(Sharing some reflections from our recent convening – written by Megan Powers, NGEC’s Capacity Building Manager in Minnesota.)
A question bubbled up among many during NGEC’s recent OFP cohort convening in New Orleans: How can a group help to create and harness a community’s identity?
After viewing “A Village Called Versailles”, visiting with New Orleans residents and organizers, and much discussion, cohort participants noted that part of the success of the neighborhood’s organizing work can be attributed to a strong sense of community identity.
The Vietnamese community in Versailles is highly concentrated geographically. Families have been there for generations, and “everyone knows everyone”. Add a strong collective identity amongst parishioners of the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church. Mix in a charismatic leader, Father Vien Nguyen. Then, a stark catastrophe (Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath) really heats things up. Stir this soup together, and voila! – organizing success.
But as folks from California and Minnesota reflected on their own communities, not all of these ingredients are present. So, in the absence of a clear organizing recipe, how could collective leadership be cultivated?
Here are some ideas raised within the cohort last week.
1) What do we share?
First, it’s useful to think about what binds a community together. What are our common history and language? What are the struggles that we’ve faced and surpassed over the years? There is tremendous power in these things. Compelling stories elicited by the organization can motivate the community to move towards proactive — rather than reactive — action.
2) How do we lift up our assets?
Affirming a community’s identity may seem like a secondary priority when so many urgent problems exist, but actually, it’s crucial. To stimulate community change, we focus on community assets instead of deficits. Through music and art, a community’s uniqueness is retold. A new future and vision can even be reimagined. One of a neighborhood’s most key assets is its committed residents. Residents of Versailles have been dedicated to transforming the hurricane’s rubble into life and vibrancy. Witnessing this, we ask ourselves – who are the true change agents that live within our own communities?
“Holding each other close across differences, beyond conflict, through change, is an act of resistance.”
– bell hooks
3) What are we fighting for?
Finally, it’s important to identify what’s at stake and what matters most to us as a community. Of course, building trust among the organization and residents is crucial here, and is no easy task. People often begin in suspicion, defense or a sense of futility; what do you want from me? How could this really make any difference?
In the face of these barriers, the means of building power are as important as the ends. Our organizations must focus on the participation and empowerment of people living in poverty, especially in decision-making. To put community at the center, we must ask residents, sometimes for the very first time, “How do you feel about your neighborhood?”
Our communities often feel fragmented in more ways than one. And whenever we “stir the pot”, conflict – both within the community and with the forces we fight against — will most certainly rise to the surface, as communities grapple amidst fear, power struggles, and scarcity of resources. It’s not simple or idyllic.
But amidst what several cohort members termed our “enduring challenges”, there was a common energy within the group that we do possess the necessary recipe for community change.