careful before you say "listen to me"

a summer of community organizing

a little update on my work pt. 2

The most difficult part of community organizing is also the best part - talking to people.

"Group" might be overstating the number of youth I met with. We hoped for 5-15, then it looked like we'd get 5, then 3 confirmed, and in the end, only 2 showed up. Summer can be complicated when it comes to meeting with youth groups - while it's true they are out of school, between summer camps, vacations, and part-time jobs, attendance at many community youth groups drops or dries up completely during the summer. I asked around for a couple months, looking for a group to talk to, and nearly everyone said the same thing: try again in September/October; things are pretty dead right now. Something to keep in mind for the future.

It is 6:02pm. This is who is in the room: myself, my boss/mentor (who has travelled over an hour by train & bus to get here), and one of the two group leaders. The social night is scheduled for 6pm-8pm.

A boy arrives. Shy, reserved. I am chatting with the group leader about the activity planned for later in the evening, a variation of "Minute to Win It". The boy is familiar because he had seen some YouTubers play the video game. As it happens, I had seen the same playthough. A minor conversation topic.

A girl arrives, along with the other group leader. She is clearly outgoing, more talkative than the boy. We begin our introductions, I explain who I am and the purpose of doing a listening activity, and then ask the first question. Something like, "Can you think of any challenges that affect your daily life?"

Silence. Blank stares. Awkward pause. "For example," I say, "do you ever have to wait a long time for the bus?" [Insert one minute of transit in the suburbs kinda sucks.] "What about school?" one of the group leaders asks. Shrugs.

That's about as far as we got with challenges. So what did we talk about? Cooking class. The awkwardness of being in grades 6-8. Bears, racoons, deer, and other wildlife that have tromped through our backyards. And you know what? Once we got past the inital awkward, and abandoned any stilted talk of challenges or concerns about the community, it was good conversation. It was fun.

This is what I got out of it: I learned how to ask questions that kept the conversation moving forward. It was clear that we weren't going to get the kind of answers we wanted, I focused instead on getting to know the people I was in the room with. The organization I work for uses a model called "relational organizing" and boils the concept down to the statement "power before program". It means creating relationships first and focusing on the issues second. So rather than focus on a static set of priorities, our focus shifts and grows depending on our members.

We did play Minute to Win It, in the end. There is something really bizarre and satisfying about watching your boss try to toss marshmallows in a cup and move Smarties from one plate to another by sucking on a straw.

The follow up: I sent an email to the two group coordinators the next day to say thank you for their time, and for the fun evening. And they said to let them know if I ever planned to conduct another listening campaign - more youth attend during the school year. So while the evening wasn't an effective listening campaign, it did help build a relationship with a group we can return to.

And I won a Snickers bar during one of the games. So there's that.

August 20, 2016

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