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Section 1. Strategies for Community Change and Improvement: An Overview

Example #1: Organizing for Affordable Community Housing

The Community Tool Box spoke with Jennifer Van Campen of WATCH CDC in Waltham, Massachusetts. WATCH is a non-profit community development corporation founded in 1988. Their mission is to preserve and promote affordable housing, and to promote economic opportunities for low- and moderate-income residents of South Waltham. WATCH is committed to programs and practices that foster the empowerment of communities. Our thanks to Ms. Van Campen for her time and advice.

Ms. Van Campen: WATCH stands for Waltham Alliance to Create Housing. It's a Community Development Corporation that was founded in 1988 as a result of a wave of disinvestment that had taken root in Waltham. A lot of buildings were being foreclosed on by banks at a kind of bust of the real estate market -- so the initial work that WATCH did was around abandoned buildings or foreclosed bank owned properties.

CTB: How did it begin?

Ms. Van Campen: It was begun by a group of environmental and peace activists who wanted to do something at a local level. One of the founding members had gotten some information about community development corporations and said, "Hey, this is what we should do in our community." [Ed. Note: Community Development Corporations (CDCs) are discussed in Chapter 44, Section 5 of the Community Tool Box]. So the original group described themselves as hippies and just local folks who really wanted to take control of what was going on in the neighborhood.

So those initial years were really a lot of negotiations around the Community Reinvestment Act, and trying to get local banks to turn over properties and support the redevelopment of housing. They also focused on getting the city more involved in the protection and promotion of affordable housing, and underwent a very lengthy fight to promote some affordable housing in a couple of ordinances that were being modified or created at the time. For example, there was a big push to redevelop the waterfront. Waltham has a river -- the Charles River -- that runs right through downtown.

One developer wanted to come in and put in some parks and some housing. He really wanted to upscale the area, which the group WATCH at the time was in support of. However, we wanted to make sure there were some provisions for affordable housing in that mix -- so that was a long fight to get that. As a result, they were able to win the creation of an inclusionary zoning ordinance in the city. So now any development over ten units of housing must provide 10% of their units as affordable housing, or contribute 5% of the total development cost of the project into a housing development trust fund.

CTB: That must have been quite a fight!

Ms. Van Campen: It was, very long and very difficult I guess. Some of the early tactics largely included a public awareness campaign trying to emphasize to people that the future development of the city is going to go to outside speculative developers unless we get organized and we put into and on to the books what's important to us. So there were a lot of informational meetings, a lot of public actions at city hall at specific targeted buildings that were owned by banks, a lot of utilizing the local paper. That was probably it, just kind of steady ongoing pressure. There was really no one significant event or really even a significant element of the campaign that I would say won it for them--(just) knocking on the door long enough and hard enough -- it took about two years.

Afterward, that's when we started a series of acquisition and renovation and resale of one to four unit properties. And in about a three-year period we renovated nine buildings for a total of 17 units of affordable housing, most of which were resold. But a few of them we kept as rentals, so we still own and operate those.

CTB: OK, and so is that still the mission of what you're doing?

Ms. Van Campen: We're actually shifting in some ways back to our roots, which is more community organizing, public awareness kind of a more public policy focused effort. We need to go after the city and the state and private institutions, and compel them to do more to effect affordable housing. Our efforts to purchase and renovate buildings can really only do so much at a fairly small and slow scale, whereas the city could unilaterally create a law that says there will be a penalty for speculating in our community.

CTB: So do you have specific goals along the lines of public policy?

Ms. Van Campen: We're actually in the development of those. We're trying to get it up to ten points. Right now it's about a seven point platform which we're going to be asking the candidates for mayor, which would include things like requiring stricter code enforcement, eviction protection for people who file health code complaints, and a tax abatement for property owners who agree to rent to low- and moderate-income people utilizing both public and private funds to create a second mortgage program for people who want to buy homes in Waltham. The city is sitting on an affordable housing trust fund and they've not spent a dime of it in seven years. It's just sitting there, so we're going to urge them to work with us to create a plan to spend that money. So those are kind of the loose ideas right now.

Ms. Van Campen: I think in any business -- and in particular this is true for nonprofits -- you have to go with your market. Our markets' needs change, and one of the real weaknesses of many nonprofits is that they're unwilling to listen to their constituency and modify programs as needed. I think that people change, circumstances change and your programming has to change as a result.

CTB: Do you have any recommendations for others doing community organizing?

Ms. Van Campen: The single most important thing is to just really listen honestly and openly to people, and to be respectful of their needs and interests. What that means is that your work should reflect those needs and interests. It's too bad that you just got a big grant to do computer training if that's not what people in a community are talking about wanting and needing. And probably the only other big thing is that you can never give up on people. Never give up on a person -- maybe they can't come to the meeting on Thursday night, and maybe they never return your phone calls, but sometime they will. When they're ready -- you just can't close the door to anybody's opportunities.

For more information, call 781-891-6689, or stop by their offices at 333 Moody Street, second floor, Waltham. Please call ahead for wheelchair access. The staff members can assist you in English, French, Haitian, Creole and Spanish. 

Example #2: Organizing on Welfare

This article appeared on the Center for Community Change website and is reprinted here with permission. Our thanks go out to Ms. Icenhower and the Center for Community Change for allowing its use.

My journey into welfare organizing began two years ago when I stood up in a public hearing and asked the question, "How does this help families achieve self-sufficiency?" As a single mother of three children being directly affected by welfare reform, I felt I deserved an answer. I asked the question three times and received the same answer each time. "I can't answer that question" was the response from the Department of Public Health and Human Services official. I sat down feeling frustrated and all alone. A voice came from behind as a woman stood up and said, "You owe her an answer." I was owed an answer? Yes, I was. That feeling of having another voice stand with me has led me to where I am today -- a welfare organizer for Montana People's Action.

I read policy, I studied rules. I wanted to know all there was to know about welfare reform in Montana. I began to testify at committee hearings. I delivered a powerful speech at a rally protesting proposed cuts, and was interviewed for a newspaper article. I made my voice heard. I experienced backlash from other community members and the Office of Public Assistance for my activism. This was something I never expected and nobody warned me about. I was knocked down but rose again and continued on. I became a leader in the fight for our rights while continually asking my original question. I still haven't received the answer, although I have received many responses. I've learned that if you aren't getting the answer maybe it's time to change the question. The question now is, "How does this harm families?"

I believe being a recipient gives me a unique perspective in organizing other recipients. We have a commonality in understanding the struggles of day-to-day survival. I've learned through my experience what supports are necessary for recipients to be involved in the fight and to become leaders. We need child care to attend meetings and events, and sometimes transportation. We need someone to support us when backlash occurs and we need to know it can happen. We need to have others listen to what we have to say and validate it. These are our stories we share. It is not easy but it is worth it. Change does not happen on its own and we can make a difference. It is important that we share our voices and make them heard. We need to be at the table claiming and asserting our rights to have input in our own lives. We need to do this collectively, standing beside each other because our power is in standing together. We need to have vision for where we want to be in 2001-2002. More importantly, we need to put voice to that vision and have it heard.

Shelley Icenhower directs Welfare Advocates of Montana! (WAM!), which is a project of Montana People's Action, a statewide membership-based organization affiliated with the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations and ACORN.

Example #3: Organizing to End Discrimination

The Community Tool Box spoke with Della Mitchell, lead organizer for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Our thanks to Ms. Mitchell for her time and advice.

Ms. Mitchell: The first campaign that I started [was] back in North Carolina. There was a theater in the city, in a city-owned building, and we asked the mayor if we [African-Americans] could go there. So, we started a picket line -- it was college and high school students. We walked that picket line for days and weeks trying to get a meeting with the manager so we could explain that this is wrong and we should have the right to go there. But we were not getting a lot of attention, until one weekend To Kill A Mockingbird was playing at the theater. And we thought, "You're going to show this movie, and we can't see it?! [That is,] unless we go into a little balcony area, where you have to sit cramped, unable to move at all."

With that same group, we decided we were going down this weekend, and it happened to be Easter weekend, and that made it just more excited to do this style of organizing. I notified the parents of what we were going to do: We were going to form this human chain in front of the theater -- if we didn't get in, nobody else was going to go in! And that we suspected we were going to be arrested. And sure enough, we were. I got calls from the mayor of the city, saying, "We're going to arrest you if you don't move yourselves from the front of theater." And we refused and we did indeed go to jail. We stayed in jail the whole weekend. They offered us bond and we wouldn't take bond. We're not going to post bond for doing what's our right to do. If you want to let us out, well of course we'll go.

And I've always been a very spiritual, religious person, so we chose to fast over that weekend. And we fasted, we prayed, we sang in jail, until they got word that we were going to get sick if we didn't eat. So they decided, "we're going to have to let them out of here." In the meantime, on that Sunday morning, there was a lot of rumbling going on. We could just hear that, and from a different part of the jail, we got a note from someone that could look out and see, telling us there were a lot of people out in front of the jail.

They did indeed let us out that Sunday morning, and as we walked out the door, almost every church in that city was outside having their Sunday morning service on the jail lawn in support of our getting arrested.

So it took this dramatic kind of thing to get more attention, from the powers that be as well as our communities. Because a lot of the churches were allowing us to have our meetings, there were about 10 or 15 youth, college students, who were participating in the picketing before this happened. And after this happened we were able to get -- anytime we sent out a flyer or sent out an announcement out to the churches -- we could get three, four, five hundred people just by word of mouth, without going out into the community.

I think that's a thing, that style of organizing -- civil disobedience -- that a lot of the young people now hate to hear us talk about. Because, "The sixties, the sixties, I'm tired of hearing about the sixties." Well, yeah, but it's time for us to go back, unless you have a better idea. It's time for us to go back to the sixties to really get the attention of the system and make them really realize that we're serious. We're not doing that type of organizing now. There's a lot of talk, and there's a lot of organizing, but it's not a movement like we had in the sixties. If there was, we wouldn't be dealing with this welfare reform that we're having to deal with now and all of the other homelessness. We wouldn't have the kind of homelessness we have now, if we were organized, I mean really organized, saying to this system, enough is enough.

CTB: For people who are becoming organizers, what advice would you give them?

Ms. Mitchell: If they are getting into organizing they have to move themselves out of the way, and really be open to what the people are saying, and then choose the issues. The issue needs to be the one the community chose. [For example,] I have a real strong feeling for day care. But if you're talking to me about day care, and I don't have a place to live or I don't have a job that pays a living wage, I'm not going to listen to you. So you have to make sure you choose an issue that is widely felt by the community.

You need to start with one that's winnable, you need to know who your target is, and make sure you're not choosing an issue that's going to divide your community. Try to get them to come together. It just needs to be deeply felt.

You have to make sure that you have respect for the people that you're organizing. Just become one of those people, whether you're an organizer that's coming out of that community or you've been hired by an organization and sent into a community, you have to become a part of the fabric of that community and respect that community.

You have to have really strong commitments and also realize that when you go into organizing you're not in a 9 to 5. You have to be ready to go into all types of neighborhoods, because poor people, unfortunately, live in the very depressed high-crime neighborhoods, and you have to be willing to go into that.

And coming from a spiritual point of view, take the higher power in on your side. Not everyone thinks that way, and that doesn't mean you can't be a good organizer if you don't think that way, it just helps me. Speaking from a personal point of view, it's hard to separate me and that part of my life, so I think of Him.

It's almost impossible to organize without bringing in the people who are affected by the issue that we are organizing around. You have to have homeless people involved, you have to have poor people involved who are affected by welfare reform, lack of affordable housing, jobs that pay a living wage. They have to be involved, and they have to be out there saying this is what we need, in order to bring about the change to make our lives better. So that's my hope. And that we'll get others into the same mold, that we must organize the poor, get them registered to vote, let them speak for themselves! 

Jenette Nagy