Editor’s Note: Karen Borja, Associate Director of Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC), says the new park opening in Oasis proves that community organizing works to unlock the power of people and move communities forward.
By Karen Borja
Convincing a government agency to meet you on your own turf is a win for professional organizers. A meeting in a community, as opposed to a distant government office, shifts the power dynamic, allows locals an opportunity to host and makes it impossible to deny that certain needs are or aren’t being addressed – after all, seeing is believing.
So it was a victory for North Shore residents to receive a visit from county officials in 2012 to discuss transportation needs. The five officials arrived late, spilled out of their van, sweaty, and red in the face exclaiming, “We got lost! We didn’t even know North Shore existed.”
A community leader whispered to me in Spanish, “How are they supposed to provide us with services if they don’t even know we exist?”
That meeting proved to be a turning point. From then on North Shore residents understood that they had to organize to remove the distance that existed between them and their visitors.
The 45-year-old PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) organizing model I use to train people holds that a protest would alienate. Instead, it suggests that residents need to forge relationships to prove their existence and win support for their cause. Using the PICO approach, North Shore residents committed themselves to building relationships with decision-makers by attending and hosting meetings where they could share their testimony on day-to-day experiences with difficult local themes.
In my work I often ask residents what they like and dislike about their communities and I follow up by asking, “What can you do to change things?” I’ve heard thousands of answers over the course of my five-year organizing career in the Inland Empire. The answers that provoke the most tears and deepest desperation are those that come from the Eastern Coachella Valley, where people are struggling to survive the intense hardships of extreme poverty.
In helping them to meet these challenges, I try to unlock the power they hold. It is the hardest part of my job. But that inner power is displayed when a shy, immigrant, monolingual mother publicly shares how even the slightest improvements to transportation in her community will save her family thousands in college tuition because it will allow her son to finish a degree in not more than four years. It is apparent when kids, parents, and soccer coaches convince local government to convert an abandoned, neglected school into the unincorporated area’s first park.
After 11 years of engaging in community organizing, I know unlocking the power of people is what will continue to move any community forward.
Right now, that power is seen in the group of ECV mothers calling on their school board to build a new elementary school instead of doubling the size of the local continuation school. After three years of organizing neighborhood residents, these mother can now see that their efforts led to an investment that will help their community’s future in more ways than just education.
I write this as a testament that community organizing works and is something many places desperately need. No one was talking about these communities, let alone their people, until residents started sharing their testimonies publicly.
As the first mobile clinic rolls through North Shore, and the first park for the community of Oasis is being opened it is important for me to step into the background and shine the spotlight on the residents who organized and are helping make their neighborhoods better for everyone.
There is an expression in Spanish that translates to, “there is no worse effort than the one that was never made.” I have heard this from so many involved in community organizing in poor neighborhoods. People have used it at times when our organizing efforts are at their dimmest.
There is always a sense of pride when we claim victories in the Eastern Coachella Valley because I realize then that I have allowed myself to be lead to victory by the community. Community organizing unlocks the power of people and creates change in our communities.
About the author:
Karen Borja is the Associate Director of Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC). She was born and raised in Coachella, and has been involved in community organizing since 2006. She can be reached at Karen@icucpico.org
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