What is a Community Organizer?
Organizing people has long been a part of the U.S. politics. The community organizer encourages people to take collective action. From suffragettes demanding votes for women to the countless strategic collective actions taken as a part of the civil rights movement, to the recent protests against the “Muslim ban” at international airports across the country.
Part of the democratic integrity of our nation is based on the right of people to gather together to advocate for their rights and influence policymakers.
These types of community actions, movements, protests, and marches offer social workers who are interested in political action to advocate for change at the macro level. Many such actions – like calling for more emergency mental health clinics, advocating for women’s reproductive rights, and appealing for healthcare coverage for all – directly influence social work clients’ daily lives, and thus represent an opportunity to assist clients at the structural level.
For social workers especially interested in this work of uniting communities to advocate for systemic, political change and safeguarding human rights, pursuing a career in community organizing offers these possibilities and more.
In the exciting field of community organizing, social workers can expect to apply and hone their skills in the following areas:
Community organizers utilize social work skills at the community level to support communities in acting together to make the changes they want to see in their communities.
As in individual-level social work practice, the social worker in the community organizer role does not identify and solve problems for the community but supports the community in creating solutions to their own self-identified issues.
One of the key tenets of community organizing is “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.”
Thus, the community organizer acts as a resource in forming alliances between individuals, community organizations, and institutions to work together in tackling problems of injustice, and assists these allies in taking strategic action to accomplish change.
Some of the activities involved in movement-building include:
- Engaging with and deeply listening to community members through one-on-one meetings that invite community members to share their concerns
- Connecting individuals and communities who have common concerns through organizing community meetings
- Expanding an organization or movement’s membership base through recruitment
- Assisting with fundraising and searching for additional resources
- Meeting with local organizations and institutions to bring them into the movement as allies
A community organizer cannot possibly hope, and should not expect, to unite a community to take collective action on her own.
She needs community leaders who care deeply about the issues, are well-connected in the community and are ready to step into leadership positions to work together to carry the movement forward.
Establishing shared community leadership is one way to restore grassroots democracy, energizing community members to work together as active citizens.
Through one-on-one meetings, community organizers endeavor to recognize community members with leadership potential, strong community ties, and the ability to identify and define problems.
Community organizers then support these leaders in gaining leadership skills, collaborating with one another and their community, and transforming community needs into strategic actions and campaigns for societal change.
Some of the key activities in this area include:
- Organizing leadership training for community members focused on generating personal confidence, civic engagement skills, and in-group collaboration
- Organizing meetings to bring leaders together to strategize around problems
- Supporting leaders in developing campaigns around issues that target specific audiences and policymakers and share common messaging
Once the issues have been identified and a campaign has begun to develop, community organizers work with community leaders to take action.
Most campaigns are composed of multiple actions to get the message out to various levels of society.
Actions can take many forms, depending on the issue, and community organizers support leaders in coming up with creative and impactful means of declaring their demands and pressuring those with the power to make the changes needed.
Actions can be large or small but must involve local community members who are willing to come together to fight for their rights, which is one reason it is so important to have an active membership base.
Examples of different types of actions include:
- Organizing a large street protest, march, or rally that unites many community members and multiple organizations under a common message
- Visiting legislators in their offices to directly inform them of the problems that need to be addressed and the actions they can take
- Making phone calls or sending letters en masse to the authorities who can act on a particular issue
- Using online advocacy tools and social media to gain visibility and support on an issue
- Canvassing in the local area to recruit new members to the movement, inform citizens of their rights, and encourage people to vote for or against a particular issue
- Planning banner drops and other visual ways of disseminating the movement’s message
- Organizing rallies to activate the membership base and keep leaders energized
- Intentionally acting against unjust laws, peaceful demonstrations in front of strategic locations, or causing disruption to daily life through street blockages or critical masses of people
Social Work and Activism Go Hand in Hand
For social work graduates with a strong desire to fight for social justice and a passion for activism, community organizing is a dynamic and challenging field.
Being a community organizer allows social workers to apply their skills at the macro-level and offers the rewarding opportunity to see broad-level impacts.