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Reflections: Community Organizing

This week, I attended a gathering of representatives from area congregations who are having conversations about community organizing. The coordinator of these efforts is Rabbi Joel Moshbacher, from Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, in Mahwah, NJ. I went to check things out and see if I could potentially find a small group from FLUMC to join me. Mike Gecan, from Industrial Areas Foundation provided leadership and training for us. I found the conversation intriguing - I'm not (as I discovered) familiar at all with the process of community organizing, even though I had some assumption or ideas about what it involved.

Mike started by making note of community organizing in the current presidential campaigns. He talked about community organizing as a Broad Based Power Organization. Broad: more than one faith, race, kind, group, etc. Power: ability to act. Good intentions not enough. Organization: built of institutions. Institutions not individuals. Moderates are in institutions. Things are decided by moderates. Can't just be activists - that's too small, and activists alone can alienate moderates. Institutions have leaders, money, and a values base that can raise questions in the public arena.

Community organizing needs a financial base - Money. Dues. Hard $. Not fundraising. Not donations. A commitment to the group through dues. Financial independence.

Community organizing has a mix of leaders. Not one charismatic leader. A collective, a strategy team.

Community organizing enables the group to address a range of issues. Local and broad issues, but not just one issue.

Deep understanding of issues. Finding leaders. Establishing relationships. Conversation in the round - what bubbles up as a need of the community? The beginning of action in community organizing is local.

1) Build a base. (This is where we are at right now.)
2) Do Listening (Who else thinks what I think? What do you need? You act based on what others want to do. You have to have a significant base to act or change won't take place.) Joining similar issues. Throwing support together.
3) Power/Analysis/Research/Action
4) Win!

I'm intrigued by the conversation, and thinking about not only how our congregation could participate in community organizing, but also about how some of these strategies could be used in a single congregation. Some of it - well, it isn't what I want to think works, if that makes sense. I don't want to think in terms of institutions and moderates and needing to have a base for some changes to happen. But it does have me thinking and wondering.

Do any of you have experience with community organizing? What was it like? A good experience? A model that works?


Eric Helms said…
I have had conversations with Joel as well. If I wasn't leaving the area would have been at the meeting.
I was involved in an IAF group, Durham CAN (Communities, Associations, and Neighborhoods), while in Seminary. After just a few years, they had built a broad base of people. They were able to set yearly goals and come up with strategies to implement the goals.
One example was a request to meet with all city council reps. Once the city council realized how many people were united, they would not pass up the opportunity. At that meeting, the group was firm and clear. They wanted after school programs, cleaner parks, etc. They made a realistic set of agenda items and had each council member sign that they would work to meet these goals. At the end of the year they hosted another meeting, re-read the goals, and invited the city council members to individually answer before the group about how they met the goals set before them--it was great. It was neat to see community and democracy working the way I think it is supposed to. I suspect it only works when people care enough about like issues to stand together and fight for them. If you have been in on discussions about the kinds of things IAF might do in Bergen County, I would like to hear about it.
Eric Helms said…
Sorry, CAN--Congragations, Associations and Neighborhoods.
Eric Helms said…
Congregations! Okay, now I am just building up your number of comments...
Beth Quick said…
Hey, I'll take all the comments - make me look good ;) - thanks so much for sharing your experience. That's exciting to hear, and I'm hoping this gets going as well.
Don Yeager said…
Look up Luther K. Snow and his book, "The Power of Asset Mapping" published by Alban Institute. He's written some others.

He has a background in community organizing in Chicago but now works with a lot of congregations.

He lives in Decorah, Iowa.

I met him last weekend in a workshop and he led us through the asset-mapping process. It was really helpful. It focuses not on a community's "needs" (deficiencies) but its assets. It's a glass half-full rather than glass half-empty approach.

He is associated with the Asset Based Community Development Institute (John McKnight & Jody Kretzmann) at Northwestern University.
Joel said…
Great to see your blog, and the reflections on the meeting here!! I look forward to continuing the exploration, with OFLIC, and others...

Sorry to hear Eric is leaving the area...

(If you get a chance and want to check out my blog it's

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