Community organizing can start with a single person or a handful of committed citizens from the local community. But, it can also grow to encompass whole regions or even the entire nation.
To build community wealth, we need to level the playing field and create opportunities for everyone to participate. We need to ensure that everyone has a voice in decision-making and that the resources of our community are used for the benefit of all. Community organizing is one way to make this happen. First, let’s make a distinction between grassroots activism and community organizing, because they are two different but related things.
Grassroots Activism Versus Community Organizing
Grassroots activism is about engaging in direct action to bring about change. It’s about protesting, writing letters, and raising awareness. It refers to citizen action that is independent of any intervention by established institutions, while “community organizing” entails working with existing institutions to change the policies or practices that affect a community. Activism is often short-term and geared towards a specific goal, while organizing is usually long-term and focused on building power within the community.
Community organizing is about building power within a community so that its members can collectively make change happen. It’s about building relationships, developing leaders, and mobilizing people to take action. Is one approach better than the other? It depends on the situation. For example, if you want to start a petition drive to demand that your school district improve its lunch program, that’s activism. But if you want to work with the school board, parents, and administrators to develop a long-term plan to make nutritious meals available to all students, that’s organizing.
Here are just a few examples of community organizing at its best:
The civil rights movement is one of the most well-known examples of community organizing. Led by people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and others, the civil rights movement was a long and difficult struggle to secure basic rights and equality for African Americans.
The women’s suffrage movement is another example of community organizing that led to monumental change. Women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton worked for decades to win the right to vote for women. And, their efforts finally paid off in 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote.
The labor movement is another example of community organizing that changed the landscape of America. Through organization and collective action, workers were able to win better wages and working conditions, as well as basic benefits like health insurance and retirement plans.
And, more recently, the fight for marriage equality is an example of community organizing that is making a difference. By organizing and raising awareness, the LGBTQ community has made significant progress in winning basic rights and equality.
Community Organizing for Building Community Wealth
There are many community organizing groups that focus on building community wealth. These groups work to empower communities by helping them develop their own businesses, create local jobs, and invest in their own neighborhoods.
One notable example of a community organizing group that focuses on building community wealth is the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). The IAF is a network of community-based organizations that work to build power and capacity in low- and moderate-income communities.
Another example of a community organizing group that focuses on building community wealth is the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI Fund). The CDFI Fund is a federal government agency that supports community development finance institutions. These organizations provide financing and technical assistance to low- and moderate-income communities to help them develop their own businesses and create jobs.
The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) is another example of a community organizing group that focuses on building community wealth. LISC is a national nonprofit that works to invest in low- and moderate-income communities. LISC provides financing, technical assistance, and training to help community development organizations create jobs, build housing, and improve neighborhoods.
These are just a few examples of community organizing groups that focus on building community wealth. By helping communities develop their own businesses, create local jobs, and invest in their own neighborhoods, these groups are working to empower communities and build a more just and equitable society.
The Poor People’s Campaign
Some other notable examples of community organizing in the United States include The Poor People’s Campaign and ARISE. The Poor People’s Campaign is a great example of an organization that has united people from all over the country to challenge the unjust systems that create and maintain poverty.
Systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation, and the nation’s distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism are some of the things they are fighting against. The national campaign has organized over 2,000 actions in 46 states and Washington D.C. since it began in early 2018. It is one of the most significant organizing efforts in recent years.
They are organizing to demand an end to voter suppression, mass incarceration, racism, and inequality. The campaign is engaging in civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance to draw attention to the plight of the poor and marginalized. They are demanding that our government address these issues head-on.
ARISE (A Resource In Serving Equality) is another grassroots organization that promotes the personal development and empowerment of the immigrant community, especially women, children, and youth living in the Rio Grande Valley. The organization does this by providing educational programs that help strengthen its community and civic participation.
It was founded in 1987 by one woman, Sister Gerrie Naughton of the Sisters of Mercy order who went door-to-door in her new town of Las Milpas, Texas, meeting families to get a sense of the community’s needs. She understood that for things to improve in her community, change needed to be led by the community members themselves—particularly the women of the community.
ARISE helps empower women by giving them a sense of purpose, and it also works to improve the town’s conditions to help residents feel more dignified. ARISE has been networking with local businesses, nonprofits, and government organizations extensively. Along with proper plumbing, parks, and paved roads, the town now has several elementary schools and a nearby high school.
Whether it’s securing basic rights or winning important reforms, community organizing can make a real difference in the world. It can start with a single person or a handful of committed citizens from the local community. They can be ordinary people who want to make their community a better place, not celebrities or wealthy individuals. And that’s what community organizing is all about—ordinary people coming together to create change in their communities.