By Bobby Rodriguez Donoso

One aspect of the TOLA program that I appreciate most is that fellows are not selected based solely on their experience in community organizing. Candidates are also evaluated on their personal attributes and qualities that can potentially make them an effective community organizer. Some of my peers in the program had no prior experience doing the work, and proved themselves through their dedication to be great. I came into the program with a few years of experience, so I assumed I would be able to dive into the work with relative ease. After all, I had already successfully organized hundreds of my peers to push for major policy changes at Occidental College such as establishing a Title IX office to better support student survivors of sexual assault, as well as establishing a Chief Diversity Office to make the institution more active in recruiting students and faculty of color. However, on the first day of TOLA, I realized to be a better organizer, I would need to learn how to organize in new settings.

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On day one, fellows were thrown into the streets of San Francisco, equipped with survey cards about a candidate. I was initially very uncomfortable being told to advocate on behalf of a candidate I knew little about. I would quickly discover there was a whole slate of stances on San Francisco propositions and offices which I would represent. Naturally, I had many questions and reservations. Who was this candidate? What are these propositions? Most importantly, what if I disagreed with the endorsements? I felt very out-of-place with these new issues. I didn’t feel much better doing my own research reading misleading articles that informed me these political positions benefitted the most privileged inhabitants of San Francisco. Considering that the Bay Area’s famous progressive history is what attracted me to the City in the first place, I was worried that I would be contributing to a wave of gentrification that threatened the City’s unique culture.

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It became apparent to me that while the anxiety around San Francisco’s rapid growth festered, I would have my own political-ideological identity crisis. After several weeks of doing the hard work of door-to-door canvassing, phone-banking, event planning, and volunteer recruitment, I learned that these issues were much more nuanced than they initially appeared. Getting to know and talk to organizers and residents of the City, I learned making the best choices went beyond choosing from labels such as “Moderate” or “Progressive” in order to make San Francisco more affordable and livable to its long-time residents and newcomers.

I have grown so much from my TOLA experience. I applied because I wanted to continue to organize for justice, but I was unsure how to be a leader in projects outside of the academic context. In these last few months, I’ve proved to myself that I can adapt to new political environments and adjust my organizing style to different types of community work without compromising my personal ideology. I look forward to applying and honing these skills wherever I go.