My Past Life as a Community Organizer
My first taste of community organizing was when I was working on the Kerry for President campaign in 2004 (I actually saw an old Kerry campaign placard on the Navajo Nation recently and had a complete set of flashbacks). I had a semester left of my last year at the University of Texas at Austin, and what was supposed to be a summer internship turned into 6 months of organizing the student vote on New Hampshire college campuses.
I slept in strangers' homes (very similar to my current living situation); worked 7 days a week, 12+ hours a day; canvassed around New Hampshire in all sorts of inclement weather; and met a ton of great people, many of whom are good friends to this day.
I was hooked on organizing.
It combined so many things I loved: volunteerism, working alongside like-minded people in the trenches, a grassroots-led effort to stand up. After losing that presidential cycle (and subsequently going to Italy for a month to pick olives for free a la WOOF as a means to temporarily escape the political climate, haha)—I knew I wanted to learn as much as possible about organizing. What else could organizing do? I knew in my gut there was SO much to learn.
Organizing always called me back over the next 10+ years. My first job (and without a doubt, THE hardest job I will ever have) was teaching junior high special education for a couple years in South LA. I learned a lot about organizing on a community/neighborhood level and how it affects our schools and our kids.
After being an educator, I went all in for organizing, and worked in Florida on the Obama campaign in Pensacola, on the Alabama border. I spent the next 4 years after that working on more electoral, legislative, and corporate accountability campaigns. Organizing is a lot of hard work—because it is often not instantaneous. It is a steady drumbeat of building individual and communal relationships, and focusing keenly on strategy and effective tactics around a target.
And when this is all in alignment—that is when change can happen.
Working at the Santa Fe Dreamers Project (SFDP), it is clear to me that the reason why the project is able to handle 300+ DACA applications is because its founder/ED, Allegra Love, is super involved with the broader Santa Fe community. (Particularly in comparison to neighboring legal services organizations in the much bigger city of Albuquerque who handle maybe a third of this number.)
Whenever I've walked with Allegra somewhere in Santa Fe, there's always someone she knows stopping by to say hi. Many of the days when I am volunteering in the office, a potential client walks in saying that a friend or friend of a friend has referred them to the project. There is trust within relationships, and that personal recommendation means more than anything.
When I was in law school, I was always super intrigued by this intersectional concept of organizing and lawyering—community lawyering. I dedicated a semester focused on an independent study paper around some of the benefits of combining these two models. Here are a few major takeaways from my study that semester:
- Legal action can codify organizing victories and help catapult the broader organizing movement. (e.g. the Civil Rights movement & Browder v Gayle)
- Legal action can serve as a protectionist measure for a hard fought and won organizing victory. (e.g. Chavez's Delano Grape Strike & codifying protections for farmworkers)
- Lawyers can help educate organizations & individuals about their legal rights. (e.g. Public Advocates & Williams v. California)
The bottom line in all of the aforementioned examples is that lawyers made themselves not only available to on-the-ground organizing battles, but were seamlessly integrated into the community and its issues themselves.
All too often, attorneys unfortunately give an air of being detached from many of the realities that are affecting their clients—both on an individual and systemic level. And people, without a doubt, can sense every ounce of that.
Attorneys earn needed trust and respect from communities and clients after making oneself available in the area where they are serving. And I really feel that is one of the many ways why the Santa Fe Dreamers Project has been so successful.
Granted, there are many tasks that are uniquely and individually suited for an organizer and attorney. But, I like to think of these two areas like a Venn Diagram—they absolutely intersect and share a ton in common. And that common area is powerful.
Last week, my colleague and I went to a local high school in Santa Fe to meet with a client. It really struck me how we were going "out of the way" to meet up with a particular student/client to the local high school. I do not know of a lot of lawyers (except for those specializing in education law) who would do such a thing. But immediately upon walking through those high school doors, I realized why we were there.
People immediately recognized my colleague, and there were two other guidance counselors (via an affiliated nonprofit program) who sat with the two of us—and this student/client.
It was something beautiful: four adults literally (if not unintentionally) making a circle around this particular student, inquiring about his day, what's been going on with him, what his near-term and longer-term plans are. It is true that maybe the four of us sitting around the table may not have necessarily made a huge impact, but one never knows how receiving kindness from someone else is really internalized/actualized.
And those types of relationships absolutely take time and sincerity. And these one-on-one relationships (as we organizers like to refer to them as), are critical in both the organizing and lawyering sense—and hell—in just being a caring friend/member of one's community.
Whether the effects are immediately felt or not—it is that type of consistent investment that makes an impact on someone else, a group of people, a community. Real change.
How have you seen organizing play out in your community? Or community lawyering?
First and foremost—as always—thank you for supporting Attorney on the Move. It is truly because of you that this project is able to extend until the end of 2016. As such, I want to be able to forward on any press that the project may be getting:
A big thank you to Civil Eats & Anna Brones for the opportunity to collaborate on the below piece about migrant farmworkers in our country. We discussed how the migrant farmworking community has deep intersectionalities with many oppressive institutions: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, & classism.
"The main thing is an intentionality and proactivity to get out of the silo we may be living in and spend time in these other communities. It is true that some of the issues facing the farmworker world is endemic to that way of life. But we have so much in common and there is so much we can learn.”
'Til next week!