Published 20th January 2020

“We can be Heroes…” – a celebration of inspirational Community Organisers

For Community Organisers, Monday 20th January 2020 is not a ‘Blue Monday’… Monday 20th January 2020 is a day to celebrate one of community organising’s greatest heroes: Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, ‘MLK Day’ is an important day to recognise and celebrate not only the iconic organisers – ten of whom we’ve listed below – but ALL organisers everywhere! Because #WeCanBeHeroes...

Over the past few months, Community Organisers has been sharing some of our ‘Community Organising Heroes’ on social media; ten inspirational people who have brought communities together to take action around their common concerns and overcome social injustice – reaching out and listening, connecting and motivating people to build their collective power. Demonstrating time and again, that when people are organised, communities get heard and power begins to shift, creating real change for good.

Community Organising Heroes No.10
Barack Obama

Photograph by Marc PoKempner

Organising teaches, as nothing else does, the beauty and strength of everyday people. Through the songs of the church and the talk on the stoops, through the hundreds of individual stories of coming up from the South and finding any job that would pay, of raising families on threadbare budgets, of losing some children to drugs and watching others earn degrees and land jobs their parents could never aspire to — it is through these stories and songs of dashed hopes and powers of endurance, of ugliness and strife, subtlety and laughter, that organizers can shape a sense of community not only for others, but for themselves.

Barack Obama (born 1961) is an American attorney, organiser, and politician who served as the 44th president of the United States from 2009 to 2017.  He was the first African American to be elected to the presidency.  He previously served as a U.S. senator.

Obama worked as a community organiser from 1985 to 1988, as director of the Developing Communities Project (DCP). During his three years as the DCP’s director, its staff grew from 1 to 13 and its annual budget grew from $70,000 to $400,000, with accomplishments including helping set up a job training program, a college preparatory tutoring program, and a tenants’ rights organization in Altgeld Gardens.

Obama also worked as a consultant and instructor for the Gamaliel Foundation, a community organising institute based on the ‘grassroots’ tradition of Saul Alinsky – training and developing leaders in low-income communities to create, maintain, and expand independent, grassroots organisations that have the power to influence political and economic decisions that impact cities and regions.

Find out more about this amazing organiser here: BARACK OBAMA

Community Organising Heroes No.9
Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky, the ‘founder of modern community organising’

Power just goes to two poles — to those who’ve got money, and those who’ve got people.

Saul Alinsky (1909-1972), American community organiser and writer. He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organising and is noted for his book ‘Rules for Radicals’.

In the course of nearly four decades of political organising, Alinsky focused on improving the living conditions of poor communities across the United States.

In the 1930s, Alinsky organized the ‘Back of the Yards’ neighbourhood in Chicago. He went on to found the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) which trained community organisers and assisted in the founding of community organisations around the United States.

In the 1950s, he began turning his attention to improving conditions in the black ghettos, beginning with Chicago’s and later traveling to ghettos in California, Michigan, New York City, and a dozen other “trouble spots”.

Power is not only what you have but what ‘the enemy’ thinks you have.

“Never let a crisis go to waste!” Alinsky in New Jersey, 1967.

Find out more about this amazing organiser here: SAUL ALINSKY

Community Organising Heroes No.8
Mary Two-Axe Earley

Please search your hearts and minds, follow the dictates of your conscience, set my sisters free!

Mary Two-Axe Early (1911-1996) was a Canadian Mohawk elder, feminist, civil rights activist, and organiser: her efforts benefited about sixteen thousand women and forty-six thousand first generation descendants. Founder of the ‘Equal Rights for Native Women Association’ in 1967; she brought indigenous women together to successfully organise for gender equality.

“Réveille-toi Femmes Autochtones! Wake-Up Native Women!”

Her work eventually lead to the passing of Bill C-31 in 1985, an amendment to the Indian Act to correct gender discrimination. She was a powerful speaker at several conferences, commissions, and hearings worldwide in her pursuit of justice, basic human rights, and the equality of women before the law. Mary was a Clan Mother who valued the traditions and welfare of Aboriginal communities before anything else.

Mary Two-Axe Earley receiving the Governor General’s Persons Case Award for contributing to equality for women and girls in Canada, 17th October 1979 [Canadian Library Archives CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Find out more about this amazing organiser here: MARY TWO-AXE EARLEY

Community Organising Heroes No.7
Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy

Don’t agonise, organise!

Floryance ‘Flo’ Kennedy (1916-2000) was an American lawyer, feminist, civil rights advocate, organiser, and activist. A founder of the American National Organization for Women and a participant in the 1967 Atlantic City Miss America protest. She also founded the National Black Feminist Organization in 1975. Often dressed in a cowboy hat and pink sunglasses, she summed up her protest strategy as: “Making white people nervous.”

Kennedy used ‘Intersectionality’ as her approach to activism: “My main message is that we have a pathologically, institutionally racist, sexist, classist society. And that niggerizing techniques that are used don’t only damage black people, but they also damage women, gay people, ex-prison inmates, prostitutes, children, old people, handicapped people, native Americans. And that if we can begin to analyze the pathology of oppression… we would learn a lot about how to deal with it.”

Find out more about this amazing organiser here: FLORYNCE ‘FLO’ KENNEDY

Community Organising Heroes No.6
Paulo Freire

Leaders who insist on imposing their decisions, do not organise the people – they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.

Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a Brazilian educator, organiser, and philosopher, who is best known for his influential work, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, championing that education should allow the oppressed to regain their sense of humanity, in turn overcoming their condition.

Freire believed education could not be divorced from politics; the act of teaching and learning are considered political acts in and of themselves. His ideas and methods had a large impact in education and pedagogy worldwide, especially as a defining work of ‘critical pedagogy’ – influencing a wide range of political activists, including Clodomir Santos de Morais, Che Guevara, and Steve Biko.

Find out more about this amazing organiser here: PAULO FREIRE

Community Organising Heroes No.5
Ella Baker

“One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement.” [Ella Baker Center for Human Rights]

You didn’t see me on television; you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organisation might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.

Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist in the United States. She was a largely behind-the-scenes organiser, whose career spanned more than five decades.

In New York City and the South, she worked alongside some of the most noted civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including Martin Luther King Jr., and mentored many emerging activists, such as Stokely Carmichael and Rosa Parks.

Baker criticized professionalized, charismatic leadership; she promoted grassroots community organising, radical democracy, and the ability of the oppressed to understand their worlds and advocate for themselves.

Find out more about this amazing organiser here: ELLA BAKER

Community Organising Heroes No.4
Emmeline Pankhurst

“She shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back.” [Public Domain]

Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it. They have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and their rights, but that it is not right and proper for women to fight for theirs.

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) was a British political activist and organiser. She was the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and prominent member of the British suffragette movement, who helped women win the right to vote.

With her daughters and other WSPU activists, she was dedicated to “deeds, not words”, and became known for physical confrontations; smashing windows and assaulting police officers – receiving repeated prison sentences, where the suffragettes staged hunger strikes to secure better conditions, and were often force-fed.

Find out more about this amazing organiser here: EMMELINE PANKHURST

Community Organising Heroes No.3
The Newsies

Time’s come when we must make a stand or be down-trodden by the disciples of avarice and greed!
Kid Blink

The Climate Strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg are the latest in a long line of youth-led organising against injustice – a history of social action that includes the Newsies strike of 1899, which forced change in the way that Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers compensated their child labour force of ‘newsies’ (child newspaper sellers).

Newsies; Newark, New Jersey. [Public Domain]

We’re here for our rights, an’ we will die defending ’em!
‘Boots’ McAleenan, aged 11

The strike ended when the Pulitzer and Hearst agreed to buy back all unsold copies of the newspapers at the end of each day.

Strike Newsboys! Strike… we demand fair profits, fair methods …we believe in fair play and arbitration!
‘Pie-faced’ Jim, aged 10

Find out more about these amazing young organisers here: THE NEWSIES

Community Organising Heroes No.2
Mohandas ‘Mahātmā’ Gandhi

Gandhi with textile workers in Lancashire 1931. [Public Domain]

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Mohandas ‘Mahātmā’ Gandhi (1869-1948) was an Indian lawyer, anti-colonial nationalist, and political organiser who employed nonviolent resistance to lead the successful campaign for India’s independence from British Rule. The honorific Mahātmā (Sanskritv for ‘high-souled’), first applied to him in 1914 in South Africa, is now used throughout the world.

Born and raised in a Hindu family in coastal Gujarat, western India, and trained in law at the Inner Temple, London, Gandhi first employed nonviolent civil disobedience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, in the resident Indian community’s struggle for civil rights. After his return to India in 1915, he set about organising peasants, farmers, and urban labourers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination.

Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for various social causes and for achieving self-rule. He was assassinated on 30th January 1948, when he was shot by a Hindu nationalist.

Mahātmā Gandhi 1931. [Public Domain]

Find out more about this remarkable organiser here: MAHATMA GANDHI

Community Organising Heroes No.1
Mary Harris ‘Mother Jones’

“the most dangerous woman in America” [Public Domain]

If they want to hang me, let them – and on the scaffold I will shout Freedom for the Working Class!

Mary Harris Jones (Circa.1837-1930), known as ‘Mother Jones’, was an Irish-born American schoolteacher and dressmaker who became a prominent organised labour representative, community organiser, and activist. She helped coordinate major strikes and co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World.

Jones worked as a teacher and dressmaker, but after her husband and four children all died of yellow fever in 1867 and her dress shop was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, she became an organiser for the ‘Knights of Labor’ and the ‘United Mine Workers’ union. From 1897 onwards, she was known as Mother Jones.

In 1902, she was called “the most dangerous woman in America” for her success in organizing mine workers and their families against the mine owners. I n 1903, to protest the lax enforcement of the child labour laws in the Pennsylvania mines and silk mills, she organized a children’s march from Philadelphia to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt in New York.

‘Mother Jones’ with President Calivin Coolidge on the grounds of the White House, 26th September 1924. [Public Domain]

Find out more about this remarkable organiser here: MARY HARRIS ‘MOTHER JONES’

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