Monday, Aug 4, 2014, 8:00 am
Organizer: ‘Work Is Almost Priceless ... When It Is From Your Heart’
For three years in the early 1970s, journalist Studs Terkel gathered stories from a variety of American workers. He then compiled them into Working, an oral-history collection that went on to become a classic. Four decades after its publication, Working is more relevant than ever. Terkel, who regularly contributed to In These Times, once wrote, “I know the good fight—the fight for democracy, for civil rights, for the rights of workers has a future, for these values will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In honor of that sentiment and of Working's 40th anniversary, ITT writers have invited a broad range of American workers to describe what they do, in their own words. More "Working at 40" stories can be found here.
Bill Talcott, the organizer Terkel interviewed, described his job as “trying to change this country” and as “bring[ing] people together who are put down by the system.” Talcott loved his career so much, in fact, that he hoped to end his life in a state-run nursing home, “organizing people to fight ‘em because they’re not running it right.”
Dominic Moulden, an organizer with the community group ONE DC, shares Talcott’s passion for making change. Founded in 1997, ONE DC’s work centers on popular education, neighborhood organizing and alternative economic development projects; its website explains that it “envisions the nation's capital as a place where low-income, poor and immigrant communities are organized, educated and trained to take action to create and preserve social and economic equity.” This interview has been edited and abridged.
I got started organizing as a youth. I liked the sacred space of being on the corner, and building relationships through talking to people that passed by. And organizing came natural to me, because it was a way of building bridges. I got formal organizing training through the Industrial Areas Foundation, but even in that I was observing some of the things that weren't talked about. I'd sit through these trainings, and think, “Lots of leaders in my community are black women, and nobody's talking about them, but they’re leaders in my community.”
We’d treat organizing as a cookie-cutter thing, but if you're in Appalachia, or the Midwest, or Baltimore, that's a different type of impact. You have a different cultural analysis: you have different needs and different leaders.
The whole issue that even when low-income people work really hard, at multiple jobs, they still aren't seen as good enough people, to themselves and to others. It's a whole story about work. Looking back 40 years, and now looking forward, we still have some of these deep-seated stereotypes. And some groups—organizing groups like ONE DC—are squashing these stereotypes. We’re saying that these people are good, and they are the people we need to change society. So the point is people meeting each other, and no longer being strangers, and being community: that's what change is.
That's why one of the models of ONE DC organizing is relationship-building. We break down our fears. We break down our identity. We break down our cultural and linguistic differences. And when people ask if that will it make a difference, we say, damn right it will make a difference. If you look in the long term, you'll see this as part of a bigger change.
When Terkel interviewed an organizer in the ‘70s, the organizer told him, "I'm one of the few people in my life I know who was lucky in life to find out what he really wanted to do." Does this resonate with you and your experience of work?
Yeah, so—the first thing you have to be careful about is your own education. I feel that something that is very particular to the United States is that people get educated out of what they really want to do and what they believe in. So you go to these schools, where you’re conditioned to believe that a certain career is what you want, when you know damn well it isn’t. Because money doesn't need to be associated with work. Because work is almost priceless, when it is from your hands, and from your heart, and from your vision.
So I don't want to say that I'm lucky. What I want to say is that I'm happy other people have shown me that work is priceless.
One of the reasons I think people don't survive in organizing is because they equate their value with their pay, and then they equate their title with their personal status. I'm one of these people who say, this work will get done with or without money. That's why I'm surviving and enduring. Some of those on our fundraising team will contest this with me—they will say, we need money. But I don't make money my number-one principle, or my number-one resource. My number-one resource is people.
And that's why we can raise money. We don't raise money for ideas. We raise money because organizing is relational, and it is a human experience. That's what motivates me. That's why I can go out and raise money for ONE DC. Because it's not supporting Dominic; it's supporting this community of people who believe in relationships, and believe that we can connect. Money is just one of our tools, and we can't become conditioned like Wall Street or K Street [the street in Washington, D.C. where lobbying firms are commonly based] to think that it is the only tool.
We think ONE DC staff should be paid better; we think we should be heavily funded, not underfunded. But go find an over-resourced organization in this country, or maybe in this world, that is led by people of color. You can’t find one. So what I'm saying is that money is key, but it can't be central. People in relationships with other people have to be central.
It seems like your day as an organizer is pretty varied—what did you do yesterday?
I keep a notebook. I'll let you look at my notebook—anything you want to ask me about in here, go for it.
It's a lot of names, a lot of meetings. Do you keep track of everyone you talk to?
Lots of meetings. The thing is, the people I have the longest-standing relationships with, they might not be in the book. And some days are a lot longer than others.
The longer days, with more names, might be the easier days. The previous day is much shorter, a lot fewer names, but I was up at 6:00 a.m. to meet with people.
On a regular day, I might meet with 20 to 50 people. A regular week requires speaking with 50 people a day, easily. Another necessary organizing skill is understanding relationships, and understanding how much time people need at different moments. And that's why some of my days look shorter, is because I might have spent a long time with the three or four people who needed that long time.
How long do you think you'll organize? What do you see for the future of ONE DC?
The first question is absolutely easy: for the rest of my life. Though sometimes I visit other countries to observe their organizing methods—and when I’m there, I actually don't organize, I don't work, which startles people. I just be with people, and I think that's what makes me a good organizer. And that's why I believe I'll be doing this for the rest of my life, because I enjoy being with people.
And then for the future: I see myself being part of local and international movement work and I see me doing more movement-building, popular education, and learning in informal and formal settings. One of the things I want to learn more about is what it will take for more people in general—women and low-income people of color particularly—to get more involved in long-term organizing. Because, if you look at it, you can see it: There’s a serious gap in young people of color doing this work in the long term. But for me, organizing is life-giving.
H Kapp-Klote is a freelance writer in Chicago. They are a regular contributor to Youngist, and their work has appeared in RH Reality Check, Mic, and The Toast. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow them @pizza4justice.