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We Make Change

Community Organizers Talk About What They Do--and Why

Kristin Layng Szakos

Publication Year: 2007

Community organizers work at their jobs because they are passionate, because they believe that change is possible, and because they enjoy working with people. Although it's not an occupation that leads to great wealth, community organizers can make a living at it. They get salaries, pensions and health insurance. They raise families. They do well by doing good. This book explores the world of community organizing through the voices of real people working in the field, in small towns and city neighborhoods--women and men of different races and economic backgrounds, ranging in age from those in their twenties to those in their sixties. Fourteen in-depth profiles tell the life stories of a cross-section of the diverse people who choose the life of an organizer. Other chapters, focused on issues of organizing, are tapestries of experience woven from the 81 interviews the authors conducted.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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pp. 4-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

At the risk of making our thank-yous as long as the book itself, we want to acknowledge the wonderful help and support we have received from many sources. First, of course, we thank our families—the parents who brought us up to work for a better world and the children whom we hope we have taught to do the same. ...

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pp. xi-xii

When I met Joe Szakos, it was inevitable that the question would come up: What do you do for a living? Mine was easy. I was a writer. Joe’s answer was a new one to me. He was a community organizer. I had to admit I had no idea what that meant. He said his parents had had the same reaction. ...

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pp. xiii-xvi

The anthropologist Margaret Mead is often quoted as saying: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” U.S. history is full of stories about ordinary people banding together to improve their lives and their communities—and to change the world in the process. ...

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pp. xvii-xxii

We Make Change is unique in a growing body of analytic and historical literature about community organizing that now includes several works by leading community organizers themselves. We Make Change profiles a diverse group of organizers, their perspectives, their experiences, their hopes, and their fears. ...

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1. What is Community Organizing?

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pp. 1-12

Organizers across the country struggle to find a single definition that encompasses what they do. So far, no single phrase seems to fit the bill. There are almost as many kinds of organizer as there are organizations. But all share certain core qualities: ...

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Profile: Brian Johns—A Day in the Life of a New Organizer

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pp. 13-15

We asked Brian Johns, a new organizer, to describe a typical day, to give an idea of what life is like for an organizer still learning the ropes. At the time of the interview, in October, 2003, he was an organizer for the Virginia Organizing Project. He is now Political/Community Organizing Coordinator for the Service Employees International Union District 1199P in Philadelphia. ...

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Profile: Don Elmer—35 Years and Going Strong

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pp. 16-27

Don Elmer is Organizing and Organizational Development Specialist for the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C. He lives in Issaquah, Washington. He was interviewed in May 2003. ...

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2. Where Organizers Come From: Childhood Memories

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pp. 28-42

Many of the organizers we interviewed recalled their childhood experiences as being formative in how they came to see the world, leading them to become organizers when they grew up. For many, their parents played a strong role in forming their ideas and beliefs. But their childhood experiences are incredibly varied; ...

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Profile: Teresa Erickson—Organizing in the West

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pp. 43-49

Teresa Erickson is the Staff Director for the Northern Plains Resource Council in Montana. She was interviewed at the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) Board and Staff Meeting in December 2002. ...

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3. How I Started Organizing

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pp. 50-65

We asked the organizers how they got into organizing in the first place. What was the trigger that made them choose this line of work? For some, it was just how they grew up; organizing ran in the family. For others, it was the time they grew up in. In the 1960s and ’70s, change was in the air, and many young people were caught up in creating it. ...

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Profile: Nicholas Graber-Grace—Organizing with ACORN in Florida

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pp. 66-68

We asked Nicholas Graber-Grace, a new organizer, to describe a typical day, to give an idea of what life in an urban, membership-based organization is like for an organizer still learning the ropes. At the time of the interview, he was the Lead Organizer with Orlando ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). ...

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Profile: Kelly (Corley) Pokharel—Just Starting Out

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pp. 69-72

Kelly (Corley) Pokharel is the Executive Director of CASA of McHenry County (Illinois). At the time of this interview in December 2002, she was an organizer for the Northern Plains Resource Council in Montana, where she had been working for six months. ...

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4. Why Organize?

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pp. 73-84

We asked the organizers why they do this kind of work. What is it that keeps them at it day after day, year after year, when others lose heart or follow other paths? ...

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Profile: Rhonda Anderson—Organizing for Environmental Justice

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pp. 85-92

Rhonda Anderson is an Environmental Justice Organizer for the Sierra Club. She has been organizing off and on for twenty-five years, first as a labor organizer with the Service Employees International Union, and since 2000 as a community organizer for the Sierra Club. She lives in Detroit. She was interviewed in August 2003 at a Dismantling Racism workshop in Albany, New York. ...

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5. What Makes a Good Organizer?

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pp. 93-109

So what makes a person a good organizer? What personality traits, what skills, what attitudes do you need to do this job well? These questions generated a lot of different kinds of answers. ...

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Profile: Vivian Chang—Bridging Cultures

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pp. 110-116

I am a second-generation child of Taiwanese parents. I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area. My grandmother survived by sewing clothes, and was widowed at a very young age. She made it on her own sheer power, and I draw a lot of my strength from her and from my great-grandmother and from my mother ...

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6. Changing Lives While Making Change

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pp. 117-129

We asked the organizers to share stories of their proudest achievements in organizing. Many told stories of issue victories—battles won, laws passed, communities protected. But just as often, their stories told of more personal victories—the transformation of individual lives. ...

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Profile: Guillermo Quinteros—Urban Organizing in the Northeast

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pp. 130-136

Guillermo Quinteros was the Executive Director of the Commonwealth Education Project/Commonwealth Coalition in Boston when he was interviewed in September 2003. ...

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Profile: Jana Adams—Faith in the City

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pp. 137-143

Jana Adams is the Training Coordinator for the Direct Action and Research Training Center Network, a national network of grassroots, metropolitan, congregation- based, community organizations spread throughout the United States. She is based in Dayton, Ohio. She was interviewed in February 2006. ...

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Profile: Scott Douglas—Organizing in the South

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pp. 144-155

I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on December 4, 1946. My nickname as a child was “Baby Douglas” because my father and mother could not agree on a name for me before we left the hospital. So I was signed out of the hospital as “Baby Douglas” and that stuck. ...

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7. Achievements and Victories

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pp. 156-181

We asked the organizers to tell us stories of their proudest achievements. The stories they tell represent a great cross-section of American organizing: a broad range of issues and constituencies using people power to get things changed. ...

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Profile: Dave Mann—Consulting (Life After Organizing)

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pp. 182-188

Dave Mann is the former Director of the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action. He now works as an independent consultant to community organizations. He lives in Minneapolis and was interviewed in February 2003. ...

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8. Disappointments Are Inevitable

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pp. 189-196

Kind of a big, general frustration is that work at the grassroots level is so intense and involved, and it can be so painstakingly slow to achieve what seem like really small victories, when people with a lot of power, money, and influence can walk into an office and pretty much get exactly what they want in one visit. ...

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Profile: Jerome Scott—Educating a Movement

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pp. 197-201

Vietnam was the place that totally changed my life. Before going to Vietnam I was basically just a person that didn’t really think. But while I was in Vietnam someone asked me, “Why are you here?” And I couldn’t answer that question. Ever since that point, I determined that no matter what I was doing or where I was, if anybody ever asked me what am I doing this for, I will have a reason for it. ...

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9. Advice to Aspiring Organizers

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pp. 202-219

Each of the organizers was asked what advice they would give to someone who wanted to become a community organizer. Some of the advice is directed at high school or college students, some to people considering a mid-career change to organizing. Altogether, their advice draws on a great wealth of experience shared with those who might join them one day. ...

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Profile: Abigail Singer—A Young Organizer in Appalachia

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pp. 220-222

Abigail Singer was interviewed six months into her first full-time job as an organizer. She was the Coordinator of Organizing for the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance in Tennessee. As the book goes to press, she is still an organizer, now with Katuah Earth First!, a campaign to stop mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. ...

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Profile: Dave Beckwith—Funding Community Organizing

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pp. 223-232

Dave Beckwith is a long-time organizer who now works as Executive Director of the Needmor Fund, a foundation that funds community organizing across the country. He lives in Toledo, Ohio, and was interviewed in June 2003. ...

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What Organizers Read and Watch

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pp. 233-242

We asked our interviewees to think of books they would recommend to someone considering becoming an organizer or to someone who has been in organizing for some time. The variety of books they named is staggering. Ancient Chinese philosophy, the Bible, modern corporate management manuals, novels, poetry—even some books about organizing! ...

Where Organizers Work

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pp. 243-248

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What They're Doing Now

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pp. 249-264

Lisa Abbott is the Organizing and Leadership Development Director for Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. From her Berea, Kentucky, office, she coordinates the leadership development training programs and supervises organizers working in offices in Whitesburg, Louisville, Lexington, and Richmond. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780826592248
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826515544

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 116 illustrations
Publication Year: 2007