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Social Worker Op-ed: WHAT IS A COMMUNITY ORGANIZER?

The op-ed below was submitted to local media by Richard Cook, University of Maryland School of Social Work. This link to resulting article in the Baltimore Sun: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/local/bal-md.vozzella07sep07,0,6995248.column

This week the nation is hearing again that Barack Obama started his work on human concerns in Chicago as a community organizer. While the world is familiar with what a soldier does, or what a lawyer or a stockbroker does, not as many are familiar with the world of community organizing and whether or not it is a suitable starting place for someone taking on major responsibilities in political life.

At the University of Maryland School of Social Work we have been training community organizers for nearly 50 years. A number of them have found their way into politics including the Senior Senator from Maryland Barbara Mikulski, a deputy mayor of Baltimore, and several state legislators. In addition, others such as Wendy Sherman, a former ambassador, and Jody Olsen, the deputy director of the Peace Corps, were trained as community organizers.

What is a community organizer and why does someone choose a job of community organizing?

Just as medicine is a profession dedicated to restoring health to the human body, community organizing is dedicated to restoring democracy at the grassroots level, to re-energizing citizens as an active part of the community. Community organizers focus on bringing about concrete changes in peoples’ lives, fixing broken systems, and changing power relationships so that unengaged people despairing of their lack of power can become re-engaged.

Community organizers work to unite local people around their common concerns. Sometimes the concerns involve dealing with crime and renewing citizens’ ability to live safely and securely in their own homes and neighborhoods. Sometimes the concerns involve insuring that the community’s children get to schools safely and have a quality education when they get there. Sometimes the concerns involve reducing unwanted and illegal trash dumping or eliminating toxic wastes from the community.

Community organizers are trained listen to people, really listen. They start where people are, not where organizers think they ought to be. Community organizers help people to meet, to articulate their concerns, voicing their hopes and fears. This collective articulation forms the starting point for what the community will do. Community organizers model an attitude of discovery and encourage people to try things and to learn from failure until they get it right. Organizers do not take themselves too seriously and frequently inject humor into this process to relieve the inevitable stress, and they encourage people to look at things from different perspectives, finding common interests with people they might not have worked with before.

In this process, new possibilities emerge, and old divisions are overcome as people bridge racial, religious, economic, and political divides to build new realities that reflect all their interests. Go into any neighborhood, talk to the residents, and they will talk to you with pride about their community library, playground, garden, or block watch program. This is the result of community organizing as is the spirit that people exhibit as they proudly invest in their neighborhoods.

Community organizers look for resources within communities. As a result they are often ignored or forgotten by the market or the government. Actually, this is perhaps where the community organizer does his/her magic. Because community organizers spend their time engaging disengaged and marginalized people, they frequently identify/uncover/release resources that were previously unavailable or unidentified. In this way community organizers bring new resources to bear on community problems and issues. Sometimes those are individual resources and talents. Sometimes they are resources of community organizations and institutions. Community organizers are the ones who prove to communities that they suffer under a myth of lack of resources. Community organizers explode the myth by helping people to see and use the resources they have inside themselves and in their relationships.

Is this kind of experience important for the highest office in the land? Is it important that our next President be dedicated to restoring democracy so that everyone’s voice counts? Is it important that the next President be a good listener and understand what people are capable of? Is it important that our next President understand how to get people of different backgrounds and political persuasions to work together in everybody’s common interest? Is it important that the next President is capable of helping people to see the world in a new way? Is it important that the next President be someone who is capable of helping us discover new resources? Is it important that the next President be someone who can move us from despair to hope and to inspire us to create a better world for ourselves and our children?

These seem to be exactly the skills that the nation needs right now. ____________

By Richard Cook, MSW

Richard Cook, MSW, a community organizer with more than 35 years of experience, is the director of the Social Work Community Outreach Service, (SWCOS) at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. SWCOS, the School’s 15-year-old outreach service has helped Maryland’s underserved families, groups, individuals and communities, using a variety of methods including community organizing.

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