By Gabriela Andrade
When I first heard about TOLA, I knew I had to apply. I was hungry for a program that could teach me the how, the why, and the who of organizing. Before TOLA, my experience as an organizer consisted of shadowing other organizers without fully understanding what I was doing or how it was going to further the cause. With TOLA, I would have the opportunity to learn the theory and immediately put it into practice by working in real campaigns. I was sold!
Organizing around the issue of immigration was personal. I have given testimony to a City Council and the State Legislature, rallied outside of President Obama’s vacation home, and stormed the office of a prominent member of Congress in Washington D.C. It was loud. It was controversial. It was confrontational.
At TOLA, I realized things would be different. We would be taking a more methodical, calculated and strategic approach to organizing. Could I still organize around issues that weren’t as personal to me?
Eight weeks into TOLA I have been wondering: “Is there a difference between being a political organizer and a community organizer?” In his book Sidewalk Strategies, Larry Tramutola explains that political organizers see themselves as strategists, while community organizers are viewed more like neighborhood activists.
Recently TOLA fellows and staff had a brainstorming session to determine how to move forward on the Watsonville project, an education effort around how drinking sugar sweetened beverages affects one’s health. Should we present the results of the survey to the City Council or to a group of community organizations? We decided there would be greater long-term impact if we worked with local organizations and encouraged them to lead. We presented our findings to a coalition of health organizations and they enthusiastically took on the challenge! The selfish side in me wanted to see the campaign through, but one of the biggest lessons I have learned from TOLA is to leave my ego at the door and do what’s best for the cause.
Halfway through the program, I have finally begun to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. I challenge myself by setting goals for the daily door-to-door routine and finding ways to connect with people who may not always share my point of view. I have learned how to overcome the physical and emotional demands of organizing by focusing on the larger goal. Most importantly, I have begun to understand how these skills fit with my passions and my broader role as an organizer.
Through this journey, I have come to realize that maybe the better question to ask is, “What do effective community and political organizers have in common?” Somewhere between the righteous passion of the community organizer and the meticulous strategy of the political organizer lies the space where meaningful change occurs. This is where disciplined, fearless leaders with strong core values build community power and hold elected officials accountable. Fred Ross, Martin Luther King Jr., and other great organizers operate(d) from this space. They understood that good organizing must be both political and communal; realistic and ideological; strategic and personal. As I look to the final weeks of my TOLA experience, my challenge will be to grow beyond these labels in hopes of becoming half the organizer that they were.