Volume 14, 2008

Making Change in Communities Today:  Review of We Make Change

Colleen Everett

We Make Change
We Make Change
Community Organizers Talk About What They Do--and Why

Kristin Layng Szakos and Joe Szakos

June 2007
paperback price $27.95  

isbn: 978-0-8265-1555-1

Available from Vanderbilt University Press or through your locally-owned bookstore.

We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk about What They Do--and Why, by Kristin and Joe Szakos, combines the perspectives of a number of organizers in a format that effectively and correctly describes community organization in a very understandable way. Not only does it discuss the job of organizing, it also gives the job a face and adds a personal touch to it, as it contains the profiles of fourteen individuals who have made community organizing their careers. In addition, the authors interviewed many organizers and quote them in order to provide a tapestry of personal experience and opinions regarding community organizing. At the end of the book, the authors even provide a synopsis of what everyone they interviewed is doing now, and for which organizations these people actually work. Using this interesting technique of writing, Kristin and Joe Szakos delve into topics such as the definition of community organizing, how and why organizers get involved with it, qualities that make a successful organizer, disappointments and victories organizers have encountered, and advice for those aspiring to become an organizer.

Profiles of Organizers

The first profile, “A day in the life of an organizer,” begins the authors’ examination of community organizing.  It addresses the basic question of what a community organizer is by exploring the life of Brian Johns. Johns is a young organizer who is at the beginning of his career and discusses what he does on a typical day at work. His duties include setting up meetings, going to workshops, following up after meetings, engaging in one-on-one meetings, working to find endorsements for campaigns and finally researching (Szakos 13-15). He thrives on the constant opportunity to make connections with a myriad of people through his work. Also, as part of his own personal philosophy, he believes that “you want to come out of a meeting and sit down and really reflect on what happened. And strategically think about what’s next” (Szakos 14). This glimpse into the life of Brian Johns provides the reader with an idea of how hectic, varied and rewarding every day can be when working as a community organizer.

Next, the book similarly details the life of Don Elmer in “35 years and Going Strong,” who has been working as an organizer for a much longer time than Brian Johns. He discusses his long career and the movements he has been involved in. Both Elmer and Johns agree that one of the most important aspects of organizing is to listen and connect with the people who they are trying to help. Roots to Power, by Lee Staples, also emphasizes this when he says, “Organizing may engender images of enormous meetings, huge actions, gigantic rallies and massive marches. But the bulk of an organizer’s time is spent working either with individuals—in their kitchens, on their front stoops, and over the phone—or with small groups  in an endless array of meetings for recruitment, action research… negotiating, lobbying, and evaluating organizational actions and activities” (Staples, 29). In fact, every organizer interviewed by Szakos in We Make Change makes sure to point out that listening and talking to people is the most important aspect of their jobs. Elmer also notes that an “important thing is to have integrity with whatever you’re working with” (Szakos 27). He stresses this point, mentioning throughout this section that organizers need to know themselves as well as the people or group they are working with, and everyone should be clear about their goals, especially when money is involved.

The people that the authors interviewed all believed that their backgrounds were important to how they became involved with their careers. However, they all had very different childhoods. Quite a few grew up in rural areas, in small towns throughout the country, though many others are from big cities while some even came from foreign countries or were inspired by parents who had been immigrants. Many of the organizers say they were influenced by race and many others grew up in the homes of preachers. Szakos suggests that having a preacher as a parent may have inspired these organizers, in that perhaps “these parents gave their children a sense that one’s career should reflect one’s faith, and that working for and with others for a better world is something to be strived for” (Szakos, 41). For many other interviewees, race or outside cultural influences played roles in their decisions to become organizers. In the end, though everyone’s backgrounds were indeed factors in their career choices, there seems to be no real consensus on where organizers come from.

“Organizing in the West” describes the life and work of Teresa Erickson, who grew up in a small town in Colorado and is very much attached to her hometown and environmentalism in Colorado. Her multi-ethnic background--part Mexican, part Caucasian, and part Native American--has helped her keep her mind open when running campaigns. For example, she fought hard to have her organization align itself with the Northern Cheyenne tribe even though working with Native Americans, who may be suspicious of non-Native Americans, can be quite difficult (Szakos 45-49).

Getting Involved With Organizing

The ways in which the organizers first became involved with organizing are also varied. While some found community organization in college or by growing up in the activism-oriented 1960s and 1970s, others came from families of organizers, while others became involved in high school. Most organizers agree that certain specific issues initially drew them to the field, especially for those who came to organizing only after years of working in other careers.

Nicholas Graber-Grace, in “Organizing with ACORN in Florida,” talks about organizing in Orlando, where trying to build a stable staff and increasing membership are priorities. According to Graber-Grace, typical days consist of training, role-playing, door-knocking, follow-ups with people they had talked to, meetings and making phone calls to members. He places emphasis on the importance of leadership development and training of members so that the organization can function properly. According to him, in “ACORN’s model… there’s way too much work for the organizer to do it. If the organizer were to do all the work, then first of all it would never get done, second of all the organizer would burn out, and third of all they wouldn’t build a mass movement” (Szakos 67). For these reasons, members of ACORN are the ones doing the work in the field while the organizers talk to more potential members, recruit them, and then train them to do such field work. He’s always available to help ACORN’s leaders and members strategize whenever they need a bit of help but, for the most part, their training has provided them with the tools they need to take action on their own.

Kelly Pokharel had just become an organizer for the Northern Plains Resource Council at the time of her interview with Kristin and Joe Szakos so she talks about how she came to become a community organizer in “Just Starting Out.” She attended graduate school with the goal of becoming a social worker and instead found community organizing. She goes into detail about her training, her three field placements (first in northern St. Louis, then with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, and lastly in Nepal), and her perspective on organizer training methods. For Pokharel, shadowing an experienced organizer only reaped limited benefits, as it soon grew tiresome and she yearned to put into practice what she had learned rather than continue just to watch someone else. According to her, a training process in which new organizers are placed with a mentor for six months to a year for guidance will be a much more positive experience for newcomers (Szakos 71).

All of the organizers interviewed by Szakos agree that they organize because they love their jobs and the opportunity to change lives. Karen Waters tells the authors that “there’s no feeling like seeing people actually create change” (Szakos 74). Paul Cromwell also believes that his career is very rewarding and says that one of the best things about it “is that look in people’s eyes when they win an issue that they thought was pretty impossible” (Szakos 75). These organizers want to change the world and positively affect the lives of as many people as possible, despite the fact that the pay is meager in comparison to the more lucrative fields of corporate America. They agree that the job is worth it even when times may be tough and when campaigns do not go as well as they would have liked. There is no doubt that these people are passionate about what they do and have few regrets about their careers.

Rhonda Anderson’s story, as told in “Organizing for Environmental Justice,” is a very unique one; it’s one of hard times--a rollercoaster ride towards the job she has now as an environmental justice organizer. As an African American single mother of four, one of whom was killed by a drunk driver in 1985, living in Detroit, Anderson understands the challenges that life can throw at a person, especially in low-income areas. Her experience is extensive and varied, as she worked for a labor union that actually discriminated against their black and female employees, spent time as a volunteer working with homeless women and prostitutes in Detroit, and even worked in a Juvenile Detention Facility. Over the years, she learned to love organizing despite being shy. Now, as an organizer for the Sierra Club, Anderson truly enjoys talking one-on-one with people about what they need and what they deserve to have. She relies on going door-to-door as a critical part of the job, necessary in order to make that all-important personal connection. According to her, one of the biggest challenges about working for environmental justice is the preoccupied attitude of people living in impoverished areas: when feeding and clothing one's children is already difficult, it is hard to understand the importance of shutting down a polluting facility in the neighborhood, even if it is causing illness in the community. Despite the labor-intensive work, stress, and low pay, Anderson is passionate about her job, and committed to the people and communities she works with.

What Makes a Good Organizer

On the topic of what makes a good organizer, everyone seems to have different ideas about what qualities and personality traits are necessary to become an effective and successful organizer. Emily Gruszka, for example, told the authors “I think there are two things that can’t be taught and that you really need to figure out if you have them before you go into organizing…One is a passion for social justice…The second is a real genuine love of people” (Szakos 93). Some talk about that passion for social justice as a type of anger that community organizers need. Perry Perkins’ vision of this anger is that “Anger does not mean rage; anger means a disciplined and controlled, calculated response to your own life experience” (Szakos 95). This anger needs to be channeled into reaching a specific goal and there must be a specific, planned-out path to attain that goal. This kind of controlled anger is especially necessary for those organizers who try to create new organizations, because it takes direction, clarity and hard work to build a successful organization.

However, more important than controlled passion is an organizer’s love for the people that he or she may work with since the entire career is oriented towards changing the lives of people. So they must build relationships based on trust and honesty with a common goal, but without judgment. Another important element of community organizing is creativity and critical thinking. Ken Galdston tells the authors, “I think a good organizer is curious and is intelligent. It’s someone that can think strategically both internally and externally—internally, in terms of what will build the organization and develop leaders, and externally in terms of the power we need to be effective in this region around the issues that are important to our people” (Szakos 100). Other organizers add organization, optimism, patience, listening skills, faith and fearlessness to the list of characteristics that make up a successful organizer.

However, many agree that different combinations of these qualities have different results based on the person, and each organizer has positive attributes to bring to the table. According to Rinku Sen in Stir It Up, there are five important elements for building organizations. These include a clear mission, specific goals, a membership and leadership structure, campaigns with varied strategies, outreach systems that focus on people who are most affected and, most importantly, “pursuit of changing institutions rather than individuals”(Sen 25). These components of a successful organization would require organizers with many, if not all, of the qualities listed above, especially patience, people skills, passion, strategic thinking and creativity.

Vivian Chang, who tells her story in the chapter “Bridging Cultures,” grew up in San Francisco and attended University of California-Berkeley, which is famous for its student activism. After working in the Bay area after college, she moved to Los Angeles to work for AGENDA (Action for Grassroots Economic and Neighborhood Development) and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Alliance. Her story personally affected me more so than the others, since I grew up in Los Angeles and I know how frustrating it can be to deal with all of the social justice issues that dominate Los Angeles’s urban areas. My work with the Catholic Worker Movement, founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, gave me a taste of community organizing during high school. However, the hectic daily work in the Catholic Worker house and the destitute community I volunteered to work with often left me feeling frustrated with the seemingly never-ending problems of homelessness, poverty, hunger and violence in my own city. Therefore, I admire Vivian Chang greatly for her relentless energy and unfading enthusiasm while working with AGENDA in Los Angeles, and for devoting all her days to just some of my hometown’s vast array of social problems.

The five years she spent involved with community organizing in Los Angeles, learning the ropes of the job, were very difficult years for Chang but, despite feeling physically burnt out after some time, she never gave up nor did she want to quit community organizing. She believes that there are three very important characteristics of a good organizer. One is the ability to connect with and motivate people, building relationships with them. Another is discipline, meaning the persistence to follow up with people, constantly making phone calls and knocking on doors without giving up. The third is stamina and persistence, despite the knowledge that one may never fulfill all his or her goals and that there will, of course, be disappointments with some campaigns. 

How Organizing Changes Lives

The next section of the Szakos’ book concerns how community organizing changes lives. They demonstrate this by including the profiles of three organizers, Guillermo Quinteros, Jana Adams, and Scott Douglas. “Urban Organizing in the Northeast” talks about Guillermo Quinteros, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is Peruvian, and grew up in both countries and so became very interested in Latin American and issues of immigration, which eventually led him to work first in New York and then in Boston. He became involved with non-profit organizations dealing with issues from housing to education to discrimination. He began working with coalitions and unions, specifically dealing with the issue of poor working conditions.

Throughout his career, Guillermo Quineros has focused on problems that plague immigrants and refugees in a country that is less than friendly to immigrants, especially those from Latin America. For example, Quinteros noticed while he was working with unions that “there was a history of unions being anti-immigrant because of the whole discourse about immigrants taking Americans’ jobs” (Szakos 133). However, he did begin to see this attitude change during the period that he was working with unions. He also sees his successes with education in Boston, which led to the creation of the Chelsea Education Latino Group, as some of his proudest achievements as an organizer. Quinteros has had many successes during his years as an organizer and that makes his job even more rewarding because he feels like he has contributed to changing the lives of many immigrants in the northeast United States.

In “Faith in the City,” Jana Adams discusses her experience with her current position as the Training Coordinator for the Direct Action and Research Training Center Network, which is a national network of community organizations. She grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and after years of work as a teacher, she felt called to Christian education. Her service as a Christian educator then led her to become involved with LEAD (Leaders for Equality and Action in Dayton).  One of the first things she took part in doing with LEAD was a campaign to build a new park for the children of the community. Soon after, there was a campaign about community-based policing. Adams found this kind of work--work that really helped the community she loved--to be exciting and exhilarating, though some disappointments, such as seeing city officials fight them on issues, also upset her. She now believes that community organizing is the only way for change and particularly sees value in congregation-based organization due to her faith and background as a Christian educator. However, Adams advises readers that the work is tough and one must really have a passion for organizing and connecting with people from all walks of life.

Scott Douglas, in “Organizing in the South,” explains that he also believes in the importance of relating to people from all walks of life and of respecting “the experience of others.” He says that “without that respect you really can’t do the best organizing” (Szakos 148). Douglas was born in Nashville, Tennessee and began organizing when he formed the Black Student’s Union in 1967 with Jim Baxter in reaction to the extreme discrimination he had been experiencing at the University of Tennessee. He wrote the constitution and began recruiting members, though he soon learned the difficulties of organizing. He tells the authors, “There are some folks who try real hard, but the system beats them. The basic name of the game is to change people’s relationships to their own self-governments from consumptive to productive. That transition can take place with effective, sustained organizing” (Szakos 152). For Douglas, working in the south battling racism and trying to make change for low-income African Americans has been very rough and challenging. However, he continues his commitment to his job and believes in community organizing as a way to positively affect the lives of people in the South.  

The end of Kristin and Joe Szakos’ book We Make Change gives a few examples of successes and failures in community organizing. People they interviewed proudly describe the excitement of their victories, such as saving a farm or providing gas for a community. These are the things that keep them motivated and make their job worthwhile. Changing people’s lives and improving their living conditions gives organizers great joy and enough strength to make it through all the disappointments that inevitably also occur. The campaigns that are lost, on the other hand, cause much frustration for community organizers. However, they try to make the best of each situation and learn from their failed campaigns, improving strategies and becoming even more passionate about the next fight.

In Conclusion

We Make Change by Joe and Kristin Szakos has been my favorite book on community organizing this semester. Although I did enjoy learning about Saul Alinsky and Ella Baker through reading Rules for Radicals by Alinsky and Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby during the course of the class, I really loved having a chance to hear the stories of so many different community organizers cleverly condensed into just one nonfiction work. Reading about their lives, how they began their careers and why they love their jobs was inspirational as well as educational. Szakos’ book is so unique in this way and it actually allows readers to have fun while they learn. As someone who knew very little about community organizing prior to September, I found it to be a fascinating tableau of stories that taught me to understand even more about this adventurous and rewarding career. Social change seems impossible to many people, but these organizers are truly optimistic about changing the world, which makes this a very heartwarming read.

In my opinion, the most important parts of this book were definitely the profiles of the organizers that allowed them to tell their own individual stories. Every person has led an interesting life that provides us with insight into their actual careers. Though the brief quotes from an assortment of organizers at the beginning of each section gave an idea of how various the experiences and opinions were, I believe I got the most out of the longer, more personal stories.

However, the best sections of the book, that I felt I got the most out of, were “Why Organize?” and “Changing Lives While Making Change?” These sections told the stories of Rhonda Anderson, Guillermo Quinteros, Jana Adams and Scott Douglas and portrayed more than any other part of the book just how important community organizing is to the lives of so many individuals. In that sense, the story of Rhonda Anderson intrigued me the most. This incredible woman, who has lived such a hard life in downtown Detroit, Michigan, knows what it is like to be alone, impoverished, without a steady income, struggling to make a life for her children. Through community organizing, she found her own inner strength, as well as a career that she felt called to. Now she has become committed to her work and finds joy in helping those who need it most, especially since she knows exactly what it feels like to be part of those impoverished, urban communities in Detroit. Tales like that of Rhonda Anderson are truly invaluable and irreplaceable since they are what have turned We Make Change into such a wonderfully inspirational piece of literature.

Honestly, there is nothing that I can think of to add to this wonderful piece of literature since the authors have truly already thought of everything. Not only have they covered every element of organizing from the perspectives of so many participating community organizers, they have provided examples of failed campaigns, as well as successful campaigns. Towards the end of the book, they give advice to any readers who may be interested in beginning their own careers in this field. In addition, they include a section on what many organizers read and watch, which lists famous organizing icons and breaks down where one can learn more based on his or her own interests, for example whether readers care to educate themselves further on environmental movements or education issues. Additionally, the authors list ninety-four social action organizations and give contact information for each one in case any readers would like to learn more or get involved themselves.

 Lastly, Kristin and Joe Szakos offer short updates on the lives of each one of the eighty one people they interviewed. The best part about this feature is that all of these summaries also consist of photographs of the organizers. In this way, I can put a face to every name that I have read about throughout the book, know exactly who every short quote came from, and understand what expertise and experience lie behind their opinions. This is just one of the amazing tools that We Make Change has to offer its readers. I would recommend the book to anyone, whether or not they already have interest in community organizing, and I only wish that it could have been required for this course since I believe everyone in the class would have benefited immensely from this very interesting, very entertaining read. 

Works Cited

Lee Staples.  2004. Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing, 2e, Praeger

Rinku Sen. 2003. Stir it Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy, Jossey-Bass

Szakos, Kristin Layng and Joe Szakos.  2007.  We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk about What They Do--and Why. Vanderbilt University Press


About the Reviewer

Colleen Everett is an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and plans to graduate in May 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History, International Studies and Sociology.