By Ryan Andersen
What do churches leading the rebuilding of neighbourhoods in New York and Boston, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers and Naheed Nenshi’s first election campaign have in common? They were all led by leaders who had learned the practices of collaborative leadership through community organizing.
I was introduced to community organizing at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Roxburry Massachusetts. Resurrection had at one point dwindled to a Swedish enclave of about 15 families holding out in a black neighbourhood. Then the imagination of what that church could become began to grow. They began to imagine how their church could become a vital part of their neighbourhood. They called Rev. John Heinemier, one of the grandfathers of faith based community organizing to be their pastor. Rev. Heinemeier began to teach the people of Resurrection to apply the principles of community organizing to their ministry: building a relational culture, developing leaders, intentional listening to their community, discerning, acting and always evaluating. When I arrived at Resurrection it was a thriving, largely African American congregation, that was taking on issues of violence, arson and education in their neighbourhood. They had been a part of building the Greater Boston Interfaith Organizing (GBIO). With GBIO they were taking on big issues and winning: they were rebuilding their neighbourhood and getting the government to set up an affordable housing trust of over $300 million dollars which has now build over 17,000 affordable homes. They would even succeed in getting a republican governor, Mitt Romney, to become a champion of affordable health care. What was most remarkable in all of this was that it was led, not just by pastors or executive directors, but by community members, many of whom were the very people that others would have written off or seen as needing “assistance.” This is the power of the practice of community organizing as a form of collaborative leadership for social change.
If this is what is possible for what was once a dying church, I would invite you to imagine what may be possible here, through your leadership, your ministry. I would invite you to imagine what is possible not just now, but in the future. I would like to challenge you to see this possibility not resting in you, but rather in how you can collaborate with others. We have myths that speak of how heroic individuals bring about social change, but the reality is that on our own we can accomplish very little. The power to transform our communities comes from our ability to collaborate together. It comes from our ability to bring people together in a way that enables us to discover our shared power. It happens as we learn to use this shared power in ways that build the common good. Community organizing is one way of accomplishing this that has been refined and proven successful for over seventy years and around the world.
In a future course dedicated to Collaborative Leadership for Social Change we will be inviting students to learn the leadership skills of community organizing. The reality is that one only learns to lead by leading and reflecting on one’s leadership, so this course will be centred around students engaging in the practice of community organizing and then reflecting on this practice. We will be inviting students to expand their imagination of how they could become leaders who bring people together, to transform our communities into communities where everyone can not only thrive, but discover their own leadership potential.
Stay tuned for this course offering in 2018-2019.