Those of us who are community organizers, share both blessings and challenges as a result of the life paths we’ve chosen (or that chose us).
In terms of blessings, we receive the respect and gratitude of our community members, who appreciate our hard work and noble efforts. In addition, we enjoy the personal satisfaction of knowing that our ideas and work educate and empower those for whom we do what we do in the first place.
Lastly, we often establish contacts with business owners, elected officials, philanthropists, and fellow organizers. This gives us access to funding, information, and opportunities which benefit ourselves and others.
Challenges often include long hours, arousing and enduring the envy/persecution of others, and enormous sacrifices in our personal lives.
Nonetheless, we community organizers must set aside time to evaluate our efforts, and constantly improve the important work we do in our communities.
In this spirit of self-improvement and excellence, I offer basic tips for community organizers who represent invaluable community treasures (whether people confess this or not).
I need to emphasize that my insights are informed through participating in successful movements/programs over the years, formal education/sustained study on the subject, and the benefit of receiving mentorship from wise, seasoned and accomplished Black professors, local and national leaders, and beloved elders in my immediate and extended family.
This background makes me neither infallable nor beyond critique. While I’ve recorded victories in the struggle, I’ve also survived my share of misjudgements and defeats.
Despite and because of this, I do bring some degree of integrity and credibility to the subject at hand. My hope is that you will receive this advice with an open mind, determine what works for you, and apply it as you see fit.
1. Focus on benefiting the community, not yourself. If your programs, organizations or events do more for you individually than they do for our people collectively, you will not be an effective community organizer nor an authentic or trusted one.
We don’t want a disconnected assortment of individual superstars; We want to develop championship teams in our community. We don’t want to “pimp,” mislead or exploit our folks for personal gain, because doing so makes us contradictory and reactionary.
2. This tip is directly related to the first. We develop “championship teams” by building leadership capacity in the community. We build this capacity by teaching the skills, information and character needed to help our people empower themselves individually and collectively.
If people are dependent on us or fail to recognize and exercise their own leadership potential, we have failed them. We need viable organizations and institutions, not cults or cliques.
3. Avoid becoming a clique, but learn to collaborate with those that exist. A clique is “a small group of people, with shared interests or other features in common, who spend time together and do not readily allow others to join them.” Cliques are unavoidable and impossible to eliminate entirely. Because they do much to divide our community, we must find ways to utilize them without having them contaminate our community building efforts.
4. Know the difference between event planning and building a movement. Events exist in an isolated space and time and do not connect to a larger vision or outcomes involving collective empowerment and challenging internal and societal oppression.
Movements on the other hand, involve collborations among various individuals and organizations around shared interests. They do include specific events, but much more.
Movements include sharing resources, including different segments of the community, and working to transform values, priorities and practices. Movements are guided by a larger objectives of solidarity, self determination, and conquering oppression. Movements are strategic, long-term and democratic, meaning that no one person decides goals, methods or policies.
Unlike events, movements are developmental and strategic, moving constantly toward a specific outcome that benefits the community.
5. Avoid tribalism and becoming territorial. Our communities and people leading them existed prior to our birth. The people and communities we serve are not our personal possessions.
Given all the problems that exist, we should encourage new leaders and organizations, not isolate or feel threatened by them. Usually the problem is not the existence of several organizations or programs, but our unwillingness or inability to coordinate and collaborate with them.
6. Share responsibility and the spotlight. One-person operations will never be powerful enough to do all the work neccesary in our neighborhoods. Organizers must know when to get off stage and allow others to shine. They must allow room to nurture and teach others to lead.
8. Remember that “A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none.” Really effective leaders and organizers specialize or focus on one or a few things. This focus allows them to develop true expertise and skill in a given area, making them competent and more useful to those they serve. Trying to do everything oneself usually results in reduced effectiveness and mediocre effort. Rather than using this approach, establish experience and credibility in one or a few issues, and collaborate with others to mutually benefit from your shared skill sets, knowledge and resources.
8. Develop a way to evaluate your effectiveness or success. We must be able to determine if the campaigns, projects or policies we create are actually working. We must develop measureable criteria to determine this. Otherwise, we might mistake being busy for being effective or think we’re succeeding when we’re failing.
8. Don’t waste time and energy trying to convert people or forcing them to accept your strategy. People have the right to disagree or believe what they choose. Fighting with them drains time and energy you can invest in more productive things. Also, be practical. You don’t need to recruit everyone into your organization or program. Working with a few people who are sincere and committed is more productive than working with a large group that is argumentative or non productive.
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment. He is the founder and coordinator of Harlem Liberation School.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.