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THE “INTRODUCTION TO COMMUNITY ORGANIZING” COURSE

This C.O. course was originally designed by an interdisciplinary team of educators with input from community practitioners in 1995. It has dynamically evolved with input from the teaching assistants, students, and instructors. The course uses the urban environment of New York City as a laboratory to examine organizing and issues that arise in the work of organizers and their organizations as well as to deepen the students' analysis of power and oppression. Martell further developed the course to be experiential and to provide opportunities for students in the Freirian and feminist/womanist traditions to synthesize theory and practice (“to see, to analyze, to do”). The concepts of ritual, power, praxis, critical consciousness, and dialogue are operationalized using techniques from popular education and Theatre of the Oppressed (Boal, 1979). Almost every session provides some structured opportunity for small group work and interactive activities. As part of holistic engagement, the course provides an opportunity for students to participate fully in their own learning actively involving their whole selves rather than only relying on their intellect to conceptualize theory and interventions. The C.O. course employs movement, drawing, meditation, theater exercises, storytelling, music, and many more activities that challenge students to involve their body, spirit, and creativity to learn from people and the world around them.

The content of the C.O. course teaches students the beginning knowledge, skills, and values needed to achieve change through the application of readings, lectures, media presentations, and reflection on their in-class and field experi- ences.[1] It emphasizes the myriad roles, goals, strategies, and interactional and analytical skills used by community organizers in effecting progressive social change using the works of Hardina (2002, 2013); Pyles (2013); Bobo, Kendall, and Max (2010); and Burghardt (2013). It examines the history of organizing as a context of analyzing contemporary issues and organizations in the country and in New York City. Models ofcommunity organizing including mass mobilization, social action, grassroots empowerment, leadership development, and advocacy are identified and applied to the various organizations with which they volunteer. Special attention is paid to issues of gender, class, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and ability in organizing (Cannon, 1990; Mizrahi & Lombe, 2006).

The students are guided through all their assignments and given a deadline by which to complete them. They are expected to do all the readings and come prepared to discuss them in class. Reading groups are formed to facilitate discussion. At mid-semester, students do their own critical comparison and analysis paper of the major themes and learning points of the readings. They must focus on the different theories of community organizing and the major issues for organizers in the field as related to community organizing theory and practice. Here, we discuss in more detail the two major course assignments: the field experience and the community profile.

The field experience included early in the course's history was made a required component at the suggestion of students who wanted to gain some hands-on observations and experience with community practice. The purpose of this 20-hour volunteer experience is for the students to engage in praxis and reflection—that is, observing and participating in (to the extent possible) the organizing work occurring at the site (Mishna & Bogo, 2007). Under the guidance of the teaching assistant, students are expected to be proactive from the beginning, including negotiating their entry and assignment with their chosen organization.

This field assignment begins to foster leadership and personal responsibility for being accepted and also creates a relationship described as “social exchange theory,” which purports that people learn and modify their behavior based on positive and negative interactions with each other (Cook & Rice, 2002; Lawler, 2001) and was applied to social work by McDonell et al. (2006). The field organization is expected to give students access to meetings, minutes, and other materials of the organization and to arrange for interviews with leaders and members.

Community Organizing course presented in this chapter. Beyond the additional field hours, they are required to take part in a 2-hour biweekly group seminar every other week, planned and led by the graduate teaching assistant under the supervision of Professor Martell. The seminar generally consists of a small group of 5-10 students. The goal of the seminar course is to further students' understanding of community organizing principles by analyzing their extended volunteer experience with a structured, supervised community organizing assignment. They keep biweekly journals, make a final presentation on different aspects of their community organizing experience including identifying the organizing models used, and write a final summary of their volunteer experiences using a suggested outline. At the end of the semester, students present their reflections on their field experiences orally in class. Field supervisors and other faculty are invited, and many attend.

In exchange for access and experience, the students' responsibility is to contribute to the work of the organization, which could include assisting in carrying out a project or event, administrative tasks, and/or providing feedback to staff or leaders on their observations.

The graduate teaching assistant, an MSW student in the community organization concentration, emphasizes to both students and organizational staff that the students are not expected to implement an organizing project in 20 hours but, rather, to gain a sense of the models and strategies in which the organization is engaged in order to whet the students' appetite with the possibility to do additional work with the organization or elsewhere in the future. From our experience, every semester since the course began, more than half the students report that they do contribute additional hours during and beyond the semester.

During the first week of the course, students are informed about choosing their 20-hour field experience requirement from one of a number of selected organizations that have been thoroughly researched for their willingness to engage in the exchange model—that is, teaching the student while utilizing the student's expertise and time. Throughout the years, many of the C.O. course alumni have gone on to C.O.-related careers, and some have become field supervisors for the course. At the second class session, all the organizations willing to accept students are invited to come into the classroom to present their organizations and possible organizing assignments to the students. Organizing staff from these organizations prepare materials and make brief presentations. Collectively, they represent the types of organizing occurring around a range of issues, including housing, labor, health, education, youth, and culture.

Vaid (1995), an LGBTQrights activist, says storytelling or “person-to-person education” is a technique that organizers can use “to break down misunderstandings [rather] than the media oriented advertising approaches toward public education we have pursued thus far. Such political education is especially needed today, when the very idea of civil rights is under attack” (p. 305). She stresses the importance of person-to-person education in creating links across single-issue campaigns to create coalitions as well as to unite people fighting racism, classism, heterosexism, sexism, and all other forms of oppression together in the struggle for the rights and freedom of all oppressed people. The students are able to critically analyze each presentation as a “story” and to provide feedback in class and to the organization on how the representative came across to them. This creates Freirian-style dialogue that transcends the perceived power dynamics that exist in traditional education in which a guest lecturer has all the knowledge and students simply listen to absorb this knowledge. Students also begin to learn the skills involved in making formal presentations by watching more experienced organizational representatives and giving feedback to them as part of an ongoing dialogue. The organizational representatives who briefly present the highlights of their programs also benefit through social networking. They are given this opportunity to engage with other organizers, many for the first time, as they learn about the various organizations invested in different issues and using different models.

The organizations' presentations highlight community organizers as experts in their field with knowledge to contribute to students' learning; this also breaks down traditional barriers between academic/didactic learning and experiential learning. Listening to stories from representatives from organizations such as the New York Public Interest Research Group and the Child Welfare Organizing Project has the secondary benefit of exposing students and the organizers to the wealth of organizing occurring in New York City and demonstrates the interconnectedness in working for social justice across issues.

At the end of the semester, students are responsible for a presentation, an outline of the presentation, and a letter of reference from their field supervisor. This letter serves multiple purposes: It documents their activities, identifies the ways they have assisted and contributed to the organization, and provides students with a ready-made letter of reference for use in potential employment in the future. This way of evaluating a student's field performance demonstrates to the student and supervisor that this course is more than an academic exercise.

A second major assignment for the course is a community profile for which students in small groups select a geographic community in New York City (e.g., East Harlem in Manhattan or Sunset Park in Brooklyn) and identify an issue and population to study in that community, such as education or housing. For their primary research, students are asked to attend a community meeting where their group is doing their community profile. They are provided guidelines to describe and analyze the meeting in detail and are asked to use their six senses as they experience the area. The students apply an anti-oppressive and human rights lens, examining the power relations in the community and identifying how the geography and issue are impacted by racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression (Abrams & Gibson, 2007; Pyles, 2013; Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005). They are responsible for an oral presentation at the end of the semester and also a group paper/portfolio that includes photos, videos, drawing, maps, and other media.

Applying Freirian and Feminist/Womanist Concepts in the C.O. Course

  • [1] The Field Internship Seminar is a separate, additional, 100-hour, 3-credit course developed to complement the C.O. course and offered as a co-requisite to the Introduction to
 
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