COMM-ORG Papers 2004

The Education and Liberation of the Poor in Community Organizing: 

The Personal Growth and Transformation of Leaders in the Anti-Displacement Project

Lindsey P. Walker-Estrada

September 15, 2003

© Lindsey Walker-Estrada, 2003. All rights reserved.


Introduction & Research Question
Literature Review
     The Field of Community Organizing
     Social Change Theory and Methodology
Research Methodology
     Method I: Semi-Structured Interviews
     Method II: Secondary Research
     Method III: Work Experience
Findings and Analysis
     Findings I: Tangible Skills
     Findings II: Personal growth and change
     Findings III: Personal Transformation
Discussion and Conclusions
About the Author


The question I address in this paper is: What kind of change and personal transformation takes place when poor people organize for social change? This research studied the Anti-Displacement Project (ADP)--a poor peoples membership organization organizing for social and economic justice and change in the Western Massachusetts area of the Eastern part of the United States. ADP leadership are multi-racial, low-income tenants in affordable housing complexes.

The focus of the research is in determining how ADP leaders are personally transformed in the process of organizing. This study identified and interviewed 20 ADP leaders. Though racially diverse, all leaders interviewed are exclusively low-income. All interviewees were leaders I had worked with directly on organizing campaigns and/or tenant ownership and asset management work. Because ADP has such a large number of participants, I chose the pool of interviewees based on my organizing experience amongst them, number of years they had been with ADP, and what I knew of their ADP experience. Organizing and social change theory were also examined in this research.

The research showed that ADP leaders recognize and appreciate the opportunities for personal development that ADP provides. The development of tangible skills and personal change or growth were the two central themes in the interviewees responses. These two themes are closely interconnected as each is necessary for the development of the other. Personal transformation and its relation to leaders growth and change is highlighted in the last section of eight stories of personal transformation in the collective struggle for social justice. I suggest that ADP work towards presenting itself not only as an opportunity for people to have a greater involvement in and impact upon their community but to also present itself with the ability to revolutionize and change people from disenfranchised powerless individuals to informed and organized community leaders… you too can be revolutionized. My two years organizing experience with ADP shows that they are a dynamic enough organization to promote and execute organized social and personal change.

Introduction and Statement of Research Question

The topic of this paper developed out of my two years as a community organizer at the Anti-Displacement Project (ADP). ADP’s mission is to organize and empower low-income families in Western Massachusetts in order to build political and economic power, promote cooperative economic development, achieve resident control of affordable housing and to create lasting social and economic change. In an increasingly hostile climate of urban poverty, where poor people are cut off from civic life and participation in democratic power, ADP takes an innovative approach to organizing by building institutions and linking them together into a broad base multi-issue organization that has the power to compel accountability from decision makers.

In my two-year duration with the ADP I went through the necessary, continual training it takes to become a community organizer. The first month I surrounded myself with the newspaper clippings and recorded history of the organization--its impressive victories and numerous accomplishments. I was amazed at the power a poor people’s organization had built in under ten years, their creative and effective use of direct action, and their practice of taking social change theory and putting it into action. Over time my interest and focus shifted from the strategic campaigns, tangible wins, and resources the organization had accumulated to what I felt was the heart of organizing. It became clear to me through my organizing training, education and practice--spending hundreds of hours in the neighborhoods where ADP leaders live--that the heart of organizing is not about the victories or accumulated assets that are valued in mainstream society. Organizing is about people. Organizing is about building relationships and mobilizing people to take action on issues that directly affect their lives and they have a vested self-interest in changing. It is only through organizing that poor people can demand accountability from people in positions of power. Since it was essentially my job to build the organization, and since the ADP is a membership based institution, I began by conducting one-on-one relationship building interviews with members. Essentially, one-on-ones, as these interviews are called, are the first step for any organizer whose job it is to identify and train leaders and create institutions controlled by poor people. One-on-ones are a fundamental part of organizing used with the objective of building relationships. After two years and hundreds of one-on-ones, as well as relationships rooted in solidarity, it was the leaders of this poor people's organization that inspired me to want to share their stories of personal change and transformation as organized people struggling for social and economic justice for their communities and beyond.

I am not going to delve into the history of the poor working class within the systematic class stratification in the United States. There is plenty written on poverty and powerlessness in this country and people who know much more than I do. Politically, this paper was written from the position that we are living in a situation in this country--a self-labeled democracy--where because of people's isolation, and class and racial divisions, people no longer participate in civic society in the creation of a truly democratic government of and by the people. The system that represses political participation by the masses is creating more poverty with increased injustice and violence. While few prosper many suffer. Poverty in the United States, the richest and most powerful country in the world, has centers of Third World oppression within its post-industrial economically depressed cities, suburbs and reservations. The situation is crucial. The have-nots far outnumber the haves. Clearly the only power the have-nots have-got is their numbers. Organizing provides the means to create mass organizations controlled by poor people.  This paper is not about taking a stand on the issues that continue to keep people in poverty, though in highlighting examples of empowered, organized people I am definitely taking a stand on how we can fix this broken system. Poverty is structural, it is tangible and it is real. Poverty is also powerlessness, the inability to act. This paper is about people who have gone from individual powerlessness and found power, together, and have been transformed in the process of being organized and educated for their own liberation.

One-on-one interviews with 20 ADP leaders, work experience, and the theories of organizing and social change ideology have been the basis of my research.  I hypothesized that all ADP leaders had experienced powerlessness in a situation of injustice at one point in their lives. Having had no resolution to that injustice, once they were given the opportunity to act upon another injustice that affects them directly ADP leaders did so. I hypothesized that their initial participation in the organization was influenced by the fact that they were being offered an opportunity to do something, to take action on injustice, and that their continued participation derives from the change they have witnessed in themselves, their family, their community and/or other leaders. My interest was in knowing how they identified their own change since their participation in the ADP. Was it just a set of skills they had learned or had their experience of being organized changed them to the point of personal transformation? The research question addressed in this paper then, is as follows: What kind of change, growth and personal transformation takes place in ADP leaders in the process of organizing for social change? 

Literature Review

The research literature related to this paper comes from the fields of Community Organizing and Social Change Theory. This includes literature and articles written on the concepts of organizing, power, leadership development, participation, direct action, creation of poor people’s organizations and social change.

The Field of Community Organizing

     The first research material I will use, known to many as the “handbook of Community Organizing” is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. I had to read this text my first week at the ADP as part of my orientation to organizing. Alinsky states that Rulesis written for the have-nots on how to create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people. (Alinsky 1972, 2)  This book is also written for organizers who, believing in the people, have the job of organizing them so that they will have power and opportunity. The book's most important point is that one must begin from where the people are. Poor people are fixed participants in their concrete realities of poverty and oppression. Theoretically, Alinsky believes that it is only through the educational growth process of organizing that the oppressed are able to develop themselves as fully active and reflective human beings. This requires that people simultaneously become the active centers of their transformation and  the changing of their society. This in turn causes a disturbance with the status quo, as marginalized people begin to question the status quo in a public and organized way. Alinsky makes the reader feel that social change is inevitable when poor people are empowered individually and collectively for social and economic justice.

No discussion of Alinsky would be complete without discussion of the methodology he promotes to build relationships and build mass multi-issue organizations--the simple yet very important one-on-one dialogue. This is an intentional relationship-building conversation between an organizer and a potential or seasoned leader. The purpose of such a meeting is to uncover a person’s self interest and initiate a relationship. As simple as it sounds this is how poor peoples multi-issue organizations are built--on strong relationships between poor people, their neighbors, their communities and their organizations working together for social and economic justice. Alinksy’s model has been very influential in the formation of mass organization all over the US and continues to provide tools of organizing for both neighborhood and faith-based organizations. While Alinsky’s model is by no means intended to serve as a blueprint for revolution, as Alinsky himself recognizes that  every situation is relative and contextual and there are no prescriptions for change, it would be interesting to test the tools he does advocate outside of the context of the Untied States.

Another “how to” on organizing and testament to the power of poor people organized, is Si Kahn’s How People Get Power. Clearly written for organizers about community organizing, Kahn clearly states that he is not about providing a blueprint for organizing. He professes that there are no rules, only experiences, and that How People Get Power is for those who believe in people, their dignity, their determination, their capabilities, and their ability to solve their problems by working together. Reading his organizing theories helped me reflect on the two years of action and organizing that I did with ADP.  Kahn theorizes that mass action is the only way for the poor to leverage the power necessary to change any of the ways in which the system functions and in turn oppresses. Organizers in this paradigm are simultaneously responsible for teaching and being taught, and for organizing poor people to organize themselves so that when the organizer departs the leaders will be able take over her functions.  This book provides a step-by-step guide from from the time an organizer enters a community, spelling out what to do and not to do in gaining the trust of the people.  Gaining trust is an essential first step in establishing a base of power and an organizer's visibility in the community. The book argues that, from early morning to late night, an organizer's place is with the people, and communities will be more accepting of that which is most familiar.

Kahn also reiterates organizing theory, which recognizes the limits of people working alone, and understands that strong poor peoples organizations are built on strong relationships amongst the poor. It is the responsibility of the organizer to bring the people together in a way that creates mutual trust, interdependence and diversified leadership so that they together can challenge the structures that keep them in poverty. Kahn’s book contributes greatly to the practice and methodology of organizing but is lacking in its overemphasis on how to act without equally recognizing the importance of reflection in the process of action.

Social Change Theory and Methodology    

The importance of action and reflection is thoroughly examined in Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This text was influential in providing theoretical background on the importance of action and reflection in revolutionary practice and ultimately in social change. Even though this book was originally written in 1970 for the dispossessed in the Third World, it very much relates to poverty in today’s technologically advanced society where poor people living in urban ghettos and isolated rural areas are being objectified and are immersed in a “culture of silence.”(Freire 1970, 12). Pedagogy articulated the theoretical basis of the revolutionary ideology of liberation of the oppressed. “Liberation is praxis; the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.” (Freire 1970, 60).

Freire warns that action without reflection and reflection without action are both equally misleading and will not result in liberation or real change. Even such assumptions like the value of education is challenged in Pedagogy. Freire theorizes that, if education is not contributing to the emergence of consciousness and critical intervention in reality, then it continues to serve the needs of the oppressor and not the oppressed. Education must be used as a practice of freedom. Challenging the very ideology of teacher and student, Freire advocates education that does not portray the teacher as all knowing and student as passively receiving, but a “relationship of people attempting together to learn more than they now know.” (Freire 1970, 71). So simply stated yet radical in theory and practice.

Written not only for the oppressed but also for those fighting alongside them, Freire explains the necessity of understanding the oppressed as subjects in the here and now ultimately in control of their own transformation. Freire states, “human beings in communion liberate each other.” (Freire 1970, 113) Freire’s overall argument for liberation of the oppressed does not underestimate the importance of participation those from traditional privilege--the middle class and the bourgeoisie--their role in the liberation of the oppressed, and what it really means to be in solidarity.Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary…true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality…”(Freire 1970, 31) Stemming from his discussion of solidarity and the role of the privileged who see the contradictions and dehumanization in the current system of injustice and are committed to changing it, I find one of Freire’s assumptions troubling. Through much of Pedagogy Freire referred to leadership as if leaders were not from the poor masses directly. Several well-known, historical, Latin American revolutionary leaders were from the middle class and bourgeoisie, who led and in solidarity struggled towards social transformation with the oppressed. Critically, considering what a radical posture Freire suggests throughout the book, more must be developed on leaders coming from what Freire describes as the dispossessed themselves. I challenge this assumption based on my organizing experience of developing leaders from the most marginalized and poor sectors of North American society.  It is very difficult to provide critical analysis of Freire’s work, as it has influenced some of the most important revolutionary movements in this Western Hemisphere and beyond. But, as an organizer, this assumption of “leader” as being from outside the oppressed class was bothersome.

First Person Plural by David Smith takes off with how to utilize adult education in the process of liberation for social change. Obviously influenced by Freire’s work, Smith begins where Freire left off-- with the implementation of praxis and the use of adult popular education to liberate. Smith advocates the creation and use of participatory educational methods that in practice constitute structural change. Like Freire, Smith sees liberating education as empowerment, solidarity and participation. “Participation of the adult learner in daily life is at the center of the education process… self-awareness can lead to social change when people speak out and rebel against the contradictions in their lives.”(Smith 1980, viii) Smith bases the majority of his work within the theory and practice of true democracy.  He sees the human learning process at the center of the struggle for democracy. Education is all of the things that happen to you. Education derives from our total experience. It is the process of extracting meaning from that experience. And that’s what adult education proposes to do--situating people and their poverty within a historical context and educating them to make sense of their situation in reality right now. This process brings to light the contradictions under which one lives and, by naming the contradictions, oppressed people are enabling themselves to take action against them.

Just understanding who one’s oppressors are and the contradictions are sometimes not enough for people to speak out or rebel even in the face of extreme inequality. This topic was thoroughly examined in Power and Powerlessness by John Gaventa. Gaventa goes where few other social action researchers have gone, into depth on ideas and perceptions of power and powerlessness and how the two could serve to maintain inaction in the face of injustice, even in an “ open democratic society” like the U.S. Even though the context of his research was in Central Appalachia, his concepts of power and powerlessness, domination and inaction, quiescence and rebellion are applicable to other contexts. (Gaventa 1980). Gaventa breaks the concept of power into three dimensions. In the first dimension the powerful simply have greater resources than the powerless, and can use the resources to reward or punish. The assumption in this dimension is that everyone has equal access to the agenda, but that certain groups don’t have enough resources to make an impact. This shortsighted or undeveloped understanding of power alone inevitably leads to blaming the victims for their non-participation. The second dimension of power refers to the ability to effectively construct or remove barriers to participation by defining the issues and setting the agendas.  Here power is exercised towards the exclusion of certain participants and issues altogether. Mobilization of bias, as Gaventa calls it, is used not only upon decision-making in political arenas but also upheld through non-decisions. (Gaventa 1980, 15). Here an example would be utilizing the system's rules or procedures to deny a demand made by the powerless. In the third dimension, power influences public opinion by controlling information and instituting ideologies. Here the powerless internalize their weak position and blame themselves. In the third dimension the direct and indirect mechanisms of power suggest how it may serve to “shape the concepts of the necessities, possibilities or strategies of conflict.”(Gaventa 1980, 19). Gaventa stresses the importance of understanding the interrelation of the three dimensions of power, the totality of their impact upon a situation, and the resultant quiescence or rebellion.  This framework provides the conceptual basis through which to understand the effectiveness of community organizing. Not only does community organizing allow traditionally powerless people to participate (dimension 1) it also organizes them to influence the public agenda by calling attention to issues that directly affect their lives and those of other poor people (dimension 2) and changes the way people think about themselves, their neighbors, and power relationships in their world (dimension 3).

Research Methodology

The source of this research question stems from my work experience and love of the people. As required of a qualitative researcher, one must prove the legitimacy of her argument grounded in real theory. In an attempt towards theoretical sensitivity, I combined three sources to form the essence of this paper: 1) literature on the subject of study 2) my work experience in the field and 3) semi-structured interviews. This combination provided a framework to assess the perceived personal changes and development ADP leaders have experienced via their participation in the ADP.

The majority of the data are 20 semi-structured interviews with ADP leaders. I have drawn heavily from the transcripts of those interviews as well as from my own personal organizing experience with the 20 ADP leaders.

I used literature on the subjects of community organizing, power and social change as more than just  secondary sources. The texts helped me stimulate questions during the research proposal stage, discover relevant categories and relationships, and focus on what I was attempting to understand. Specifically, I drew heavily from Gaventa's theories of power and powerlessness  and Freire's theories of liberation education for social change.

Also, because research is never objective, my assumptions are reflected throughout this paper. Along with seeing the world as a problem to be fixed I also believe in the power of individual consciousness to transform, empower and liberate people from oppressive and immobilizing social structures. Personal transformation or radical change occurs at the individual level, which fuels the fight for transformation of social relations or power structures at the local level.  Contradictions deeply imbedded in society deprive people, particularly poor people, of important opportunities including but not limited to participation in civic life. The root causes of these contradictions are social, political and economic structures perpetuating poverty and oppression. I believe these structures need to be criticized from all sides, disorganized, and replaced with new structures that fundamentally promote equality, justice and liberation set in their place. But in order to bring about change I also recognize that  “one must start from where the world is” (Alinsky 1970, 13), recognizing the contradiction that the political, economic and social structures are fundamentally oppressive while also realizing that we must work within this system to change it. I propose the oppressive structures that are currently in place can be changed only by those they exploit to become progressively less oppressive and more inclusive.  Having positioned myself in the argument of organizing with the poor to fight for social change, my position has influenced this research project throughout and is the drive to present that, which is testimony to the power of the people, organized.

Method I: Semi-Structured Interviews

The majority of the data collection was done in April of 2003 when I carried out 20 one-on-one 45-minute semi-structured interviews with ADP leaders. Leaders in each of ADP’s member institutions are active in coordinating issue campaigns, working with ADP organizing staff and participating in the leadership of their individual tenant associations. Additionally, two leaders from each ADP member group serve on ADP’s Board of Directors. ADP leaders and their respective member institutions are the actors, decision makers and owners of the overall organization and the membership institutions. Hence the reason that, within the organizational ADP culture, leaders say “ I am ADP”

Like many qualitative researchers I sought to, “elicit in–depth answers about culture, meanings processes and problems.”(Rubin 1995, 5). Basically, I wanted to find out what others think and know. The beauty of qualitative interviews is that they are basically modifications of ordinary conversations. Conversation is not always as intentional or methodological as an interview is. Interviews are also similar in many ways to one-on-ones, an organizing methodology I was familiar with, so this made interviews that much more accessible and interesting. The purpose of this research wasn’t to categorize people or produce hard numerical data, but to have a better understanding of the personal transformation and change that takes place in ADP leadership overtime. Because the information sought after was specific, I used single-issue interviews “to gain testimony about a particular aspect of a person’s life.” (Thompson 1997,63). Since the purpose of the research was to highlight personal growth and transformation, the semi-structured format of a single-issue interview was preferable as I was able to articulate the topic for discussion and then guide the discussion by asking specific questions. The interviews are also considered semi-structured in that I made an effort to touch on a few key themes, e.g. injustice, initial participation, continual participation, change and growth and personal transformation. I also let the conversation flow in order to understand what was of importance to the interviewee.

When choosing interviewees I made an initial list of ADP leaders, ranking them based on a leader’s number of years in the organization, their level of participation, my organizing experience with them, and my own subjective understanding of how they have changed and grown with ADP. A list of 50 leaders was drawn from this first criterion. I then proceeded interviewing the top 20 based again on my own subjective experience as well as ADP leaderships’ availability and scheduling.  During the 45-minute semi-structured interviews I asked ADP leaders 10 questions:

1. When was the first time you saw or experienced injustice in your life?

          A. How did that make you feel?       B. What did you do? Did you act?

2. How long have you been with the ADP?

3. At what point did you take that first step to go to a meeting or participate in a direct action? What made you take that first step?

4. When did you realize your anger was ok?

5. Tell me why you continue to participate in this organization?

6. In the ___ years you have been with the ADP how has it changed you?

7. What have you learned about yourself?

8. Do you think that as you continue to participate in the organization, you are gaining more skills and developing yourself?

9. By taking on bigger and more roles within the ADP what kind of transformation have you gone through? Can you identify it?

10. When you go from being Mr or Mrs. __________ to being ______________ ADP leader what kind of change, if any, takes place?

I used a variety of open, closed, and double-barreled questions in the interview (Thompson 1997,66). Several of the questions involve more than one variable. This was done intentionally to give room for different individuals' experiences, not assuming that all leaders would have the same experience. There are two questions--#4 and #6--which I later learned could be of concern in terms of the ethics of research, as they are leading questions which are biased as they tend to assume and suggest a specific answer. In this case the researcher was assuming that all ADP leaders had an assessment of their anger, understood anger and felt it, and at some point had an experience with ADP that justified anger. In this situation, the majority of the ADP leaders interviewed knew what I was talking about as the organizing culture of the ADP emphasizes knowing and understanding the power of anger as motivation to change something.

The relationship I had to all the interviewees was based in our working relationship with one another as organizer (me) and ADP leader (interviewee). I had developed several meaningful and lasting relationships based in solidarity with many of the leaders in the two years I was at ADP as we struggled alongside one another for social change. All of the interviews except one were conducted at leaders' homes or in their immediate neighborhood to create as comfortable of an environment as possible. This is also where I had conducted most of my one-on-ones with leadership when I first came to the ADP. Because ADP organizes people initially around housing, in the neighborhoods and in people’s homes is where I developed relationships with the people and their communities.

The information from the interviews was broken down into three sections: A) tangible skills, B) personal change and growth and C) stories of personal transformation. The first section lists the most frequently mentioned skills gained by leaders. The next section is based on the interview transcripts using seven personal change and growth categories: 1) confidence 2) perseverance 3) awareness 4) self-respect and increased self-esteem, 5) possibility of change 6) knowledge of the ability to act and 7) motivate others. And the last section highlights the personal transformation of 10 ADP leaders.

Method II: Secondary Research

Books and articles informed the theoretical basis of this research. Liberation education and theories of action and reflection developed by revolutionary educator Paolo Freire were the most influential text in  understanding of the perceived growth and change of ADP leaders. A better understanding of the “culture of silence” of the poor or dispossessed was particularly influential in understanding what may be perceived as apathy, ignorance or lethargy but what is in reality an oppressive economic, social and political domination where critical awareness and response are practically impossible. (Freire 1970)

In regards to power, Gaventa’s three realms of power were influential in providing insight into peoples action and, more importantly, inaction in the face of obvious oppression and how power and powerlessness maintain what he calls quiescence, or the absence of rebellion. (Gaventa 1980). Challenge to the status quo, for Gaventa, develops only if there is a shift in power relationships. I found this to be absolutely true in my organizing experience with ADP where leaders engaged in any campaign had to demonstrate to a decision maker or powerful person that they too had power. Direct Action was the means of showing organizational power. And since ADP’s organizational power is in their numbers, only when a decision maker sees those numbers will he even consider negotiating.  When ADP leaders fought and won control over their housing complexes they were able to build power as a group and use that power to win on more issues that directly affected their members' lives. Gaventa’s notions the conditions under which challenge would emerge were most powerful. People must go through a process of issue and action formulation, of countering the direct and indirect effects of power's third dimension, and develop their own resources to wage the conflict. Gaventa advocates for a “self-determined action with others similarly affected upon clearly conceived and articulated grievances.”(Gaventa 1980, 25) That is what community organizing does and, in the process of doing so, has the power to transform people personally and collectively for power. 

Method III: Work Experience

This methodology of reflecting upon my own work experiences was ever present throughout the stages of this research project. It was my experience as an ADP community organizer, in the first place, that made me want to write about the people of ADP and their empowering stories of growth and personal transformation. Also, when reading secondary sources about power or social change or any of the themes that I read to enrich my understanding of my topic, I had to situate and test out different theories in my own head.  In order to do this I had to relate to my previous experiences, or lack of experiences, organizing poor people. My own personal growth experience organizing ADP leaders shaped my interpretation of their personal transformation, as it was a topic I introduced and expanded upon based on my experience, not a theme that was developed by leaders themselves. Once the topic was introduced, though, the majority of the leaders interviewed knew exactly what I was talking about. Others defined it not as a personal transformation but as an “awakening” or “sensation of power.” Therefore, the findings in this research project were influenced by a combination of leadership testimony and my work experience organizing.

Findings and Analysis

A fundamental principle of the ADP is leadership development. As described in a 2001 grant proposal to a prospective funder, “Turning interested but inexperienced low-income people into confident and assertive leaders continues to be the heart of the ADP’s work.”

ADP has built in a series of formal organizational structures to ensure that leadership development remains a priority within their institutional culture. These includes a twice yearly “Training for New Leaders.” These interactive trainings use popular education methods and incorporate current issue campaigns as examples of role-plays. In addition to providing training for emerging leaders, these sessions provide an opportunity for seasoned leadership to test their skills as trainers. Poor people teaching other poor people puts into practice the revolutionary ideology of each one teach one. Institutionally, there are also systems of issue-based Strategy Teams to work on regional campaigns led by a combination of experienced and new leadership. Finally, yearly Power Retreats broaden analysis of issues and develop strategies. These structures are very important as they institutionalize leadership development and put organizing theory into practice. I also found, from my personal organizing experience, that the day-to-day work of an organizer dialoguing, reflecting and learning with people to continuously develop current leadership and find new leadership was equal in importance to leadership development through the “formal” organizational structures. One-on-ones formed the basis for much of this leadership development.  Hundreds of hours are spent every year “ in the field” meeting one-on-one, building confidence, deepening relationships, teaching skills and offering leaders opportunities to take on new roles that will develop their skills and ability to handle different problems and situations in their communities.

The findings from the interviews have been organized into three different categories: 1) tangible skills 2) change and growth and finally 3) stories of personal transformation. Even though I created these categories to organize the qualitative data generated from the interviews they also show A) the interconnection between tangible skills and the growth and change that one experiences as part of his or her own development and B) identifiable growth and change that, in many leaders, has led to a radical personal transformation as highlighted in the story of eight ADP leaders.

Findings I: Tangible Skills

“Every human being, no matter how submerged in the culture of silence he or she may be is capable of looking critically at the world in a dialogical encounter with others. Provided with the proper tools for such encounter, the individual can gradually perceive personal and social reality as well as the contradictions within it, become conscious of his or her own perception of that reality, and deal critically with it.” (Freire 1970, 10)

I consider Freire’s theory in the quote above about the “proper tools” to include the development of certain skills. Tangible skill development in the process of being organized is the focus of this section. There is a saying in Organizing, kind of like a mantra, that I heard a thousand times in my two-year duration with the ADP that goes,How you ask the question determines the answer.” Realizing this, the results of the interview questions were subjective in that I was searching for and attempting to highlight ADP leaders' personal change, growth and transformation in the process of being organized. Therefore, the majority of responses focus almost exclusively on that. All leaders interviewed did mention the tangible skills they gained and, though less prominently, the relationship between those skills and their overall growth and change. All interviewees mentioned at least one or more of the tangible skills below they had acquired in their participation with the ADP:

  • Budget reading                                         
  • Door knocking
  • Agenda writing
  • Chair meetings
  • Critical thinking
  • Landlord and ownership related skills
  • Power Analysis
  • Relationship-building skills,
  • Organizing,
  • Decision making,
  • Problem solving,
  • Political education,
  • “ How to win”, 
  • How to work with people,
  • Public speaking,
  • Accountability,
  • Campaign strategy
  • Negotiate

The hypothesis is that leaders would place less influence upon these tangible skills compared to the growth and change ADP leaders witnessed in themselves. But, after processing the interview responses, tangible skills were mentioned in the majority of interviews and leaders placed moderate influence on the development of these skills as part of their ADP experience.  The development of tangible skills gained in one's participation in ADP are part of the continual education process of being organized. People are provided with tools to become more aware of and participate in changing their society. Upon analyzing the data it became obvious to me that there is overlap, often to the point of inseparability, between tangible skills gained and personal change or growth. Public speaking, for example, was a common tangible skill gained in a leaders' development, but the confidence and courage often times necessary to speak in public was categorized under personal change and growth. To be able to speak in public, especially “speaking to power” as it is called in ADP, involves a deeper consciousness and understanding of power and an analysis of the collective problem that brought them into the public sphere to openly challenge power. Many leaders saw their development of tangible skills as equally important to their own growth, and change.  Several interview responses highlight the inseparability of tangible skills and personal growth:

“Yeah, I know enough now where if I try to get a point across to somebody, I have the skills to make myself understood… Again it goes back to confidence. The confidence I had when I first started out and the confidence I have now. I didn’t have any in the beginning, lets put it that way. But I do have it now. But it comes from the experience of doing it.”  Interview #8

Another leader commented:

Yes, I’ve gained a lot of skills. One of it is dealing with the public. The other one is organizing. Confidence, I can speak in public. Interview #4

Another leader adds:

Absolutely. Tangible skills learned hands-on …I’m constantly getting experience, little things that mean a lot to me. Things I can use and improve on. Also, ADP exercises my critical thinking because they make me look and think in a different perspective than I ever did before, like political ways. That’s where I get to exercise my critical thinking more, like in strategizing for campaigns, thinking about targets self-interest all these things that I don’t do in everyday life. Interview #3

The interview data highlights the importance of tangible skill development to greater leadership and personal development. As ADP leaders have been witness and participants in workshops or situations where they are learning how to read a budget, for example, there is a lot more going on than just learning how to read a budget. Leaders are building their confidence as they learn a new skill, which will allow them to deal with new situations, deepen their understanding of how their organization operates, and educate themselves to fix “the problem.”  Leaders develop skills that are based in reality and which aid them in the transformation of their world. What leaders learn is relevant to their lives and to actively change in the power structure that once oppressed them. In this process of tangible skill development there is almost simultaneous personal and leadership development. While tangible skill development is happening leaders are learning to equip themselves with the tools necessary to deal with problems in their community and are building their self-esteem and confidence in their ability to lead. There was one particular incident from my organizing experience, highlighted in the following interview, that demonstrates the importance of organizers relaying their own practical skills to leadership so that they will in turn use the same skills in their community. Interviewee #6 comments:

“We can run anything…and I think that is how we have grown. Before I think it would have been, whomever was organizing would do it and I could follow them around and do it with them. But now I know I’m capable of doing it on my own. We are in charge. And the thing is I don’t think that one person could of did it, but the group as a whole what we learned from (our organizer) helped us and we are continuing on with our plan. We are growing, our community is growing.”

Organizer Si Kahn elaborates, “train leaders to be organizers, to give them skills and knowledge so they will take over the role of the organizer when he leaves.” (Kahn 1970, 39) The relaying of these skills, door knocking and listening campaigns in this case, to leaders help them also keep in touch with what their neighbors think and feel, the pulse of the community.

There were many times in my two-year duration with ADP that I saw the formal organizational structures for leadership development take a back seat to issue campaigns and the pursuit of victory. It was for this reason, and my belief in the simple yet powerful form of one-on-one conversations, relationship building and tangible skill development that I see ADP as an organization which prides itself on leadership development.  ADP should continue to offer seasoned and emerging leadership the option of building their tangible skills such as budget reading, meeting facilitation and problem solving which will then in turn further their own growth. Incorporating tangible skill development into strategic leadership planning, and the humanization and development of ADP’s people, should not be underestimated.

Findings II: Personal growth and change

Growth in awareness provides the basis for accepting new knowledge and the two together support the practice of tangible skill development. Awareness of self and of other perspectives is directly connected to being able to work well with others. These outcomes are not entirely surprising considering the social and economic situation of ADP leaders where nothing around them seems to be working in their favor as poor people. ADP organizers hone-in on conditions of injustice, oftentimes multiple injustices that are  happening concurrently to people in poverty, and the anger and powerlessness that people feel towards their situation. ADP organizers search for people's anger. “Does this person have any anger?” is a predominant question in an organizer's mind after a one-on-one while searching for new leadership. ADP staff and seasoned leadership encourage potential leaders to look more closely at the relationship between their situation and that of others around them, relating this to society in general and questioning what systems are implemented in greater society to keep people in poverty. ADP leaders and staff discuss with each other every day the development of awareness, ones ability to name that which is oppressing them, and then most importantly how to take action against that which oppresses. These conversations are not just lofty ideas being bounced upon the ivory walls of higher learning institutions.  They are real conversations of awareness and even strategy between neighbors  where poor people are getting organized.

In the 20 semi-structured interviews I asked each leader, “How has your participation in ADP changed you?”  And, “What have you learned about tyourself?”  Their responses to these two questions form the basis for the personal change and growth section of the findings. I have utilized quotes from other sections of the interviews as well, as I encouraged leaders to speak their minds and let the conversation flow. This section is about how leaders have changed and grown since their participation in ADP. The themes in this second section are of leaders developing a stronger sense of themselves, their capabilities, their ability to act and their relationship to other low-income people, gaining feelings of increased confidence, perseverance, self-respect and self-esteem, and awareness of self and surroundings.

Confidence /Fearlessness

“ADP has taught me not to be afraid.” Interview #11

Development of confidence is a result of greater sense of identity and self-awareness. A large majority of ADP leaders commented that their participation in ADP has resulted in greater self-confidence. This confidence is a result of leadership development including tangible skill development, practice and experience in speaking-out in a variety of settings such as meetings, direct action, with other ADP leaders etc…

“The confidence I had when I first started out and the confidence I have now. I didn’t have any in the beginning, let’s put it that way. But I do have it now. But it comes from the experience of doing it. I was fortunate enough to be thrust from the background to the limelight in the beginning taught me that I have to learn these things quickly. Interview #8

More confidence…in the right place. Because I was never one of those people who would get up and spoke before. Interview# 14

Another leader adds:

“ Sometimes I don’t feel like, my English is not perfect, I have an accent. But, my confidence comes because I speak the truth; whatever I am speaking is true. When I speak and give testimony I don’t speak to represent somebody, I speak for my testimony, for my experience.” Interview #19

Confidence was the most frequent theme mentioned in how people have been changed via their organizing experience with ADP. I witnessed this confidence manifest itself in ADP leadership time and time again when leaders were in negotiations with decision makers who they had to convince to “ do the right thing.” Action of any sort requires confidence in oneself. Confidence can be viewed as a “tool” in that it is a prerequisite in the communion and relationship building between poor people of the ADP. Developing confidence in oneself is deliberately built within the organization. As an organizer and leader prepare for the leader to speak in public it is the organizer and other seasoned leaders' jobs to give encouragement to people speaking to power. Leaders share their “first-time” speaking-to-power stories with one another in order to build individual and collective confidence. Unity of the group and amongst people in direct action or meetings is also a great encouragement to one’s development of confidence. One leader comments:

When I’m around the guys at ADP they always give you confidence… Even if you can’t, they’re gonna tell you you can. But all of them, its like a big family. We help each other out. It makes me feel good because I know people are listening And then they applaud you and it makes you feel really good, like yeah that’s right, I’m ___ I’m from ADP. That’s how it makes you feel. Interview #15

One must be equipped with confidence in order to speak to power in a public and confrontational way. In doing so, ADP leadership continues to find and develop within themselves and each other the confidence necessary to take action on the systems and people upholding the system that oppresses. “ADP increased the confidence I have in myself and the people I have around me.” Interview #20


Perseverance, as defined in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is “to persist in a undertaking in spite of counter influences, opposition or discouragement.”  If the very nature of community organizing is to disrupt and disorganize the power structures in place in order to change them, then the need of the oppressed to persist in the face of opposition becomes obvious. Perseverance  becomes the metaphorical anchor during the storm of discouragement that happens when poor people directly and openly put pressure on the power structures. Alinsky adds, “The first step in community organization is community disorganization. All change means disorganization of the old and organization of the new.” (Alinsky 1970, 116). If this is the case then it is no surprise that leaders frequented the topic of perseverance in the interviews. Several leaders commented that their experience with ADP taught them to not give up, focus on the issue and “stick to it” and that, with perseverance, victory is possible. Much of this is learned during issue campaigns where victories are hard fought and usually won because of the collective perseverance of ADP leaders and their thoughtful campaign strategies. Tenants campaigns are undermined in every way by the power structure in attempts to break the spirit of the people. Breaking this spirit is what Gaventa calls the “mobilization of bias” which is used in decision and non-decision making in the political arena.  Poor people must develop a mobilization of action upon the issues to overcome the mobilization of bias that is insidiously working against them. (Gaventa 1970, 24) This requires amongst other qualities, perseverance. One ADP leader comments:

Patience, I’ve learned some of that. To persevere and not to give up, because we went a long time before we got the (tenant) buyout, people would always say, o its never going to happen, its never going to happen, but I agreed that it would and kept on trying. Interview#9

Another leader elaborates:

“ I did learn something and that is to get up there and don’t settle for nothing but what is your right…Its not easy but you see things happening. It showed me that if you don’t succeed the first time you are going to try until you get something accomplished, until you get heard and get someone to listen and negotiate for what you want. Interview #1

In the organizational ADP history, many of the organized tenant buyouts of low-income housing complexes literally took years to happen. The concept of poor people building their own organizations and fighting to gain control of their housing and neighborhoods requires shifting  power from a have--a slumlord in many cases--to the have-nots--the low-income tenants. Haves will never paternalistically hand power over to the have-nots. The have-nots' struggle is a direct threat to the powers that be that requires a fight. One leader explains what he feels is the collective duty of the group to persevere and win. He comments:

Its up to you to get together and build power and use it, utilize it the right way, and that’s by making your point get across. You don’t want to tell them nothing but what’s your problem and you focus on that. This is my problem. I need this. This is what I want. I don’t want to go out to dinner with you; I don’t want to meet your family. I want to fix the problem. And they showed me how to focus on that. And that’s the main thing I’ve learned. Focusing on what is my issue, taking the issue and polarizing it. Interview# 13

This includes keeping the heat on a target or decision maker. Perseverance combined with faith, hope and focused intention, as described above in Interview #13, are essential learned attributes of an ADP leader in the struggle for change.

Self-respect and Self-esteem:

Poverty is alienating in that it increases poor people's feelings of isolation and powerlessness. Self-hate and a lack of self-esteem are common attributes of people who have been downtrodden by the system. Freire elaborates, “Self-depreciation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them.” (Freire 1970, 45).  All around them they hear that they are to blame for their own situation--that they are lazy, unproductive and incapable of learning anything. In this country, government and non-governmental systems alike that act with the intention of "helping” disenfranchised people further perpetuate their individual powerlessness by locking them into a self-depreciating cycle of dependence and insecurity. Poor Americans are being social-serviced to death, be it in the systems of food stamps and welfare, court and prison systems or child protection agencies that imposingly monitor and take poor children away from their parents and communities all the time. And while intending to “ help” in a humanitarian way, these social service systems keep people powerless and in poverty. It is only through  organizing and  becoming more aware of themselves, their situation and that of their neighbors that ADP leaders gain self-esteem and self-respect. One leader who herself was taken away from her mother at age four by the Massachusetts Department of Social Services and not returned home until she choose to do so at age 10 comments,

 I gained self-respect I think for living and being low-income. A lot of us people don’t have a lot of self-respect. They figure because they don’t have much money and they live in a place that is low-income and most of the people around them are low-income that what the hell do they need to do to make it better, because they’re already down in the pits. I think a lot of people lose their self-respect when they hit bottom. And I’ve gained it back through ADP. They taught me that it’s ok to be without. Interview #15

The above testimony is a direct contradiction to what poor people are taught to think about themselves. In a capitalistic, ruggedly individualistic, open, democratic society if you’re poor it’s your own fault. One of the greatest misconceptions of American capitalistic society is that anyone with a bit of initiative and creativity can succeed. The media portrays success stories of those from impoverished backgrounds making it big in American society. Yet the individual ladder-climbing success stories of a few people of color and poor people serve to keep people feeling guilty about their failure to make it in a place where “anyone can succeed” and in turn prevent discussion of collective advancement. Organizing works to defeat these negative images of poor people on an individual and collective level. In the process of leadership development, working with their tenant associations and the overall ADP organization, leaders gain increased self-assurance in their ability to lead. ADP leaders are well known throughout their neighborhoods.  People come to them in hopes of resolving problems and situations. One leader comments:

And in terms of my own self-esteem, it makes me feel good. Because this is my own community here, 85-90% of the people here in Canon Circle (his tenant-owned neighborhood) know who I am. People come to me they use me as a resource. It gives you a lot more self-esteem. Interview #20

Increased Awareness:

In the area of increased awareness, interviewees commented that, since coming to ADP, they are “more aware of what’s going on around them,” and of “what (their) rights are.”  They also have an increased awareness of self within the greater society, particularly about their position as poor people. As people collectively begin to educate each other, they literally discover themselves and their potential as they begin to name their world. Freire analyzes extensively the theme of increased awareness in terms of a people engaged in their own liberation. “He or she comes to a new awareness of self, has a new sense of dignity and is stirred by a new hope.” (Freire 1970, 15). One leader highlights his increased awareness:

I started knowing that I have rights and we can do a difference. That we are ordinary people but we can make extraordinary changes. I didn’t believe it when I went to Washington, I was talking to a Senator, and explaining to them what is the condition of the projects, the place where I live and I found out that a lot of people have the same problem, Nationwide. And I found that this is a National movement that really has backup. And people are listening to us and we are making a difference. Interview #19

This leader's increased awareness involved realizing that the problem was bigger than just his neighborhood and, because of organizing efforts like his, the movement to bring about change was also big. As part of a national network, ADP leaders have the opportunity once a year to participate in the National People’s Action gathering in Washington D.C., with 80 community organizing groups from all over the U.S. This is a yearly opportunity for community leaders and organizers of the many institutions to report on and share their accumulative work over the previous year on local and national issues. Three days of interactive meetings and workshops led by experienced and inexperienced leaders and two days of direct action and Senate and Congressional lobbying constitute this gathering. It is through national action and solidarity with other similar groups that leaders come to an understanding of the bigger picture of social change that they are a part of. 

I don’t know when was the first action that we did. The one in D.C.- NPA. And that was the first time I started really getting into it. Because people weren’t ashamed to talk about that they were on welfare and what happened or it wasn’t no shame in being poor.  Because it’s not just something that you want to happen to you, sometimes it happens. But to me poor people have a mentality like that’s how it’s supposed to be and that’s just how it is. But these people at the meetings were like, you know there’s certain things that happen to you that shouldn’t be happening. There’s certain things that you should know about that shouldn’t be happening. Interview #14

Another leader elaborates about his awareness of his own and others' contributions towards the larger struggle for social justice:

Me being part of the big picture… it brought us together for me to be able to look at how the things should be ran for people in poverty. A lot of us in poverty don’t know that we are able to do the things that we do. Its through being organized it showed me how to do it. So what I’m doing now is taking my organizing skills that I learned and putting it to use so that it is not only benefiting me, its benefiting others. Interview# 13

Another leader's increased awareness included recognizing and validating her anger, and acknowledging the transformational impact that anger has in bringing about change. She comments:

Working on issues that effected people like me and other people. We were being treated unfairly and unjustly and that it wasn’t fair that we have to keep being treated like that and that it was ok to be angry and that with our anger it would help bring on change. You have to be angry about a situation to want to change it. If your just passive about it doesn’t... than its not really affecting your life. But if its something that emotionally brings anger to you than that’s ok. Then that makes you help want to take action towards changing it. Interview #7

Working with the community it has made me visualize my surroundings more, awareness of what’s happening all the time. It’s taught me self-respect, leadership, definitely awareness. To always be aware of what’s going on around you. Interview #20

The above quotes demonstrate the power of people organized for change. Awareness becomes an essential prerequisite for one's own growth and personal change. Awareness also includes becoming aware of that which oppresses. All leaders took their new awakening or awareness with ADP a step further by developing an awareness that they, as a collective group were able to act on that which oppresses.

Awareness of ability to ACT

Part of ADP’s mission statement is to empower low-income families…” Empower as defined by Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is “ to enable or permit... to give power or authority to.”  Considering this, any discussion of ADP leadership development, and of personal change and growth in the process of becoming organized, must  use the word empower or empowerment. For providing people with the ability to act, in this case on issues that directly effect their lives, is at the heart of organizing. A majority of the interviewed leaders described being offered the ability to act or in their words, “ to fight… to speak out… to be able to do something about…” One leader says:

ADP showed me how to, fight; I don’t want to say fight... It has shown me that if you want something you have to go out there and get it. Interview #1

Closely tied with an increased awareness of self, ADP leaders learn via experience about their ability to take action. Awareness of the ability to act in this context also requires a commitment to take action. Not only do leaders become aware that they can collectively DO something about injustice, they move that awareness into action. 

When I moved out on my own, ADP showed me no, we’re not supposed to be living like this, you can do this, you can do that. You can fight the slumlords and get something better. Because like I said, people that live in slums are always supposed to stay in slums. And that’s not right. Interview #11

Part of one’s growing awareness in being organized is the awareness of  “one's rights” as many ADP leaders describe it. As citizens in a democracy we are taught that we have “rights.” Many people in poverty, cut off from civic life and democratic participation, as was the case with these interviewees before coming to ADP, learned through their increased awareness and action that they had rights. This is one of the many contradictions in ADP leaders' lives as poor people in a “democracy.”

 “Whereas before I use to sit back and think there was nothing I can do, now I know there is its just finding the right way to go about it.” Interview #18

Well this is the thing when we go back to this power in numbers. You may see an injustice and if you weren’t aware of an organization like ADP or it wasn’t accessible to you, and you saw a real injustice being done and you wouldn’t have anybody to turn to or go to you would have to sit back and say, o well, this is the way it is and I don’t like it but there isn’t anything I can do about it. With ADP I have found personally, like I said I have found strength in ADP. Interview #5

Possibility of change

Poor people in the ADP learn from each other the possibility of change. This is demonstrated in the tangible “proof” that seasoned leaders provide for emerging and potential leadership. “We did it, so can you.” Tenant associations in the initial stages of organizing themselves to gain control over their housing complexes are encouraged and helped by tenants who have already been through their own fight. Their struggle and victory in turn becomes the “proof” that it can be done, that change is possible. Proof is necessary for people to believe in what someone is saying or encouraging them to do. Without proof in the possibility of change very few people would be willing to risk the chance.

And I sat down and talked to some people who had done it before and they explained how they took over their community… I was invited to a meeting and a couple of their Hits! (direct actions) Seeing the people motivated and that they were fighting for the same issues that the place where I was living was going through. That made me get more involved. Yes, seeing other people and fighting for the same cause…getting together for the same cause and wanting to see the same things, being successful in something that they wanted real badly to change. Interview #1

The possibilities of change originate in collective struggle for change. Leaders learn that, even though an organization is made up of empowered individuals, as in the case of ADP, the real possibility of change comes from the group working together.

Well, anybody is capable of change. And working together is how we make big changes. Where I used to think that, “O there is nothing I can do about it.” Now, I know there is. It’s just finding the right way to go about it. Interview #18

I learned that you can make a change, for the positive. It isn’t one person that does it; it’s the group. I know that together we can accomplish almost anything when we’re organized. Before I was by myself I was alone, and I couldn’t accomplish anything. Now I can. Interview #6

It brings power to people that don’t know they have the power. And it shows them when they believe in something they can accomplish it. It empowers people. It shows you how being independent you really won’t get far. With being organized you get what you want. Because not only you have the problem other people have the same exact problem, but just don’t know how to deal with the issue. Through organizing it puts it all together and puts you together with all the people. Interview# 13

Motivate others

“ When they discover in themselves the yearning to be free they perceive that this yearning is aroused in their comrades.” (Freire 1970, 29)

Like Freire’s quote demonstrates, the desire to motivate and inspire others towards unity for change is a contagious act of bravery of ADP leadership. ADP leaders' desire to motivate, help and inspire others to take that first step, as they once had done, was found throughout the interview responses. Organizationally, ADP focuses on the relationships between and amongst its members, knowing that strong organizations are built on strong relationships. People are encouraged to get others to come to a meeting or participate in an action. The idea of bringing a cousin, neighbor or friend into the organization is realized within the organizational culture especially during times of turnout for public events when we ask each leader “ How many people can you turn out?”  Ownership of an organization also means being invested in the success of a public event which is the responsibility of everyone within the organization. This helps build the organization, but it also encourages people to get out there and inspire their next-door neighbor.

So you want to motivate other people to do it too. That’s the main thing I want to do, I want to commit somebody else who might be thinking about it. You know, just go ahead and do it. Because I feel like I’m the average person. Nothing special about me. Nothing special. I still wash dirty clothes everyday and mop the floor and clean up and wipe noses, go into work 30 minutes late. Just like everybody else. People think that if you’re out there you’re different and you’re really not. It just takes time to get to where you are. Interview #14

I’m a real good leader. I lead people in ways that they want to succeed in the world. They want to put their minds to doing things…We don’t have to sit here and wait for somebody else do it. We can stand up for ourselves, and fight for ourselves, and get our point across. And by us doing that makes other people want to join us- especially other youth want to join us because you know they say look at those kids you know what I mean, they’re colored and their standing up and their fighting for their rights. So, we might as well help them out and start doing what we have to do to. Interview #10

Motivating others to get up and join the struggle is a necessary attribute of the ADP leadership. As leaders they are responsible for going out in their neighborhoods and encouraging people to participate in the different actions and opportunities their organization has to offer. Poor people are much less suspicious of a proposition to participate from a neighbor or friend-of-a-friend than from an organizer. Leaders also mentioned how the desire to motivate others derives from the sense of powerlessness and frustration that they felt as individuals before they were organized for the collective cause. Knowing how isolated and frustrated in their poverty that their neighbors may be, as they once were, is another inspiration to motivate others.

I think it also makes me feel better, it gives me something to look forward to knowing that I can help other people, knowing that I don’t want people to feel the way I did when I first applied for welfare. And letting people know there are lots more ways out of things, there is more help that you can get. And they are not alone. Poor people are not alone. And I think if you step up and help somebody with support they are going to help themselves. I think it makes a difference. Interview #2

Teach them that this is how its done and this is how you learn. Build up their confidence. So other people seeing you in this role, builds their confidence, if ___ can do this...I can do it! Interview # 4

Seeing other people fighting for the same cause… getting together for the same cause and wanting to see the same things, being successful in something that they wanted real badly to change. Well, if I get motivated I can motivate other people. Interview #1

I kind of feel like I have taken a leadership role and that I can have some of the good things that have happened to me, happen to other people. Interview #7 

Findings III: Personal Transformation

 “And as those who have been completely marginalized are so radically transformed they are no longer willing to be mere objects, responding to changes occurring around them; they are more likely to decide to take upon themselves the struggle to change the structures of society, which until now served to oppress them.” (Freire 1970, 15)

The category of personal transformation is utilized in this paper to mean an overt, transformational and recognizable change in self, including attitude, perceptions and abilities. Though not always clearly articulated, transformations of this sort were often times described by leaders in the interview as “I was like ____ and now I’m _______.” While all ADP leaders have grown and changed in the process of being organized, I determined that the experience of being organized has impacted only a few of them to such a degree as to be transformational. I was able to differentiate between those who have been transformed and those who haven’t based on the interview responses as well as my own organizing experience with the interviewees. Attributes that all of the personal transformation stories share are: how their individual and collective consciousness had permeated into their personal and private lives to such an extent that they wanted to keep growing and show others how to do it too.

Based on my work with ADP leadership, those who had been transformed ideologically had a worldview  enriched by their political and social work with the ADP. This permeated into their private lives as well. My personal knowledge of individual leaders, based on my work with them, also influenced my perceptions of whether a leader had gone through a personal transformation or not.  Poor people in the process of organizing for power and social justice see how systems of poverty and oppression work within our society. While they may have always had a sense of injustice and systematic poverty, they were now being offered an opportunity to ACT--to do something about that--and in doing so were transformed.

Personal transformation cannot be discussed in this paper outside of the context of power and powerlessness. Power, as defined by Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is, “ the ability to act.” For the sake of this discussion powerlessness could thus be defined as, “the inability to act.” As low-income people, all ADP leaders have felt injustice in their lives.  Because of their inability to do anything about specific injustices in their lives as individuals, leaders felt almost overwhelmingly powerless in the face of injustice, “What could I do” and “I couldn’t do anything” were the most common responses when I asked if they were able to act upon a specific injustice they had experienced before becoming involved with ADP. Once organized with the ADP, however, leaders talked about feeling power and feeling like there was something they could DO about what was happening to them. A sense of individual powerlessness towards injustice was transformed into a sense that they could do something together, knowing the power in WE and not just me. That is not to say that a sense of individual powerlessness no longer occurs in ADP leaders' lives.  On the contrary, they continuously experience it.  But now they have the knowledge to speak out in an organized, empowered way against systematic injustice. 

This final section highlights the personal transformation of 8 of the 20 ADP leaders interviewed. Each story of personal transformation is unique, but all highlight different radical liberation theories as proposed by Freire.

Personal Transformation #1: Radicalization

Radicalization, as defined by Freire requires “an increased commitment to the position one has chosen and greater engagement in the effort to transform concrete, objective reality.” (Freire 1970, 19) This term describes well the transformation of the following ADP leader. His interview answers have been sewn together to highlight the personal transformation, in this case radicalization, that this leader has gone through. An explanation and analysis of his personal transformation follows.

Before, I was only thinking about my problem. Not everyone else that lives in the areas problem, which we all basically had the same problems. But, by me going in there by myself…I wasn’t getting nowhere.

With being organized you get what you want. Because not only you have the problem other people have the same exact problem, but just don’t know how to deal with the issue. Through organizing it puts it all together and puts you together with all the people.

Me being part of the organization, it brought us together for me to be able to look at how the things should be ran for people in poverty. A lot of us in poverty don’t know that we are able to do the things that we do. Its through being organized it showed me how to do it.

My thing now is to learn more and help solve more issues. To fight for the rights, and show ‘em how to do it…Taking my organizing skills that I learned and putting it to use so that it is not only benefiting me, it's benefiting others.

Before this leader got organized he was a powerless individual. “ By myself... I was getting nowhere.” Since coming to ADP he learned about “ being organized…” and “how the things should be ran for people in poverty.” Now, with those lessons and tools learned, he has committed himself to “ learn more and help solve more issues. To fight for the rights, and show ‘em how to do it… Taking my organizing skills that I learned and putting it to use so that it is not only benefiting me, its benefiting others.”

 This positioning will allow him to use his skills to help others transform their concrete realities. The struggle for liberation is a collective effort where each-one-teaches-one. Realizing that social change depends on conscious and empowered individuals acting collectively, this leader acknowledges the strengths and skills he has learned and commits himself to organizing others. Now, with the tools that he has learned, he consciously places himself in the struggle to keep the ball rolling, and keeps fighting so that it benefits others. This ADP leader has experienced a personal transformation from powerlessness to organized to radicalized.

Personal Transformation #2: Becoming the struggle

Before, I knew there was something wrong. And I thought there was nothing I could do. But here came (ADP) and they said there was something we could do about it…I had my doubts before then. Who are these people? Why are they doing this? So it’s like a relationship for the first time, I had to find out who is who.

After awhile I felt a part of the movement. I was the movement because this is a movement that is the spirit of the pp… you are part of the whole movement of the whole idea. This is what it is, it’s people.

Once one of our targets asked me the question, “ Do you trust ADP?”  And my answer was, how am I going to trust it? I am ADP.

I had some questions about myself. After I started working for the people that reinforced my vocation. My vocation is to work with people.

I’m open, I’m willing to keep working. We know that we have a new challenge to achieve. And, I’m going to march.

The personal transformation of this ADP leader can almost be summarized in his one quote, “ I am ADP.”  He has experienced a transformation from recognizing injustice, but feeling powerless in its face and doubting that change was possible, to consciousness raising via his work with ADP, to realizing that his vocation is to work with the people. This realization was monumental in his personal transformation for, in the process of realizing himself, he became conscious of his purpose and strength in life. This gradual personal transformation is seen early on in his ADP participation when confronting a target (a person who has the power to grant or squelch collective demands) this leader consciously denies the target's attempt to divide and conquer by saying “ how am I going to trust it, I am ADP.”

Personal Transformation #3: Periphery-to-Center

This sort of transformation highlights a movement from being on the outside, where a person is more vulnerable, to the center, where one has a more active and conscious view of where one stands in the grand scheme of things. Freire would describe the change as moving from being objectified to being subjects of one's own life. Empowered people, in the process of humanization, take control of their individual and collective destinies, becoming the subjects of their lives. This leader her personal transformation as a movement from the back of the room where one is passive and non-committal to the front where one is necessarily active and publicly committed.

Before, I was… its like when you first go into a church, you don’t know that church yourself, so you just stay in back. And now, you know that I’m going to be in the front because I know what we’re talking about. I am not afraid anymore. I don’t stand in the back. So I stand in the front because I know what is going on.

From your first few meetings to where you are now, you are more involved you’re acting on, you take a role, you take part on what you’re going after. And when you first started you were a listener now you are an actor.

I just feel good that people are willing to listen to somebody who was in the back line and that they themselves can do and get to the position that I ‘m in because they decided to stand up.

Not only is her personal transformation from the outside to the center empowering, she sees it as an obligation for the liberation of others--feeling obligated to step up so that others will see and follow. that people are willing to listen to somebody who was in the back line and that they themselves can do and get to the position that I’m in because they decided to stand up…” This leader displays how her personal transformation has led her to inspire others to do the same.

Personal Transformation #4: From isolation to community

I used to be a very outgoing person and after my marriage I went downhill. And for about seven years I think I sort of hid, hid away from everything, and this is bringing me back out.

Fighting for what I believe in has made me a better person. I’m more outgoing with people now, I don’t sit in the corner as much as I used to, I try to help and I think it has made me a better person.

I think it also makes me feel better, it gives me something to look forward to knowing that I can help other people, knowing that I don’t want people to feel the way I did when I first applied for welfare. And letting people know there are lots more ways out of things, there is more help that you can get. And they are not alone. Poor people are not alone. And I think if you step up and help somebody with support they are going to help themselves. I think it makes a difference.

I think I look at things different; I don’t just look at everything as black and white. I think I look to see why this is happening, is there any way to better it. It has made me broader, to look at things different, really, really take a look and not look at things as black and white.

I think I have some skills that I never thought would matter, I didn’t think it mattered but I realized that with some of my skills I’m helping other people so that makes me whole. I’m learning different ways to do what I do to help others.

This personal transformation, from feelings of isolation after a traumatic life incident, to her emergence and growth as a human being in the process of realization, is being further developed by helping others. My own knowledge of this leader's development has aided me in assessing her transformation. As a sixty-three year old handicapped woman, her appearance is not one that ordinarily commands respect. But I saw her demonstrate bravery and focus in an extremely tense action where many people would have backed down. At this particular action on the Regional Employment Board (REB) in Springfield, Massachusetts, ADP people stormed in 100 deep on the REB’s monthly meeting, demanding a place on the agenda. The REB’s president was in the middle of a presentation and could only gawk when this sixty-two year old handicapped woman handed him a golden screwdriver and told him loud and proud, “We’re tired of being screwed!” This action was successful due in part to this leader's bravery in the face of power.

Personal Transformation #5: Distant-to-Present

Freire describes one transformation that occurs in the process of liberating education: “he or she comes to new awareness of self, has a new sense of dignity and is stirred by a new hope.” (Freire 1970, 14).  People will often relate this as going from a state of sleep to being awake, or being blind and now able to see. The personal transformation of the following leader marks a clear before and after.

Well when I first got involved in the ADP I use to sell drugs and I use to party a lot, and go out.

My focus wasn’t there…I started getting involved in the ADP and I think I had visions of the future…

 It changed me a lot as a person. I got away from the bad and started focusing on the good…. Before I was just distant and living day-to-day, now I’m living for the future to do things right. And now being at school and having education as my future not selling drugs all my close friends they see that and that’s a definite big transformation.

I have taken a leadership role and that I can have some of the good things that have happened to me, happen to other people.

This leader was living day-to-day with a meaningless job and no apparent economic options as a single mother, and was taken in by the attractive money and lifestyle of drug dealing. As the organizer who propositioned her to get involved with ADP I saw her potential and fire-in-the-belly from the start. She was one of the ten leaders whose development I watched closely in my two-year duration with the ADP. Talking to her about the struggles she had experienced in the welfare office and hearing the degrading stories she told me of her interaction with that system, I was able to identify her anger and passion. When ADP started working on welfare reform I propositioned her to get involved. From that campaign she became more involved and vocal within the organization, and her transformation started. Upon getting involved she risked everything, giving up drug dealing to go back to school and make a better future for herself and her kids. Her transformation involved a profound and proactive decision to take control over her life.

Personal Transformation #6 & #7: From powerless to powerful

Unity and organization can enable them to change their weakness into a transforming force with which they can re-create the world and make it more human. (Freire 1970, 55)

This personal transformation highlights the similar stories of two ADP leaders who have made the transformation from powerlessness to powerful as part of their collective endeavor for change. After a life of powerlessness as poor people and women of color, the feelings of power in collective action and victory were transforming for these two leaders.

I felt powerless. I mean, I tried everything...But, at that point the system was closed to me... its like you’re a grain of sand in a big dune.

With ADP I’ve learned if you believe in something strongly you can fight to get what you want to accomplish. Because I believe in what they are doing and what they want to accomplish. And I want to be a part of the good that they do.

I learned that you can make a change, for the positive. It isn’t one person that does it it’s the group. I know that together we can accomplish almost anything when were organized. Before I was by myself I was alone, and I couldn’t accomplish anything. Now I can.

And the thing is I don’t think that one person could of did it. But the group as a whole…I know that I can change things in my life. If things aren’t going right, I know I can change them.

Power, as this leader describes it, is being able to make a change, both collective and individual. What she has learned in her collective struggle about the possibility of power to change and transform a situation has also permeated her personal life. Her transformation goes from feeling powerless in the face of injustice to learning that, while alone we cannot accomplish anything, through the collective effort of being organized change is possible.  The personal transformation has permeated her personal life in that she now realizes that, “I can change things in my life.”

The last story documents one woman’s personal transformation journey from her beliefs to her ability to act on those beliefs in the power of a collective effort for change:

I was afraid. There were many occasions when I wanted to tell, that I wanted to speak and I was afraid. The ADP gave me... they give you confidence they give you strength. They made me feel like I wasn’t simply one more. That I could make a big difference.

 I believe that you cannot sit and wait for others to make the change. Because I believe that we have to do something, together. For whatever reason we are in this situation and we have to do something good about it. Maybe we struggle and we don’t win much but we’ve got to do it. But I think that one must always give something good to humanity. Somebody has to do it.

ADP made me value myself more. Before I didn’t think, I didn’t think about myself. You have to think about yourself. To love yourself first so that you can do something for others. You cannot give something that you yourself don’t have. So, it made me feel better as a person, my self-esteem. So I say, I learned this much and I can also give this much.

When I’ m with ADP I act differently. I feel like, I feel like I have a certain control. Power! That’s the right word. Power because I can get up there and say what I think and what I believe. And I feel a sensation of power.        

Discussion and Conclusion

This section examines the interview findings in the context of Freire's theoretical understandings, pulling together the three findings of tangible skill development, change and growth, and personal transformation as explained by ADP leaders. This discussion attempts to answer the main research question, which is, What kind of change, growth and personal transformation takes place in ADP leaders in the process of organizing for social change?  Even though the sample size is considered too small to make scientific conclusions, the ideas and themes that emerged from the 20 interviewees are insightful and helpful in understanding how people grow, change and in turn are transformed by the process of a collective struggle for social change. 

Tangible skill development, though not the most important development in ADP leaders' experience, still had a substantial influence on how they have changed and grown since coming to ADP. These skills should be viewed as tools, tangible means to help a leader make more sense of their world and take action upon it. The teaching of tools common to organizing and institutional development also prepares leaders with practical skills that give them the confidence to lead. The tangible skills mentioned by ADP leadership in the interviews are all easily replicable and broad enough that their usefulness goes beyond their application in community organizing to other arenas of leader’s lives.

Tangible skill development and personal change and growth are also interconnected. Tangible skill development requires some initial personal change and growth inasmuch as a leader’s personal growth also requires the development of concrete tools. Confidence (personal growth), for example, is an attribute necessary for decision-making (tangible skill). Relationship-building skills (tangible skills) are related to the desire to motivate others (personal growth).  These examples show how the two elements of tangible skill development and personal change continuously reinforce one another. The common thread between the tangible skills learned in ADP and one’s growth and personal change demonstrates that leaders recognize and appreciate the opportunity ADP provides to learn existential tools, which contribute to personal growth and a greater understanding of the world and how to fix it.

The themes that developed out of the findings on personal growth and change include how leaders are developing a stronger sense of themselves, their capabilities, their ability to act and their relationship to other low-income people. The seven areas of personal change and growth most frequently mentioned by ADP leaders are 1) Confidence and Fearlessness, 2) Perseverance, 3) Self-respect and Self-esteem, 4) Increased Awareness, 5) Awareness of ability to act, 6) Possibility of change and 7) Motivating others.  These findings clearly articulate what ADP leaders have learned in the process of organizing. These changes happen within the context of collective struggle for social change. These outcomes can be viewed as the result of an educational process that is intentional, purposeful and potentially liberating. Freire says that education should be the “practice of freedom… the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” (Freire 1970, 16) This educational process, as a practice of freedom, has the potential to contribute to the formation of empowered, outspoken, and conscious leaders collectively working for social change as outlined in this study of ADP leadership. If ADP teaches people how to deal critically with reality and participate in the transformation of their world through organizing, the theoretical model that ADP employs is essentially about the liberation of people. Even though no interviewees made such a comparison between organizing and liberation education, the relationship between tangible skills and personal growth shows their connection. None of the tangible skills or growth developments could have occurred in such an integrated and interdependent way if it were not for the people working collectively for change. 

The stories of personal transformation outlined in the last section highlight what kind of radical personal change is possible in the process of organizing. The seven personal transformations included were, 1) radicalization, 2) embodiment of the struggle, 3) movement from periphery-to-center, 4) movement from isolation to community, 5) movement from distant-to-present and lastly 6 & 7) movement from powerless to powerful.

These stories highlight the radical transformation of ADP leaders and how their experiences, understandings and actions have permeated deep into both their collective experience and their private lives as well. This individual and collective consciousness has permeated to such a degree that leaders desire continuous learning and growth so that they can expand their impact on society and, most importantly,  inspire and guide others to do the same. The personal transformation section provides examples of ADP leaders who, in their own skill and personal development, have taken their “education as a practice of freedom” a step farther than just empowerment of self and the collective.  In understanding what kind of personal gains ADP leaders develop through their participation in the organization, ADP should continue to promote itself as a community organization that not only provides its leaders with the preparations necessary for collective revolution but personal evolution as well.


This paper was initially intended to understand the perceived personal change and growth of ADP leaders since their participation with the ADP. Specifically, I wanted to know how leaders perceived their own change and growth in their collective struggle for social justice. What I found is that each person's change and growth, while individual and unique, can be grounded in theories of liberation education and action as articulated by Paolo Freire.  And understanding and use of Freire’s theories for the liberation of the oppressed, if intentionally developed and used by ADP staff and leadership, could contribute to a deeper understanding of ADP’s struggle and their position in the context of the larger struggle of the oppressed for personal and social change.

 Reflecting on my personal experience, there were many times in my two-year duration with ADP that I saw the focus on personal development take a back seat to winning on issue campaigns. A factor underlying this issue of organizational priorities is that concrete, measurable goals and achievements are valued in mainstream society. And because ADP works within the existing system, the merit of an organization like ADP is often reduced to its accomplishments: number of tenant owned units, number of families the organization represents, amount of assets in cooperative control, successful implementation of projects, partnerships and programs etc. ADP fortunately does not limit itself exclusively to such quantifiable achievements. In fact, what might be the most important and radical contribution that ADP makes to society is the immeasurable process of building people and the relationships amongst them intentionally. According to this research, this contribution is one of the things leaders value most about ADP.

But, there were numerous times in my two-years of organizing with ADP that this focus was lost. This is where the role of reflection in the process of collective action is absolutely necessary to maintain the focus on people's development and their relationship to each other within the organization. Freire elaborates, “the insistence that the oppressed engage in reflection on their concrete situation… if it is true reflection, leads to action.  When a situation calls for action, true action will constitute an authentic praxis only if its consequences become the object of critical reflection.” (Freire 1970, 48). ADP as an organization, which prides itself on empowerment and action, should continue to make reflection a priority with the organization.

Furthermore, ADP should strategically take more time to train leaders, build relationships and develop a feeling of solidarity among its leaders. The method ADP uses to achieve results is finely tuned and, in terms of its organizational mission, works. Leaders are trained, issues are strategized and people are mobilized to confront power. It is easy for the organization to overlook the importance of reflection on the underlying mission and heart of the ADP when engaged in a campaign battle with the enemy or when things are running smoothly, but ADP must strive to avoid this pitfall.

ADP has identified a myriad of viable ways to address problems in our society that most people see but feel powerless to solve. By establishing institutions through which poor people can come together and take action, ADP overcomes social tendencies toward isolation and apathy.  After two years with ADP, I know that my observations and conclusions could lead to more specific suggestions that help the organization to grow stronger, by strengthening its people.

Now, the challenge is twofold: to promote the heart of the ADP’s work:

turning interested but inexperienced low-income people into confident and assertive leaders” by grounding it in a pedagogy of the oppressed as proposed by Paulo Freire and to equip its seasoned and future leadership with the expectation that they too can be revolutionized and transformed in the process of collective action for justice that will create lasting social change.


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This was a Capstone Paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of International and Intercultural Management at the School for International Training, Brattleboro, Vermont. Janaki Natarajan Tschannerl, Advisor

First and foremost, thank-you to all my people at the School for International Training for your guidance and letting me write and research about something that I’m very passionate about. Y’all made the ivory towers of higher education much less intimidating.

Big shout-out to Janaki for her guidance and teachings and for holding me accountable when nobody else would.

I am deeply grateful to the A-DP leaders and our friendships of solidarity that we built alongside each other in the trenches for social change. I feel privileged to have worked alongside you and felt the power of the people organized especially when we were victorious!

I am particularly indebted to the leaders who agreed to be interviewed. Your stories of growth and personal transformation towards the goal of collective advancement made this paper possible and transformed this academic research process into a profoundly meaningful and reflective experience.

To my mentor Caroline your fire and faith in me showed me that I have what it takes to be a damn good organizer. May my love of the people continually fuel my drive to organize amongst them.

And to my mom and my brothers for without you and the sacrifices we made to get my capstone done, I would have had to abandon academia to make my way in the real world.

And last but not least, to my baby girl Sofia. Thanks for your patience this past year as mommy worked on her research project. I’ll make the lost playtime up to you, I promise.  This one’s for you girl!

About the Author

As of February 2004 Lindsey has returned to the ADP as Lead Organizer. Recently featured on CNN news participating in a 500 person plus HIT on Bush advisor Karl Rove after he refused to meet with the National People's Action on supporting the Dream Act. Lindsey is in search of experienced organizers to join the incredible work of ADP.