Um, about those community organizers…

The Republican National Convention is all over the news (obviously) and as usual with big stories, a few big sound-bites have emerged.  Some of these involve the hilarious idea that someone would waste their time as a community organizer.  Community organization — ha, what a joke, right?

Um, about that . . .

Leaving the politics aside, it was a pretty sorry sight to see people like Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin not only mocking Barack Obama for having worked as a community organizer, but apparently mocking the very idea of anyone working as a community organizer.  While I assume the comments came from the desire to jab at Obama rather than any deep-seated antipathy toward community organizations or community development (I hope so, at any rate), they were a low blow — both mean-spirited and misleading.  In an effort to present a clearer picture of community work and the people involved in it, I wanted to take a quick look at the role of community organizations in HIV/AIDS efforts and similar essential causes.

First, here’s a brief excerpt from an article by Pakisa K. Tshimika (a public health worker in Africa) called “Community Organization and Christian Leadership.” *

Community organization means “a process by which a community identifies its needs or objectives, orders (ranks) these needs or objectives, develops the confidence and will to work at these needs or objectives, finds the resources (internal and/or external) to deal with these needs or objectives, takes action in respect to them and in so doing extends and develops cooperative and collaborative attitudes and practices in the community.”1 The key in this definition is involvement of all parties, participation from everyone in the community. But why is participation such a big issue?

In community organization, we generally assume that the community is itself a better judge of its own needs. People know what they want and perhaps they also know how to solve their own problems. But if the community can take care of itself, one can ask, does it really need an outsider to come in and start community projects?

There are two realities that most communities face. Some communities lack people with a long-term vision for the {89} community. Other communities have many visionaries who want to have things done their way or else they will not participate in the common projects. Consequently, the need is for someone who works with the people, not for them, one who cares for the hurts and the joys of the people.

I think this is a great description of what community organization/community development can and should be about.  I enthusiastically recommend the whole article, which has some great tips and examples on working within communities, as well as reflection on what all this means for Christian leaders in particular.

Bearing all this in mind, here are some links to sights that either discuss or exemplify the role of community organization in HIV/AIDS efforts.  This is hardly an exhaustive list, or even a representative sample — just some of the results of a quick Google search.

Finally, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) has released a statement objecting to Giuliani and Palin’s comments.  Here’s an excerpt (read the whole thing here):

ACORN members, leaders and staff are extremely disappointed that Republican leaders would make such condescending remarks on the great work community organizers accomplish in cities throughout this country. […] Through community organizing, people are empowered to take action to solve their own problems, develop leadership skills and make decisions that improve their lives and their communities.

Regardless of political affiliation, I hope that from this point forward politicians and the public alike will demonstrate respect for community organizations and their work.
 

* The article was originally published Fall 1990 in Vol. 19, No. 2 of Direction journal, which is run by several Canadian and American Mennonite Brethren educational institutions.

** Excerpt: “The nation’s capital is in the midst of a modern-day HIV-AIDS epidemic. In a city of 600,000 people, the District of Columbia has more than 12,000 cases, and 81 percent of them are African-Americans. That’s why community organizers like Terry Hawkins of the Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church are trying to get to young people before it’s too late.”

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~ by h.e.g. on September 5, 2008.

One Response to “Um, about those community organizers…”

  1. Here’s a post I found that also discusses community organization from a Christian point of view: http://thechurchofjesuschrist.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/i-was-a-community-organizer/.

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