A love letter to community organizers
When I first joined The Skillman Foundation in 2014, I knew little about community organizers. I had spent years amassing credentials and experiencing how education reform was happening inside school districts across America. But there was a lot I didn’t know.
I entered the Foundation during its Good Neighborhoods Initiative, a strategy to improve conditions for kids in six Detroit neighborhoods. Program officers (the common terms for grantmaking staff at philanthropic organizations, i.e. foundations) were “embedded,” spending time at neighborhood meetings and events and making grants that supported the work and leadership development of community leaders and organizers. My awareness and admiration for the deep technical work of community organizers was spurred. I owe so much to the grace and patience of those who were willing to tolerate my questions, challenge my assumptions, and shine a light on the imperative to grow communities’ power to drive their own destiny.
As my understanding of the work of community organizers grew, so did my passion and commitment to systems change efforts. The Skillman Foundation has long invested time, energy, and capital to spurring systems change. There is progress and signs of further promise to celebrate, but there’s also so much left undone. Fundamentally, systems change is about shifting the power of vision-setting and decision-making to those most proximate and affected by a system. This is at the heart of community organizers’ work—some focused on a specific geography, understanding the needs of community members; others focused on the complexities of a particular social issue.
Power does not cede easily. Systems change required agitators, orchestrators, and innovators. Agitators willing to speak uncomfortable truths. Orchestrators who connect and convene, building partnerships and momentum. Innovators who dream boldly, finding new approaches to stubborn problems. Community organizers do all three.
Listening to Detroit Organizers
On a chilly April evening, a group of community organizers huddled at the Marlowe Stoudemire Wellness Hub at Eastside Community Network. The gathering was part of The Skillman Foundation’s Listening Tour to learn from the insights and feedback of Detroit youth and their adult champions. The room was filled with warm infectious energy as people hugged, fist-bumped, and captured photos with each other. Friends and admirers connected, some for the first time in a two-year-and-counting pandemic.
Who were these stars of our city and what compelled them to join us? Each guest was highly recommended by organizers the Foundation has worked alongside in the past. Each came knowing the flaws of philanthropy—sometimes egocentric, sometimes fickle, sometimes blindly harmful—and they came anyway because they operate on tenacity. By no means to be understated: We at The Skillman Foundation fully understood what a gift it was to have their time and their truth.
What we heard:
Organizers have been burned by investors and philanthropy
They were candid about power dynamics that have caused the public harm. Nothing and no one was left unspoken, from city leaders to corporate investors to philanthropy. They expressed frustrations around decisions made through Detroit’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund, early Detroit Future City plans, placement of corporate properties and physical investments, and yes, about The Skillman Foundation’s past efforts.
They highlighted the intelligence and insightfulness across Detroit neighborhoods, asserting that no one needed philanthropy to come and tell them what they ought to do. They said, trust the practitioners and the experts on the ground. They pushed on who gets unrestricted philanthropic dollars to try out new ideas—typically not Black Detroiters. They described philanthropy’s decisions as to which organizations get funding as picking winners and losers. Some talked about being overlooked by local funders while national philanthropy sings their praises. And they talked about the demands of grant applications and reporting requirements including costly audits that make it challenging for grassroots efforts to receive support and for small organizations to grow.
They don’t dance for dollars
The organizers were very clear that, for them, everything starts and ends with trusting relationships and an alignment of values. They recounted experiences with funders who did not take the time to know what was important to their community or organization, and who asked them to be performative and show direct alignment to the funders’ strategies to be considered for investment. The group was exhausted by the notion that they should be “dancing for dollars” rather than spending their time and effort doing the things they know will really make a difference for their community. As a result, they operate with a healthy dose of skepticism and watch for actions that betray words. They know, that not all money is good money. Some dollars come at a higher cost than they are worth.
Organizers have the will and the way
These community organizers shared stories about how they listen for what people need most and take on any range of issues from housing to food and water access to education and beyond. They sort out how to fill gaps while spearheading large-scale change by building vast relationship networks.
They build power through collaboration
The organizers shared a positive outlook on what’s possible as social justice and neighborhood organizations increasingly work together. Sharing data, insights, talents, and expertise has not only helped organizers advance their ground efforts but has also fostered a greater understanding of how issues and geographic concerns connect in ways that can better influence policymakers and investment decisions.
Everyone is fighting exhaustion
These leaders are exhausted from a history of disinvestment and injustice, topped off by the COVID pandemic. They and their teams have pivoted and ramped up to respond to increasing needs without having increasing support. They know the struggle is real for everyone surrounding them. Community mental health and general well-being are key concerns they hold for their communities.
Community organizers grow and spread across generations
Community organizers are akin to gardeners. They are always careful to understand the soil as well as the hands that have tilled it before them. They plant seeds. They tend to growth. They know each season requires the work to be a little different. They impart their knowledge to their neighbor and neighbors’ children so the garden can sustain.
One leader talked with great enthusiasm about seeing a young person they spent time with return to Detroit for the express purpose of making a positive difference. Another spoke pridefully of watching a youth in their neighborhood become a policymaker, connected to and entrusted with the needs of the city.
They spoke about ways they’re fusing old-school and new-school organizing to make sure all generations are included, like combining door-to-door and digital outreach. They emphasized that there is more to organizing than what people see—it goes beyond drawing people a rally or protest event. They describe organizing as a methodical process that relies on continuous planning and engagement to make meaningful impact.
They see a difference in the next generation
Community organizers say the young people they work with are demanding more. One relayed, “When we told them (the youth) about our trauma, they told us they were ready for transformation.” Young people don’t want to tweak or patch what’s broken. They don’t want to reform—they want to transform.
In the end, the organizers stressed the power of young people to determine their own needs and paths. This is the exclamation point, the underlined, the staccato note.
We are listening.