It’s been a year of change here at “Still Racing . . .” After twenty years, I left my position as a community organizer with Syracuse United Neighbors. I have taken a new job as an advocate for disability rights with ARISE–a center for independent living (CIL) here in Syracuse. There are 37 CIL’s in NY State and their mission is to help persons with disabilities live independent lives in the community–rather than being forced to live in institutional settings such as nursing homes.
The scale is different. SUN is a small grassroots group with two employees and an annual budget of $150,000. ARISE is a sprawling social service provider with over 700 employees and a budget over $15 million. The atmosphere is more corporate–I have a cubicle, a name tag, I sign in and out of our building. I am no longer salaried, I am an hourly worker. But the differences also come with greater stability, less stress and the ability to focus solely on social change. I no longer have to sell candy bars and organize barbeque dinners to help balance our budget. I also do not have to assist individuals with purely personal problems, folks who have no real interest in helping to transform their community. This kind of direct personal service is generally required of SUN staff because funders will not finance the revolution, but will gladly pay for the associated paperwork.
The biggest change has been attitudinal. I have been fretting ever since my move about whether I could be considered an organizer–a term that had long ago ceased to be a job title and had become more of a way I defined myself to the world. In my 20 years at SUN, I met and worked with many wonderful and inspiring people. Together we struggled to improve the lives of families and neighborhoods in Syracuse. Organizing is many things: it is riotously fun, it is remarkably stressful, it is intellectually challenging, it is a profession with a long and noble history and every once in awhile you help the Davids beat the Goliaths.
After much soul-searching, I have decided that, yes, I am still an organizer. I organize people to fight for their rights as persons with disabilities to live independently. I am still helping people fight for safe and affordable housing, but now it also needs to be accessible and community-based. I am still helping people fight for good jobs, especially since 70% of persons with disabilities are unemployed. I’m still helping people fight for the things that matter to them: good public transit, a decent education and a way out of the poverty that is slowly strangling so many families in our increasingly unequal society. I am still organizing in the street.