Despite popular misconception, community organizers do have actual responsibilities and are accountable to others. They include conservatives and liberals and all of the political and social commitments in between. First and foremost they are accountable to the communities they represent. They are also accountable to the organizations to which they belong and/or for whom they work. Finally, in large cities, community organizers are often also accountable to the city and/or state officials because they are called upon to represent their communities to the Mayor, State Review Boards, the Governor’s Office, etc. and those relationships help ensure that community organizing works. Often their ability to be transparent, consistent, and honest are key to their success; sadly, the same cannot be said for many politicians.
Community organizers also help ensure the equality, safety, and empowerment of their constituencies. They organize around issues as varied as safe parks and schools to voter registration and voter accuracy to tried and true causes like Domestic and Sexual Violence and Fiscal accountability. They are the base of any movement, political or social, in every town, large or small and they have grown into some of our most influential and important national figures. When they fail to be accountable or engage in fiscal mismanagement they are often publicly rebuked and removed from their positions unlike politicians who often hide their behavior under bureaucratic red tape or talking points.
Community organizers are sometimes unpaid and more often underpaid for the work they do. Their hours are long as they have to accommodate constituents, emergencies, and changes in strategies and venues. They develop some of the strongest coalition building skills of anyone involved in civic work because they have to work closely with ideologues, establishment, rich, poor, the hurt, the angry, the apathetic, and the uncaring to accomplish their goals. And in many places and many time periods they are the bravest among us because they have done nation and world changing work under threat. Thus they are often the most prepared for phone calls at 3 am because they are used to getting them.
More than that, many community organizers have been the first and strongest defense against the assault on the rights of marginalized people. They ensure that library facilities are built and maintained, rather than stripped of controversial books by civic leaders overstepping their bounds. They ensure teachers, police, and politicians are accountable to the communities they serve and that schools teach curriculum that helps students get into college and move into the real world successfully. They have ensured the building of shelters and passing of legislation to protect women and children from violence, instead of depending on a sympathetic politician to come along or worse having one veto the building of those shelters or compromise their work through personal agendas. They have protected workers rights against illegal work hours and payscales and death in 100+ degree weather so people can have a cheap glass of red wine after work. They were the first into battle against the spread of HIV and AIDS as well as homelessness amongst N. America’s youth. While some politicians were vetoing shelters for homeless and pregnant youth, community organizers were helping build semi-autonomous villages that complied with city ordinance or shelters or working on the entrenched systemic issues that led to homelessness in the first place. While some politicians were voting against increased spending for vet health care or covering up failures of care at the VA, both veteran and non-serving community organizers brought those failures to light and have fought for reforms time and again. In fact, community organizers who are veterans have been some of the most vocal against wars like Vietnam and Iraq while politicians continue to promise unending war and have exposed sexism and racism in the military while politicians continue to fund private militaries implicated in both. Community organizers have drawn attention to the violation of state and national labor laws in the garment industry and the agricultural industry and the trafficking of workers in the poultry industry while politicians praise migrant workers in speeches and stir up anti-immigrant sentiment and back anti-immigrant laws in their voting record and other speeches. Community organizers have consistently fought at the local, state, and national level for compliance with the ADA. The list of important civic work they do is endless.
Without community organizers many people in N. America would have no voice at the local or the national stage. Marginalized women – poor, rural, teen mothers, differently-abled women, elders, indigenous women, woc, adjudicated women and girls, etc. – have gained the most from the work community organizers do. While at the same time, their work has benefited every group making up this nation.
I’ve highlighted a lot of community organizers and activists on this blog throughout its existence. Just yesterday, I announced an event in Texas to honor three of them, one of whom is an amazing woman of faith. I’ve put several people in this post to help highlight the range of activism and point you to some cool work being done by community organizers as well as two women who have been left out of the herstory of women’s political leadership in this country and another who was a significant female figure in the Democratic party, who all though she did not run made huge inroads for representation in the party. In the midst of all the election hype, take some time out to think
about who the community organizers are in your area and why their work has been so important.
(I’ve left the citations in large print so you can see, and thus follow, the links; all photos were unattributed except where indicated.)
- eme lybarger of CELDF
- Hee-Pok Kim Bus Riders Union. Kendrick Wong | Daily Trojan
- Maria Varela civil rights activist
- Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the women who paved the way for Clinton and Palin but got no credit from either
- Susan Avila-Smith Women Organizing Women Veteran’s Advocacy
- Maritza Sylva students against sweatshops and Freespace (youth based organization)
- Harriet McBryde Johnson legal activist, anti-charity disability rights activist, and occasional writer for the NYT
- Winona LaDuke former VP Candidate, White Earth Land Recovery Project