From the Grassroots: Understanding the Challenges

A puzzle has the word community on a blue background.

Helping people and communities develop the tools to shape their own futures has long been a focus of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The following edited transcript is from one of seven videos by Mott in which those working in the field of community organizing reflect on the lessons, opportunities and challenges for creating lasting social change.

Question: What are the key challenges facing the field?

Dee Washington
Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods
Greensboro/Winston-Salem, North Carolina

For the work that we do, we need help building momentum. We’re helping people, doing things on the ground and we need support, both financially and “people power.” We need people to galvanize with us, and not just those we’re helping, but also organizers — we need help to connect with the communities. There are so few people who support the field, who get it and who understand that those doing the work are passionate about it. And if you don’t have people who are passionate, then you’ve got a flood gate of problems in this country that nobody is really dealing with. Those organizers who are on the frontlines every day, lifting up folks and helping them to organize themselves, they need support. And I’m trying to help them, but the tools and resources I need to help them, I don’t even have. It really is about making a difference in the world, but try changing the world when all you have is a “rock and a twig” — it’s really hard.

Leone Jose Bicchieri
Chicago Workers’ Collaborative
Chicago, Illinois

Resources are a challenge. The recession has hit foundations, but also individual donors. People who used to give us a couple of hundred dollars a year are saying, “It might be $50 or $75, don’t take it personally.” At the same time, I think that we’re tested in moments of difficulty. In the field, we’re used to a certain model of organizing: “Let’s have a house meeting, let’s get three people, what is the percentage of leaders,” and all of that. So now what are we going to do? Are we going to be able to keep things going in the face of even more adversity? I think that sometimes in the face of that adversity, you feel fear at first, but the great leaders understand that once we go a little bit into that fear, we can actually come out stronger than before. I’m looking at the situation as challenging, but maybe it will force us to think of things we’ve never thought of before and help unleash the other types of resources we have in the community.

Dianne Swan
Rosedale Block Cluster, Inc.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

We have the responsibility of not only organizing our community, but also going out and making those connections that help the community to create change. We can’t let segregation, isolation and marginalization deny all of us that opportunity — we need each other for the strength and unity of organizing our communities. I see a rich opportunity for organizing. Just looking around and seeing how people are eager to get involved, but that they need to be shown the way. I wasn’t involved until I said, “This is enough, this is an outrage. We can’t take this anymore. Where do I get involved?” As organizers, it’s our responsibility to make sure that people who feel that same way are identified and that their passion is utilized to make some of the changes that need to be made.