I recently attended an Industrial Areas Foundation 2-day training with colleagues from PATH (People Acting Together in Howard) and other IAF affiliates in the DMV. I’ve attended similar training sessions over the course my 10 years as UUCC’s Executive Director, and these workshops always reaffirm for me the critical importance of building power (defined as the ability to act, which requires organized people and organized money) so that we can move away from the world as it is and toward the world as it should be.
At these sessions, I’m always moved by the trainers’ personal stories of how they came to be community organizers. They are often rooted in a compelling experience of powerlessness or inequality. The stories provide inspiration for participants to develop and share their own stories. For ten years, I’ve struggled with this. What’s my story? What am I willing to act on? What sparks my anger (productive anger, not rage) and moves me to act?
In a moment of serendipity, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed during a break on that first morning, I saw a post about my earliest mentor, Mike Michaelson. He was being recognized with a Distinguished Service Award as an Individual Pioneer by Montgomery County Public Schools. Reading about his well-deserved recognition took me down memory lane, as I recalled him encouraging me to participate in Maryland Leadership Workshops, to run for election in the county-wide student government organization, to attend a college that felt out of my reach, and to become a high school teacher. Mike taught multiple generations of students how to build power – to not only be but also lead the change they wish to see. In my time and with Mike’s support, we successfully protected the free speech rights of school newspapers, ensured that students who dropped out of school would not lose their drivers’ licenses (and ability to get to a job), and won voting rights for the student member on the Board of Education.
This reflection helped me pinpoint where my anger – and my motivation to act – resides. I am frustrated and angry because the poorer, browner schools in Howard County do not have equitable resources compared to the whiter, wealthier schools. I want to support and build power with students and adults who want to change this inequity – like the ones I met when I participated in Oakland Mills’ High School’s “Welcome hOMe” program, a day-long workshop to build community among students, staff, and community members. The bright, engaged students at OMHS – one of Howard County’s poorer, browner schools and the high school that UUCC’s Owen Brown neighborhood feeds – expressed their sense of powerlessness at being labeled as attending a “ghetto” school with high drug use and low test scores. This is not the world as it should be, and I feel it is incumbent on me, as a former student leader and teacher, as an OMHS parent, and as a Unitarian Universalist, to act.
I’m curious . . . what’s your story? What moves you to act? Leave a comment on this post, or contact me and we’ll share our stories over a cup of coffee.