Community: The Key to Organizing

By Elizabeth Nawrocki

“Elizabeth can make a new best friend at a bus stop,” my mother, for many years, has been known to explain her middle daughter as very outgoing and friendly. It didn’t surprise her at all when I recounted a fascinating conversation I had about Hinduism and Christianity at (where else?) a bus stop on the way to work. Perhaps this trait my mother realized in me paved the way for my love of and perceived vocation to community, in whatever capacity that may be.

I think this love of community is what draws me to this work. I am spending the summer with the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy (FAME), part of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), in Oakland, Calif. In my short time with FAME and EBASE, I have seen the importance of community in more ways than one. Community is essential when dealing the broad task of imagining and creating a more just society. It is easy to slip into the individualistic vibe of the world today. Often our activism takes the form of our signature on a petition and not much beyond that. Community organizing, however, takes a different approach. Beyond simply signing a petition, organizing fosters relationships.

The relationships I have witnessed form the backbone of the campaigns in which we are involved, and these campaigns would not have any success without the established community backing them. The minimum wage workers and the organizers know one another’s stories; they know the person beyond their hourly wage. The hotel workers and union representatives sit down around the  table and chat; they have a relationship. When this shift in focus from “a cause” to one’s brothers and sisters occurs, the campaigns for justice become so much more meaningful and so much more effective.

At FAME we not only explore the relationships we have with other individuals, but we explore the relationships that take shape between the issues with which we have engaged. As I become more aware of the intersectionality that is present between each aspect of social injustice, it becomes virtually impossible to deal with a single issue without addressing or affecting an other. At FAME, I have become particularly familiar with the intersection of labor and immigration. Management can use a worker’s status again him, creating a workplace unfit for any type of flourishing. The main provider of a family can be detained and deported, leaving the rest of the family fumbling financially and emotionally. 

These intersections provide the opportunity for coalition work, fostering even greater community and interdependence. I attended one of the monthly vigils held at the West County Detention Facility and witnessed the beauty that is present in community. We gather together to pray, to weep, and to stand in solidarity with the detainees held in the facility. We share stories of the families affected and imagine how to reunite them and bring justice to the broken system. But my favorite part is the “moment of noise” at the end. In a display of our contempt for the current system and our love for our brothers and sisters held within the facility, we make as much noise as possible. We hope for those inside to hear and know that we are standing with them. We form a community, a friendship with those beyond the walls.

While this may not be what my mom was getting at when she would tell relatives about my ability to befriend a stranger in no time, there is no doubt that these are related. Establishing relationships is at the very core of any social movement. The people I have gotten to know and the events I have been able to experience have been transformative to my faith and understanding of what it means to be part of a community. No way could we make a change without each other. There is truly a beautiful society, beyond the economics and the politics we see today, that can emerge from an ever-growing sense of love and community.

Photo courtesy of EBASE-FAME