In my last post I listed the programme for the community organising course. Here’s a story which illustrates a bit of what it was all about.
To begin with I was a bit surprised at the extent to which the course leaders emphasised our thinking through our own commitment and reasons for wishing to do community organising (CO). For some, the intensity of the focus on individual motivation was difficult. There were tears, and not everyone lasted for the length of the course (some left really quite early on). Our personal stories, we were told, would help us understand not only the issues we had to deal with, but our own motivation.
We were encourage to think about the issues not just in intellectual, rational terms, but also in emotional terms. That meant that some leaders would challenge individual participants in a very personal way. Whether my cultural background or my personality, I found I was a bit uneasy with this at times. I wondered if it had to do with the evangelical religious background of many of those taking part. Sometimes I began to think about those daytime television shows where people confess their family secrets (eg Jeremy Kyle here in Britain). But perhaps I was being unfair. Maybe it was something cultural. And maybe I had had other expectations
So here’s a story to illustrate how this process could be enlightening. In one session, the instructor was challenging Brad to try to identify what it was in his ‘guts’ which motivated his involvement in CO. Strangely, Brad was having trouble articulating his gut motivation. Brad was a member of the smaller group I was in (we split into smaller groups for certain activities). If you were looking in on our group, you would, perhaps, have identified Brad as the one with most leadership potential. Despite being one of the younger participants (he had recently graduated from grad school) he was clearly very intelligent, personable, articulate, and confident and confident. At college, inspired by Barak Obama, he’d helped refound the student Democrats society, registering students to vote during the last Presidential campaign. He had recently begun to work as a community organiser in his home city of Cleveland.
Yet as the course progressed, Brad seemed to lose a bit of his sparkle. He shared some of the disappointments he’d experienced in his work so far (for CO is not easy work). In one session, he was pushed by an instructor to identify his ‘gut’ reasons. He spoke of having studied politics and his interest in urban issues. That, I’d have thought, would have been reason enough for someone to want to do CO in his urban Cleveland setting. But the instructor (I thought, a bit unfairly) pushed, rather aggressively, for more, in way I thought was a bit unfair. When they both gave up, Brad seemed visibly deflated. During all this, however, I felt I, in fact, had something close to the answer for Brad. Had I not been a Scottish Presbyterian, I might have shared it with Brad and the whole group- but the thought of that made me uncomfortable. Instead, I sat silent until the session broke up, and then found Brad and took him to a quiet corner.
Now, I had only known Brad for a few days. But near the beginning of the course, we had paired off (entirely coincidentally!) for an exercise about the nature of power. Again, taking what seemed to me to be a very personalistic or individualistic approach, we had been asked to talk to a partner about experiences when we felt powerful and powerless. (This kind of exercise reminded me of some of my classes at Princeton, where I often got the impression that the personal experience of students was talked about and taken more seriously than in my theology classes in Glasgow).
So Brad and I- who before this had hardly shared a word, and who came from very different places (literally!)- told each other about times we felt powerful and powerless. I cannot remember the other stories (including my own!). But I do remember the story Brad told me about his experience of powerlessness.
(Some background: already I had heard at the CO course about the policing impacts so very negatively on poor communities in the US, and especially how it impacts on black men. The figures for incarceration of young black men across the US are truly shocking. This was an issue which a number of participants in the course were involved with in the community work they were doing, eg by working with people on release from prison, campaigning on policies affecting released prisoners (such as restrictions on voting, or job opportunities) or working to reform, or on projects within, the prison system, or find ways to enable young black men to avoid a brush with the law. At least one participant on the course- now training to be a CO- was a young black man, a ‘returning citizen’, who had served time in prison, including (astonishingly) more than three and a half years of his five year sentence in solitary confinement).
When it came Brad’s turn to talk about his feeling of powerless, he at first struggled to think of a story. But then he told me a story which, I think, he had not spoken or consciously thought about much for some time.
Brad told me how he came from a racially-mixed middle-class black family. He’d been brought up in a prosperous suburb of Cleveland, mixing easily with his white contemporaries at school. His race rarely seems to have been an issue for him. During his last hear at high school, he and a white friend had gone for a trip in his friend’s father’s car- goofing around, as you do at that stage! They had, Brad told me, taken a wrong turning, and found themselves unexpectedly in a ‘wrong’ part of town- a poor, mainly black, neighbourhood. (At this point in the story I couldn’t help but think of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities).
They had not gone far before they had a police car behind them, signalling to them to pull over. They stopped the car, and the police car stopped some distance in front of the them. The cop walked up to their car (usually there is only one cop in American police cars, whereas in Scotland there are usually two, due to the corroboration rule in Scots law). He told Brad’s friend (who was driving) to get out and sit in the cop car, which he did. The cop then got Brad to get out of the car. Brad was required to spreadeagle across the bonnet and was searched. He was handcuffed, and roughly handled, so that his wrists bled. The cop threatened him with arrest on a trumped-up charge. That, Brad knew, would be the end of his college ambitions. Any hope of a careers seemed to be evaporating. It was all completely unjust, yet he could do nothing about it, for he was totally in the power of this white cop who had him in handcuffs. For this articulate, intelligent, thoughtful young man, it was an experience of complete humiliation and powerlessness.
The cop’s problem was that he simply could not understand why a white boy and a black boy would be driving around that neighbourhood at that time of night. Eventually, he let the two boys go.
So wBrad had struggled to articulate his gut reason for his involvement in CO, I found myself compelled to seek him out at the end of the session. I told him I though I had a clue to his gut reasons. It was the story he had told me, the story he’d struggled to remember. It seemed to me that Brad loved the city- he’d studied urban issues, and he was clearly proud of his home city of Cleveland, despite its many problems. And he could identify with those who felt powerless, for he had been there too. I felt a bit diffident about offering what was, in a sense, some pastoral direction to someone I hardly knew and who lived a world away. But I think- I hope- it helped.
When Brad’ told me his story, I was astonished. I had heard that such things happened- indeed, they often do happen. Incidents like this ruin the lives of many people. As Brad told me the story, I found it incredible that that policeman should have treated Brad- this articulate young man who was telling me the story- in such a way. It made me angry, and I realised just how get angry I get that human beings should treat other human beings like that. As I reflected on Brad’s story over the next few days, I found it enabled me to feel some of my ‘gut’ motivations and deep beliefs.
I’m grateful to Brad Davy for allowing me to share his experience on my blog.