One of my earlier posts “Ladies on Lynhurst” was an attempt to explain to some of my acquaintances why I work in a low-income neighborhood as a community organizer. This much earlier piece, that I have edited for this blog, is a more comprehensive attempt to explain why I do what I do.
I work as a community organizer for Syracuse United Neighbors (SUN), a small, grassroots neighborhood organization in Central New York. Recently, while interviewing potential new hires, an applicant asked me why I had become an organizer.
I realized that it must be something other than the obvious reasons of long hours, low pay and stress out the wazoo, of course. I was at a loss, never having really stopped to think about what being a community organizer meant. I have tried to explain to my friends and relatives what I do for a living, never achieving this feat in under 30 minutes. Why do I have to figure this out? At the risk of sounding like a Springsteen rock ‘n’ roller trying to preach to Outkast hip-hoppers, if I can explain what organizing means to me, perhaps some young person will decide to give organizing a chance.
Most organizers care deeply about social justice. We are in this racket to change the world. However, all this passion and fire sometimes gets funneled into a fight for a corner stop sign. Not very exciting, you say? A good organizer will remember the whole campaign every time she stops at the sign. Canvassing the neighborhood, helping neighborhood leaders prepare
their statements, the public meeting with a government official, theshowdown if the official says no–maybe even a protest! That will be the best damn stop sign in the city.
I used to commute to another job, driving through the neighborhood in which I now organize. There is a stop sign at the corner of Cannon St. and W. Brighton Ave. that I passed twice a day. What did I see from the safety of my locked car? Some of the worst drug dealing in the city, gang graffiti and lots of vacant houses. That’s usually all anyone learns about this
neighborhood. As an organizer, I have been more fortunate than the commuters. I’ve had the opportunity to meet the people who live on these streets. Carolyn, a woman who raised four children while she was working full-time and who is now raising several more foster children while in retirement. George, who has lived in the same house on W. Newell for over 70 years. Jimmie, who volunteers at the local high school. These are just a few of the people I have met while working in this vibrant neighborhood.
Even more importantly, I’ve been able to see neighborhood residents become neighborhood leaders, fighting to improve their streets and their community. It is hard work. Long meetings to discuss strategy and rehearse leaders’ roles. Public meetings designed to hold politicians, bankers and non-profit agencies accountable to the people. Protests at the homes and offices of those that refuse to work with us. More meetings to work out details when we finally win an agreement.
The long hours have resulted in some mighty victories. SUN won a ten-year battle to force the city to reform its discriminatory property tax assessment system. The city built a new Fire Station #6 on the city’s near-westside, after SUN refused to listen to a Mayor who declared a new station was “a luxury we can’t afford.” SUN leaders putting pressure on
City Hall has resulted in laws dealing with abandoned cars, drug houses and city business licenses for corner stores and bars. Syracuse United Neighbors v. City of Syracuse is even cited as legal precedent under New York State’s Open Meetings Law, the result of our successful lawsuit to drag the city’s Common Council out from behind its closed doors.
What about the neighborhood with the stop sign that once interrupted my commute? SUN leaders convinced the city to buy the vacant Enrico’s restaurant at W. Newell and Midland Ave., avoiding a sale of the building to a bar owner. The site was sold to a housing non-profit and now boasts four, new single-family homes. On the corner adjacent to the stop sign, SUN
leaders convinced the city to build a playground on what was a vacant lot. I found out shortly after starting at SUN that the stop sign exists because of a SUN victory several years earlier. SUN leaders brought the city’s district councilor out to the site, showed him the dangerous corner and won the stop sign.
That same councilor is now our U.S. Congressman and he helped secure $2 million in federal funding for helping families repair their homes in our neighborhood with the street sign. I guess that’s what being a community organizer is all about–not stopping at just the sign.