Why SCC Employs Community Organizers

Van Hardy, SCC President 2017As a values-based membership organization, Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) brings its membership, staff and Board of Directors together with a united purpose. We are committed to addressing the needs of those on the margins of our community.

Not everyone has equal access to power. When policy decisions are made at the local, state or federal level, those that have access to power influence the outcomes. Those without power become victims. Economic inequality and access to power are intertwined.

Level the Playing Field

The job of an SCC organizer is to level the playing field. To accomplish this task, SCC employs people with the skills, experience and knowledge to succeed. But, most important is their commitment and dedication to our shared values of equity and justice that matters. 

We don’t just build affordable housing for low-income families. We organize our community to advocate for themselves to influence housing and jobs policy. For example, SCC’s Affordable Housing Committee (AHOC) organized a successful campaign to increase Inclusionary Zoning to 20%, one of the strongest policies in the nation. It will require a larger percentage of the housing units in new developments to be affordable. SCC’s Jobs for Somerville (JfS) was successful in getting a First Source Jobs Program funded through the City. First source programs connect job seekers with employers in their community, benefiting employers, workers and the larger community.

SCC Community Organizer Karen Narefsky and Lead Organizer Rene Mardones

SCC organizers are currently supporting the efforts of a grassroots coalition, Union United (UU), to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with the master developer US2 in Union Square. A CBA ensures that residents and small businesses play a decisive role in the development of their community. A CBA protects them from the negative impacts of development, while providing opportunities to share in the benefits of development.

Values-Based Organizing 

SCC’s organizing work is member driven. Staff organizers provide the foundational day-to-day fact-finding, coalition-building, information sharing and critical coordination that lead to an organizing campaign that benefits the community. They provide the cohesion needed to see a campaign through to success. 

Becoming a community organizer is not just a job. It’s a way of life – a commitment. Organizers are motivated by their values. Those that are attracted to and finally hired by SCC have values consistent with the organization. It is the process of realizing these shared values of diversity, equity and tolerance that challenge good organizers. Learning to sustain oneself as an organizer requires discipline. 

The demands on a community organizer exceed what can be expected of a volunteer. This is not a 9-to-5 job. An organizer’s time is dictated by the job. For example, the typical organizer’s day may begin with an 8 a.m. one-on-one over coffee with a member, afternoon phone calls, staying on top of upcoming important municipal meetings, arranging for a press conference regarding policy, then attending a Board of Aldermen meeting that starts at 6 p.m. and goes late into the night. The list is endless.

Volunteers help by taking on specific tasks. But the overall management of a campaign requires a commitment that must be subsidized. The point is that it is more than a full-time job.

A Multidimensional Approach

In addition to being demanding, community organizing requires strong interpersonal and communication skills, with an openness to learning new things – from managing group dynamics to monitoring zoning law. For example, solid “people” skills strengthen organizers’ ability to help a diverse collection of individuals first build personal relationships and then create a group with a shared sense of solidarity and purpose. 

Seasoned organizers nurture an organization, increasing its capacity to sustain itself independent of any one organizer or individual. They understand that part of their job is to ensure the organization has organic, grassroots and democratic values wired into its culture. An organizers’ goal is to become irrelevant. 

During the organizing campaign, staff organizers are constantly learning new things about the issues. But, it’s not enough for them to understand this information; they have to be skilled in sharing it with others. Good organizers do not assume a leadership role but rather cultivate leadership from within the group. This requires an organizer to have the strength to manage their ego.

Becoming a community organizer is not just a job. It’s a way of life – a commitment. Organizers are motivated by their values. 

Building internal capacity creates opportunities for those that have been marginalized by a system with a preference for the economically privileged and powerful to become active participants in the decisions affecting their lives. An organizer must understand how this system works and how to navigate this system. Then they have to be able to teach others. 

Beginning with leadership development of individuals to developing task specific committees (housing and jobs) and building grassroots coalitions (UU), SCC organizers understand that they must work with individuals and groups to jointly identify problems, formulate solutions and implement plans that will change the system to one that is more equitable and just.