the greatest Americans of all time.


Saul David Alinsky (1909-1972)
Industrial Areas Foundation

A Chicago native, Saul David Alinsky is affectionately known as the father of modern community organizing. He was a brash and gruff organizer who revolutionized the field (Alinsky once declared that the “war on poverty” was “a prize piece of political pornography” because it was a “huge political pork barrel, and a feeding trough for the welfare industry”). He was the first to bring institutionalized structure to organizing with his development of “people’s organizations”. This new method involved “broad-based organizing” which transformed churches, block clubs, labor unions, ect. into a formidable power broker in the community. He founded the first modern community organizing network in the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1940, which is still running strong today. However, his biggest achievement was to turn a field full of rag-tag do-gooders and reformers into a collection of professionals with only one ideology: to systematically change the power dynamics in any given community. He was also a noted scholar who contributed to intellectualizing community organizing within academic circles. This was crucial since at the time community organizing was seen as a subset of social work instead of independent of it. His books, Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals, are considered must reads for anyone looking to get involved
in the field of community organizing.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Newsweek Captures Obama's Organizing Spirit In His Inaugrual Address

Newsweek did a fine job describing community organizing's echoes in Obama's speech. Read it here:

The New Politics: Organizing as a Tool for Governance

President Obama says that his will be the most transparent administration in American history. Many see this action as a benevolent gesture by a magnanimous ruler. Through the eyes of a community organizer, however, this move also helps President Obama to strategically leverage great power in Washington.

Obama is using websites such as and as instruments to fulfill his transparency and accountability promise. He encourages visitors to leave feedback by filling out a contact card with their name and email address when they submit their comments. The sites also track every move of the Obama Administration and in the case of, you can track every tax dollar once the new economic stimulus package is passed.

The flip side of encouraging such public participation is that it gives Obama an ace in the hole with law makers on capitol hill. By collecting the names and email addresses of the people who leave feedback on his website, he will have a huge and powerful registry of active citizens who he can tap at any moment. Therefore, if stubborn law makers try to slow down legislative progress, Obama simply needs to send an email to hundreds of thousands (or possibly millions) of voters explaining the situation and asking them to harrass their local congressman or senator.

This is another example of Barack Obama bringing traditional organizing strategy to Washington in order to fashion a new politics.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Time for a Change in Tactics?

As the economy continues to plunge and as big businesses (i.e. General Motors, Citibank, Ford, Circuit City, etc.) continue to shed thousands of jobs or go out of business altogether, is it time for community organizers to assess their tactics?

Many community organizers follow some variation of Saul Alinsky organizing philosophy. This philosophy seeks to identify and isolate an "enemy" and then to combat that enemy until it concedes defeat by giving in to your demands. This way of doing things has served organizers well for decades, but with the changing times these tactics may soon be rendered obsolete.

Firstly, Alinsky theory assumes that the isolated "enemy" has the ability to give you what you want. In the case of General Motors, for example, labor organizers seeking to maintain current hourly wages and other benefits by targeting and attacking GM's top management are very misguided. In this economic environment, there is no way GM's top brass could concede these demands even if they wanted to. The company is losing billions of dollars in the face of rapidly declining sales. Therefore, GM's executives do not have the power to give in without risking the entire company going under, which would be bad for everybody.

Secondly, in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, local actions such as strikes, protests, sit ins, etc. on big businesses are not only losing their desired effect, but may even backfire. Nowadays, a company can quickly shut down a factory or retail outlet if management deems that the costs of dealing with disgruntled workers outweighs the benefits (profits). Community organizations are not fit to respond to such a move because we lack the agile global reach of mega corporations and the needed capital to force a company's hand through their public shares.

I suggest community organizers carve out a new path for a new century. I believe our focus should be less on "struggle" issues (issues where we struggle to extract something from some authority) and more on building common value. If labor organizers focus were to help GM build value over the decades, then GM could've been in a much more competitive position (like Honda or Toyota) although the economy tanked. That would've helped everyone. Secondly, I suggest that community organizations begin to take business and entreprenurship as a primary community building strategy seriously. I believe that if community organizations can become the engines to creating jobs by helping to launch small businesses, then the community's collective power will rise since we wouldn't always have to beg some employer to stay in town. Finally, I think it is time that the community organizing networks of the world unite by creating an organization dedicated to building wealth for community organizations all over the world. This would give us the tools needed to challenge the big boys on their playing field while increasing organizing's worldwide promience.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Future of Community Development: Organizing?

For decades, the professions of community development and community organizing have been seen as strictly separate endeavors. Like two brothers jostling for the love and affection of their parents, these fields have bickered over who helps more people and who is more effective. But I dare to ask, “what if we were to combine the two?”

Community organizing carved its niche as the courageous fighter of traditional “struggle” issues by taking on such grappling issues as civil rights, labor rights, and women rights. Community organizing has earned the reputation as the more combative and confrontational of the two brothers versus the rather conciliatory tone of community development. From time to time, it has belittled its brother as being too soft to be effective and as a glory hound that’s unwilling to rock the boat.

Community development bathes in the limelight that its brother rarely receives. Its well known work covers health, poverty, education, amongst other issues through well known organizations such as the Red Cross, United Nations, and USAID. It paints its brother as being too irrational and compulsive to make any substantive long lasting change especially in nations with short leashes on political freedoms.

Like any two brothers whose relationship devolved to perpetual spats and spurts, they fail to see the vast potential of combining their collective and complementary strengths. It is true that community development generally lacks the hard nose that’s sometimes needed to redistribute power more equitably. It’s also true that community organizing lacks the diplomatic finesse that’s sometimes needed to successfully move forward in weak democratic states. This begs the inevitable question, what if the best of community organizing were combined with the best of community development?

This is what my work is all about. Trained in Saul Alinsky style community organizing, I have the expertise to apply organizing just about anywhere. However, I needed to adapt this skill set to fit the unique rigors of community development. For months I tried to develop a model that would capture just the right blend of organizing and development so that it could catapult my community (and potentially my field) to new heights.

My search for the Holy Grail proved to be long and arduous, but nothing worthwhile comes easily. I began with only a prayer and vague vision powerful enough to will me through the difficulties of the early months. Hot and sweaty days laboring in the fields with farmers, logging several kilometers on my bicycle riding between villages everyday, and struggling to understand my surroundings through limited language ability all in the hope of one day finding a working model that would lift the lives of the humble people I live with.

After the first few months, such a model began to take shape as leaders began to complain of the lack of a structure that would enable more villagers to participate in village development. It seemed that the lion’s share of this responsibility was on the shoulders of village leaders, leading to burn out among many.

These conversations got me thinking: Is it possible to develop such a structure that would enable more villagers to actively participate in development? The long term implications of such a group are profound: less dependence upon government and NGOs, more empowerment of the local villager, a greater sense of communal responsibility in all areas of life, ect. As I sat down and hashed this out with some local buddies, it became clear that the objective would be to make the village more like a family. Every villager should have a defined role in helping to build up the village, just like every member of a family plays a role in the betterment of the family. Hence, the name of the group should be One Village One Family since the goal is to have one village act more like one family.

This concept also seemed to fit conveniently within the framework of the King’s vision for his nation. He has stressed building up a self sufficient economy as well as greater local control within Thailand’s democracy. This model could help in potentially achieving both objectives. The long term implications of this model tantalized my imagination, but we had to build it first.

Now my vague vision seemed a bit clearer, but I still needed to work out the details. How would such a group look like? This burning question would become my preoccupation for the next several weeks. I asked friends involved in community organizing back home, but they did not understand the operational context of Thailand. I felt alone in this pursuit and voiced my frustrations to God deep in the forest (didn’t want anyone to think I was crazy). After the tears of tribulation stopped flowing, I realized that I looked everywhere except one major resource: the internet.

I hastily returned to the SAO and strapped into an open desktop. Yahoo was the destination and after a couple of key words, sure enough, everything I needed to know was just a click away. Now I was able to draft an outline of the group as well as write a twelve page training manual (I used a training manual I wrote in college as a guide). Fortunately, a friend of mine in the church decided to translate my materials for an affordable fee.

The structure of the group seemed simple. Have a steering team of between 7-9 villagers overseeing several sub-project teams of between 3-5 villagers. The villagers would identify, develop, and implement these projects themselves. This would create an apparatus that lessens the load on the elected village leaders and increases villager engagement and project completion efficiency. In the bigger picture, this would be one great step forward towards Thailand fulfilling the promise of higher local participation in its democracy. After all, a truly vibrant democracy has citizens who are engaged on a daily basis, not simply at the voter’s box. I now assumed we were ready, but I didn’t foresee the practical problems that lay ahead in actually implementing it.

I held meetings with every village chief and surveyed the villages in my area in order to get it started. The village chiefs and villagers said that they loved the idea, but that proved to be only lip service. They had real concerns about the project such as funding and, even bigger, a fear of failure. No one wanted to try a new model because they didn’t want to fail. This led to me creating a sister project for OneVillage One Family at the school called Project Hope. Project Hope had the same structure as OVOF, but the goal was to increase student participation in the school and village while providing real leadership experiences and opportunities, not just token leadership games where there’s nothing at stake.

This finally began a series of successful events for our work. Project Hope flowed together seamlessly. We had both a senior team (ages 16-18) and junior team (ages 13-15) within the group. The junior group just stayed within the confines of the school and learned basic development tools such as surveying and building relationships with leaders. The senior group had the responsibility of working with villages and the SAO to develop and implement real projects.

The senior team held their training first, and at the training were 4 girls and 2 boys (the 2 boys later dropped out and were replaced by another girl). They then conducted the training of the junior team with little guidance from me. Once the senior team learned the basic organizing concepts they were ready to act.

The first issue they wanted to address was providing clothing for the poorer hill tribe village families. At first, my girls were timid and didn’t believe that they could do it. We arranged a meeting with the balat of the SAO to discuss possibilities of implementing this project. My girls were fearful because this was the first time they had a meeting on a level playing field with a high ranking SAO officer. To my understanding, a group of teenage girls approaching SAO leaders about collaborating on a project rarely, if ever, happens in Thailand. I gave my girls a little pep talk and told them there is power in numbers, so they shouldn’t be afraid.

The meeting went well. The balat, a little taken back by my girls’ requests, agreed to work with them in completing the project. The next step involved my girls organizing a week long donation rally, which netted well over 800 articles of clothing stuffed into 25 boxes and garbage bags. It was a stunning display of community generosity and sheer organizing talent by my girls to raise so much from students and villagers considering the modest economic means of my area. This clothing drive surprised the teachers and administrative staff of the school because this was the first time they saw their students achieve such a feat without direct teacher supervision and direction.

The school truck drove my girls and the clothing donations to the hill tribes, about a 30 km and 45 minute trek. My girls were excited since this was the first time they traveled to the hill tribes. Fellow students wished them well on their journey and teachers proudly stood by to witness the accomplishment. Upon arriving at the hill tribe villages, the impact of this project struck them as they saw firsthand the dilapidated housing and impoverished families. The village chief warmly welcomed us and the village treated us to a special lunch. The chief and local people were amazed at the large amount of clothing my girls were giving them. The village chief even choked up a bit as he continually repeated, “dee mak, dee mak mak”.

Once this project was completed, my girls had just enough time to turn their attention to OVOF before the close of the semester. Since villagers wanted their fears eased and a model to follow, we decided to hold a village training where my girls taught the basic principles of the organizing model as well as showed them that such a model could be very successful. As I observed the training, the wider impact of this work dawned on me: a group of five 17 year old girls is training villagers in their 40s and 50s as well as a couple of SAO representatives how to do development. It was literally the young leading the old. For this moment, the rigid Thai social hierarchy was flipped upside down. I caught myself smirking at this very thought.

I later treated my girls to a day at Big C on me. We went shopping, ate at KFC, and watched a Thai movie together. For the first time in my life I felt like a proud parent (I don’t have kids). The thing is, I truly do love my girls and I sincerely want them to be more successful than me. I genuinely enjoy their company and find myself deeply invested in their lives. Over school vacation I will teach my girls English four times a week and I purchased them books on scholarships and college entrance exam preparations. A scary thought is that my girls are just beginning to scratch the surface of their potential, and an even scarier thought is that they now are realizing the vast potential within them. That is priceless.

My village team held a meeting with the villagers to announce that we were launching One Village One Family in the village. They discussed amongst each other what our first project should be and we concluded that launching a fertilizer group would be it. The villagers’ top concern is improving the village economy, so starting off with a group that would provide some jobs and money to families would be a great way to build initial credibility within the village.

About a week later, the pastor of my church approached me about helping me to replicate this model throughout the province. My church is part of a national network of churches and the headquarters is in Bangkok. My local pastor informed me that the head pastor in Bangkok started a social and community development initiative where he wants every church in Thailand to take an active role in helping the community. My local pastor continued by saying that my projects appealed to him because it is grassroots based and it doesn’t call for a budget in order to do it. Apparently, Thailand doesn’t yet have a model similar to this so he is excited by the possibility of helping to replicate this project.

There are 13 districts in my province. We have churches and relationships in all 13 districts. My local pastor wants to first help me finish setting up the model before implementing it in the other 12 districts. He met with both my school and village teams and he currently comes up once a week and helps out.

What started off as a vague vision of welding the best of community development and organizing has transpired into a compelling tale of girl power as a group of teenage girls empowered and, in some regards, revolutionized their entire community. This model has unlocked the promise in everyday students and villagers just by giving them what America is all about: opportunity. The intestinal fortitude of organizing exemplified by the courage of my girls standing shoulder to shoulder with the most powerful people in the area combined with the conciliatory nature of development proves to be a potent mix going a long way towards community empowerment. I now openly wonder what Thailand would be like if OVOF and Project Hope existed in every village and every school throughout the country. That for now remains an open question, but one thing is for sure: wherever this model goes in the future, Thailand, and the greater world, will be thanking five little 17 year old female pioneers who got it all started.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Where is the Love?

Where is the love?

“How hard is it to dish out soup at food shelters?” As a devout community organizer, I’m sick and tired of my profession being disrespected. Comments like these are all too common whenever I attempt to assert my community organizing credentials to people from more “prestigious” fields. I can admit, community organizing is arguably one of the most misunderstood fields today. As a matter of fact, many people probably do not realize it’s a field. Unlike more prominent professions such as medicine, law, business, education, and athletics to name a few, community organizers humbly labor away in the dark unknowns of the world.

My professional passion combined with persistently being dissed leads me to write this column. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Heck yeah I have a chip on my shoulder! Many community organizers are underpaid, overworked, and still manage to win impressive victories for the little man, not to mention keeping the wheels of democracy turning. Is a thank you too much to ask for? Apparently yes. Let’s just stop for a moment and think about all of the different ways that community organizers make both your life and democracy better: You like having a living wage? How about affordable housing? As a minority, I LOVE having civil rights. Oh, and who doesn’t like holding powerful figures accountable? Well, if you like all of that stuff, the lions’ share of the credit goes to those community organizers who apparently enjoy spending their time dishing out soup at the local homeless shelter (although there is nothing wrong with that).

How did I get involved in this field? Well, it was in my blood. My father is very active in community affairs and he is the one who introduced me to the field. At first, I shrugged of his efforts to convert me to be a community organizer because I was interested in more scholarly pursuits at the time, like studying the ladies. However, one day my dad gave me the famous community organizer Saul Alinky’s book Rules for Radicals. This book opened my eyes to the potential of community organizing, but the most appealing aspect of organizing is the ability to have an immediate impact to help people. Unlike pursuing a career in law, government, or business I wouldn’t have to work several years before I would be in a position to make a real difference. Not only that, but I was good at it, really good at it.

In high school, I decided to try my hand at this craft by founding and organizing a group called Others’ First. Others’ First sought to organize students for volunteering in nursing homes, hospitals, Ronald McDonald House, food shelters, ect. Within two years we had about 50 students involved in volunteering in the local community. Then in college, I founded and organized a group called People Opposing Prejudice. This group sought to minimize campus prejudice’s through relationship building across ethnic, religious, and gender lines. This effort had about 20 student organizations with POP who worked together in an effort to fight prejudice. Moreover, as a result of these works I won throngs of awards and scholarships that confirmed to me that I had a gift for organizing.

Looking back, it is befitting I chose an underdog field in which to invest my life’s work. As a native Wisconsinite, I am used to being dissed. From our sports (how many straight college football bowl games have the Badgers won again?) to our culture (you haven’t lived until you tossed a cow chip or two) to our beer (it’s Milwaukee’s BEST not Milwaukee’s BEAST) to our people (fat is beautiful too!) to our politicians (I still contend that Fighting Bob Lafollette is the best U.S. senator of all time) we have habitually been insulted, teased, overlooked, mocked, underestimated, and virtually the butt of every rural, redneck joke.

So what is community organizing anyway? Let’s begin with a quote from the father of modern community organizing, Saul David Alinsky, to better appreciate our clout: “It is not the fault of the legislators that they must listen to the twenty million who are organized, for those are the loudest and, with minor exceptions, the only voices in America.” Community organizing in the broadest sense is changing the world by engaging diverse swaths of people who share common values, interests, and goals so that they can have a powerful voice in shaping the future of their community. On a day to day level, community organizers are charged with building relationships with local leaders in order to bring together community institutions such as churches, block clubs, labor unions, youth groups, neighborhood associations, and parent groups to address common issues such as improving schools, lowering crime, establishing affordable housing, having better land use, ect. Organizers bring these community institutions together by building local power groups called citizen’s organizations. These citizen’s organizations systematically build their power up by winning the issues that concern their community. Sometimes issues are won through relationship building with elected officials, but usually issues are won by force.

Where do these community organizers work? Believe it or not, there are actually many job opportunities in the field of community organizing. The largest community organizing networks in America are the Industrial Areas Foundation (, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (, Direct Action and Research Training Center (, the National Organizers Alliance (, the Center for Third World Organizing ( and the Gamaliel Foundation (, this last organization is where Sen. Barack Obama made his mark as a community organizer. These are just a few of the employment opportunities in the field, but as you can see, like any reputable profession, there are serious career opportunities in well established organizations.

Over the course of the coming months I will show community organizing its long overdue love. The field of community organizing is filled with significant contributions towards the advancement of democracy, freedom, and human rights. Some of our achievements are well known (Gandhi and Marin Luther King Jr. ring a bell anybody) and some are not so well known (thank you, Kodak, for being the case study of how to beat big business). Well, there is a lot to cover, but I’m honored to be your guide into this mysterious and marvelous world.

Obama's Community Organizing Assist

This week we saw the inauguration of America's first black president, Barack Obama. In light of this grand event, I would like to quickly illustrate community organizing's historic role in making this possible.

The seeds of the movement that culminated in Obama's presidency arguably started in the days of Harriet Tubman. Tubman created what is today known as the Underground Railroad. This was a vast network of secret housing stops spanning from the Deep South all the way through Canada in an effort to free slaves. In order to create such a network, Tubman had to organize a system of trusted caretakers and small teams of escaped slaves to pass through the dangerous South. Abolitionists and free blacks greatly aided in this process as their well organized system of "stops" and "conductors" eventually helped to free at least some 30,000 slaves.

The broader abolitionist movement that the Underground Railroad was apart of eventually led to the nation fighting a fierce civil war in order to end slavery for good in the South. This led to the formation of Jim Crow's "separate but equal" policy that would relegate blacks to second class citizenship. However, through the combined organizing efforts led by figures such as Philip A. Randolf to Martin Luther King Jr., blacks and their allies overcame Jim Crow in the 1960s through a multitude of civil rights legislation ranging from the Voting Rights Act to affirmative action.

Everyday people did not let these victories be an excuse to ease up off the pedal. Various groups stayed organized and engaged to push for further equality measures that would open up vast opportunities for minorities and women in business, education, politics, etc. These organizing efforts laid the groundwork to make Barack Obama's presidential run possible by insuring minority rights and the generation of young people who grew up in a post-civil rights era. Obama's well ran campaign took advantage of a what decades of community organizing made possible: a more equitable and diverse American society.