Exploring, expanding and sustaining the power of individuals to direct their own futures is a key focus of the field of community organizing. Christine Doby, a program officer with Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s Pathways Out of Poverty Program, discusses in the following Q&A the various issues and strategies related to building these organized communities. The interview was conducted by Mott Communications Officer Duane Elling.
Mott: What is “community organizing?”
Cristine Doby (CD): At its core, organizing is about building relationships among people and institutions, and transforming those relationships into organizations capable of taking action on their members’ behalf. These member-driven organizations use democratic decision-making methods to identify the issues or concerns they want to address, as well as the strategies for doing so.
Mott: How is organizing different from lobbying or advocacy?
CD: One of the key distinctions involves focus. For example, lobbying and advocacy groups usually come together around a specific issue or set of issues. People can join campaigns and receive training to become actively involved, but the issues themselves — which often relate to specific pieces of public legislation — are the center of the work.
In community organizing, the focus is on engaging and training people to see themselves as leaders in their families and communities. They then identify what issues they want to work on — instead of what someone else says they should work on — and create meaningful solutions. This helps build and sustain democratic participation, particularly among people from low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. And it provides a way for the voices of all people within a community to be present at the decision-making table.
“The way in which community organizations seek to address the range of issues that low-income communities face — holistically, rather than in isolation — also provides an important model for addressing poverty in this country.”
— Cristine Doby
Mott: How has Mott’s support of community organizing evolved?
CD: The Foundation has long understood that meaningful and sustainable change in communities emerges from the concerns, hopes and aspirations of the people who live there. Our organizing-related grantmaking, which we launched in the mid-1970s, has affirmed that belief by providing support for various multi-issue, multi-constituency, non-partisan organizations seeking to develop local leadership in low-income neighborhoods. Those leaders, in turn, work together to analyze their communities, and develop and implement creative responses to problems.
While a great deal of organizing is done at the local level, the strategy has also expanded over the last several years into national and regional networks of member organizations. These allow for effective pooling and sharing of financial and human resources, innovative strategies and lessons learned.
The networks have been integral to strengthening the basic infrastructure of organizing, providing leadership training, professional staff recruitment and development, research and communications. Mott has been supporting this infrastructure growth and development.
Mott: How does Mott support for community organizing complement the overall mission of the Pathways Out of Poverty program?
CD: The program’s focus is on helping poor and underserved families and communities create futures free from poverty. Many of those same families and communities have found organizing to be a viable approach to developing such futures. People envision new solutions to local problems, including improving schools, strengthening workforce and economic development, and forging new partnerships with other community leaders.
The way in which community organizations seek to address the range of issues that low-income communities face — holistically, rather than in isolation — also provides an important model for addressing poverty in this country. This includes a comprehensive analysis of the problems, identifying potential solutions, and even working to change the very institutions, structures and systems that contribute to the troubles.
Organizing, by envisioning and supporting new opportunities in education, job training and employment, helps create pathways out of poverty. t the same time — and this should not be underestimated — organizing teaches the skills and practice of democratic and civic participation, itself a pathway to a more satisfying future.
Mott: What will be the focus of Mott’s organizing-related funding over the next few years?
CD: As I mentioned earlier, building the field’s infrastructure is an important focus of our grantmaking. Creating and strengthening those systems will be key to helping community organizing reach its full potential for engaging individuals and institutions in public decision-making processes. Given this, we expect to continue our support for the national and regional networks, as well as build the field’s capacity in the areas of professional organizer development, issue research and analysis, and communications.