By Jesus Alonso
From my very first day in TOLA, I realized that to be a great organizer I must turn every conversation into an opportunity. In order to do this, I knew I would have to take more risks, learn to be a better listener, think outside the box, and move further outside my comfort zone.
I was already leaps and bounds outside my comfort zone on my first day. The hustle and bustle of the big city was different from the relaxed pace of the small town I called home. Where I was once familiar with every street, every person and the starry night sky, I now found myself in this maze of tall buildings, endless streets, and a medley of people I had never met.
Our first assignment was in Russian Hill, in San Francisco. There I was with two other fellows, nervous and standing awkwardly on a busy street corner with a script, a few pens, a stack of surveys, and an ironing board. I never imagined that through trial and error, and being creative, we would finally find the perfect place to get people to take a survey and tell us about what improvements they’d like to see in their neighborhoods. Bus stop? No. Busy street corner? No. Laundromat? Yes! We were able to talk to people and learn what they wanted to see changed in their community. It felt great knowing that I helped people connect with their community simply by initiating a conversation with them.
Although it’s been a struggle, every week I have continued to push myself outside my comfort zone. And in the process, I have become more confident in myself. Now eleven weeks into TOLA, I have been working closely with LiUNA Local 261, a local labor union, to set up community clean ups in different areas of San Francisco. My relationship with LiUNA has evolved from working with a labor union, to working with friends. I’ve gotten to know them by name and listened to their stories. Some of them moved all the way to San Francisco just to be part of a labor union because they were unhappy with their previous working conditions. Others, even though they’ve retired, still come to the clean ups recollecting the good times they’ve had with their fellow union members. On more than one occasion I found myself having to remind them that lunch was waiting for us. They reluctantly returned with me cleaning the streets on the way back in protest. They dedicated themselves to providing good quality work. Working with LiUNA has been an amazing experience.
It has been helpful looking back and seeing how much I have learned — all the people I’ve met — and how much I have grown. Every conversation I’ve had has led to yet another opportunity — an opportunity to know the neighborhood; to know the community; to make a friend; to make a difference; to become a better listener and organizer. There are still so many more people to meet – so many opportunities that lie ahead. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us in the final four weeks of TOLA.