Community organising training 1

On Sunday 17 June, I attended church at University Christian Church, and then had my meeting with Congressman Geoff Davis. Pastor Troy Jackson then picked me up from northern Kentucky, and after brief stops at his home and to buys some fast food so we could lunch in the journey, drove me to Columbus, Ohio for the week long course in Community Organising in Columbus. We drove through a torrential thunderstorm, which had many drives pulling off the highway, such was the violence of the weather. This has been a long, hot summer in the USA this year, with long periods of extreme heat punctuated by such violent storms which often caused a great deal of damage, not least to power networks. Not the best weather for farmers! A memorable sight along Interstate  71 were two giant advertising boards, obviously put up by a local farmer, containing the text of the Ten Commandments.

The community organising course was run by the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, a grouping of community organisations, unions, faith groups and others from across Ohio. Their annual report explains their history, achievements, and the kind of issues they are dealing with, and their ambition:

Formed in 2007, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC) is an innovative and experimental statewide organization that unites community organizing groups, labor unions, faith organizations, and policy institutes across the state.  The OOC currently consists of fourteen member organizations with members in every major metropolitan area and also houses one of the nation’s largest progressive movement building projects.

The OOC was formed around three basic ideas.  One, that community, faith, labor, and policy organizations must commit to a long term permanent alliance as opposed to coming together sporadically around the latest campaign, contract fight, or election.  Second, there is a need for innovation in the field of community organizing that addresses issues of scale, nimbleness, layered strategies, electoral capacity, and breadth of
leadership development.  And last, we cannot build a progressive movement in this country without the middle of the country. We must develop an economic and organizing agenda that address de-industrialization and the decades long decline of urban cores in the Midwest.

In five years, the OOC has become a leading statewide organizing model and has emerged as a significant force in shaping Ohio public policy.  It has brought together thousands of people across faith, labor, and neighborhood lines to collaborate on issues and campaigns ranging from community benefit agreements to big bank accountability to vacant properties and social disparities of health.  In the fall of 2011, the OOC launched its statewide jobs campaign holding events that drew more than 3,000 people in five cities.  The OOC’s job campaign is a long term strategy to fundamentally change the economic narrative in Ohio, reverse more than a decade of disinvestment in public infrastructure, and create an economy that works for all Ohioans.   The OOC also has a sister 501c4, The Ohio Organizing Campaign, that played a key role in the repeal of SB5, Ohio’s anti-collective bargaining bill in 2011.

Community organising (CO) is where people in a local area come together in order to cause change for the better for their neighbourhood. Usually found in poor urban areas, community organising groups seek to enable people to take on powerful forces which have been affecting their communities. Protest is part of it, but unlike most protest movements, the attempt is made to generate power which can be used to influence key decision-makers, such as local officials and politicians or corporations. Coalitions are built among the existing institutions in the neighbourhood, such as trade unions and faith organisations.

The key word in all this is power. The CO philosophy takes a harsh and realistic understanding of power. It’s understood that it is the (mis)use of power by which causes poverty, deprivation, and the slow death or destruction of neighbourhoods. The organiser’s job is to so organise the community- which will consist of people who often feel powerless and overwhelmed by the problems facing them and their community- so as to create power to effect change. For some involved in CO, this understanding of power will mesh in which theological understandings of power (e.g. the ‘powers and principalities’ language of the New Testament (Ephesians 6.12)). But because the CO movement brings together people from different agencies in a community, it’s not necessary to have such a theological background. Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizingby Dennis A. Jacobsen (Fortress Press 2001) gives a Christian theological justification for involvement in CO.

The CO movement certainly has a lot of church involvement, reflecting the fact that churches are often major centres of community life in poor communities in the US, particularly in areas where there is much higher adherence to religious bodies that is the case in most of Europe. Those participating in the weeklong training I attended included Protestant clergy and lay people of from evangelical, Pentecostal and liberal churches, Roman Catholics and Unitarians; and in CO other religious faiths are often involved. For example, I had an early conversation with one young man who ran a personal development project which seemed heavily influenced by Rastafarianism. Some of the religious people were there because their church was deeply involved in local organising; for others, their faith had led them into involvement community organisations and projects.

Other participants in the course were not motivated by faith, but had been organisers in student politics, or were motivated by strong feelings about other movements. So, for example, there was the young man who had a passion for green issues, who was involved in a project to create gardens and smallholdings on abandoned urban land- urban farms, if you will, which would both improve the environment and be a source of cheap food for people in a poor urban area. And there was a woman whose feminist philosophy had led her into an education and information project about women’s health.

The course lasted from Sunday evening to Friday afternoon, and promised to be hectic, according to the schedule sent out in the training packet beforehand:

Tentative Schedule (Session Times Subject to Change)

Sunday, June 17
6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.; Dinner
7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.; Opening Session

Monday, June 18
8:00 a.m. – 8:50 a.m.; Breakfast
9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.; Story of Self
10:45 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.; Self-Interest
12:30 p.m. – 1:20 pm.; Lunch
1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.; One to Ones
5:00 p.m. – 6:20 p.m.; Dinner
6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.; Evening Plenary (The Big Lie)

Tuesday, June 19
8:00 a.m. – 8:50 a.m.; Breakfast
9:00 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.; The Melian Dialogue
10:45 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.; Power
12:30 p.m. – 1:20 p.m.; Lunch
1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.; Small Group Breakouts
3:15 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.; Power Organizations
5:15 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.; Dinner

Wednesday, June 20
8:00 a.m. – 8:50 a.m.; Breakfast
9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.; Issues and Actions
12:30 p.m. – 1:20 p.m.; Lunch
1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.; House Meetings (Action Preparation)
2:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.; Plenary
3:30 p.m.; Load Busses for Action
5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.; Dinner
7:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.; Debrief Action

Thursday, June 21
8:00 a.m. – 8:50 a.m.; Breakfast
9:00 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.; Debrief Direct Action
9:30 a.m. – 10:45 a.m.; Effective Meetings
11:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.; Propositions
12:30 p.m. – 1:20 p.m.; Lunch
1:30 p.m. – 2:45 p.m.; Propositions II
3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.; Agitation
5:15 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.; Dinner
7:30 p.m. – Until; Party

Friday, June 22
8:00 a.m. – 8:50 p.m.; Breakfast
9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.; Story of Now
10:45 am. – 12:00 pm.; Leadership Action Plans
12:30 p.m. – 1:20 p.m.; Lunch
1:30 p.m. – 2:15 p.m.; Evaluation and Closing

It turned out to be even more work than I had anticipated. It didn’t help me that a noisy room meant that I couldn’t sleep on the first night- I’m not sure I remember much of the Monday, and skipped the Monday evening session because I felt quite ill. However a change of room had me more or less back to normal by the Tuesday! And in any of the spare time, we were asked to do ‘One to Ones’: finding partners to interview, to practice the technique of using individual conversations to bring people on board

There was some teaching about issues of power, and the ‘lies’ which often operate in the world to keep the  poor down (much of this inspired by Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.). However the focus was on training, since everyone there had been nominated as someone who was either already a leader in their community, or had the potential to become one (or a more effective leader). So the focus was on developing leadership: both our personalities (with a lot of attention on what motivate us) and in practical skills. In my next post I’ll describe the course content and my reflections on it.

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About Rev Peter W Nimmo

Minister of Old High St Stephen's Church, Inverness, Scotland, UK www.oldhighststephens.com
This entry was posted in African Americans, Columbus. Ohio, Community Organising, Evangelicals, Poverty, race, Theology, Urban and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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