UEP Colloquium: Community Organizing in Practice

UEP Welcomed two local community organizers to discuss their experiences from different perspectives.

Speaking from her experience at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, May Louie defined community organizing as the process of gathering people together to jointly determine issues and strategies, engage in collective action to address issues, build power, and embed this power in democratic institutions. Her organizing experience began in the Asian American community, fighting the Tufts Medical Center expansion with the Free Chinatown Committee. Louie eventually joined up with the Boston Rainbow Coalition to focus on multi-ethnic, multi-issue electoral issues.

At DSNI, she emphasized, the goal was community planning and organizing, not community development. However, they did end up in the well-known position as the only community organization to win the power of eminent domain. Louie attributes this victory to a Mel King’s well-organized mayoral campaign, in which he took the majority of the vote in most Black, Latino and Asian communities. Ray Flynn, who won the overall election, wanted to be more than the mayor of just white Boston. His intention was to give the Dudley neighborhood the power to improve their own condition.

Bringing in the municipal perspective, Jen Lawrence gave an explanation of her role in community involvement as a sustainability planner for the city of Cambridge. Her previous experience had been in organizing rural communities in upstate New York before she moved to Somerville, then working at GroundWork Somerville. Her position in this initially small gardening program grew over time as GroundWork began planning for the Green Line expansion.

Eventually, Lawrence made the shift to her current position as a Cambridge sustainability planner. Within the purview of her position are long-term planning and zoning for climate change, and getting city residents to focus on this instead of pressing, short-term issues. Cambridge invited 43 organizations to meet with city departments and assess the top priorities for dealing with climate change.

Both Louie and Lawrence gave examples of angry residents coming into their respective offices complaining about new developments in their neighborhoods. The fact that there had been massive outreach campaigns and several public meetings (separately, in both Roxbury and Cambridge) meant that the resident had the opportunity to make their opinion heard ahead of time. In the Roxbury case, the resident was satisfied and realized their mistake. In Cambridge, the resident remained unsatisfied and petitioned their city official who went on to railroad the project. Lawrence’s advice for dealing with a situation like this was to encourage people to tell their city official what they do like about their neighborhood. People tend to only contact their representative when they’re angry, so officials don’t always know how many satisfied people there are out there. Louie emphasized the importance of crowdfunding in the future of community organizing as municipal budgets tend to shrink.

Come out to the Crane Room next week for a talk by Samuel Bell on climate change and community vulnerability.