Community Organizing: Powerful Overlooked Job Creator

File photo dated 09/07/10 of disruption on the A30 near Heathrow Airport in west London.
File photo dated 09/07/10 of disruption on the A30 near Heathrow Airport in west London.

This election season, much of the nation is pre-occupied by the job crisis. The term 'crisis' however, has a very different meaning to most people than it does to candidates for political office. For some, the job crisis entails a constant fear of job loss and the accompanying instability. For others, it is physically felt through hunger, cold, or the emotional pain of being unable to provide for one's family. For far too many of those running for office however, the job crisis remains a game of numbers, speaking points, and votes.

As November approaches, Americans who daily feel the fear, pain, and threat of the crisis try to discern how to move forward amongst the barrage of campaign ads and candidate debates to make good choices at the polls. As much as Americans need jobs, we also need leaders who understand how imperative and how personal the job crisis is. Leaders must grasp that the need for stable, well-paying work is intense and real. They must know how to respond innovatively, creating jobs that bolster sustainable and healthy communities.

A new study released on September 13th by Gamaliel Foundation - "Community Organizing as Job Creator: An Investment that Works for All" - offers new hope. Much as the title suggests, solid research now shows that community organizing stimulates local economies and provides sustainable training and employment for those who most need it.

In fact, community organizing is among the best job generators in America. This study uses well-established government formulas to calculate the economic benefit in terms of money won and jobs created from local, state, and national campaigns. It covers large sectors of the economy: healthcare, education, and transit. Community organizing can now be understood not simply in terms of rallying the disaffected but in actual jobs created, dollars gained, and measurable increases in gross domestic product.

In the past five years alone, through grassroots public pressure campaigns, Gamaliel organizers throughout the U.S. have created or saved more than 45,000 jobs in education and nearly 594,000 jobs from transit and infrastructure sectors. These jobs have come through ballot initiatives, workforce training programs, and increased legislative funding of state and city transit, education and human services. The study focuses heavily on securing funds for public transportation and infrastructure, which have been proven to provide significant returns on investment.

For every dollar spent on transit and infrastructure, the report notes, the gross domestic product increases by $1.44 and $1.31 respectively in the following year. Community organizing initiatives address active and future-oriented community need and builds sustainable communities while providing jobs for the individuals who need them most.

Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity's jobs campaign is a great example of the economic and social value of community organizing. MORE2, based in Kansas City, started with a big idea - the group wanted to make sure that impending development would build up local neighborhoods. Doing this required making living-wage construction jobs more available to low-income minority and women workers. MORE2 created the "Jericho Table," a space affected parties to collaborate. (Among those participating were public officials, grassroots leaders, minority contractors, and local clergy and key contractors including Kansas City-based JE Dunn, one of the largest contractors in the nation.)

Despite an auspicious start, the Jericho Table met for months with seemingly little progress. But beneath the conflict-filled meetings, consensus was growing. Advocates did not want window dressing or a mere shift of the same minority workers from project to project. They wanted real change - workers who built skills and progressed through the union training programs into journeyperson status.

This burgeoning consensus was tested dramatically. The Jericho Table got word that a draft of their bill was needed in order for the city council to pass it before they left office. Leaders swiftly created what is regarded as the best city-level minority and women inclusion policy in the country. The policy stipulates that contractors who apply for city-funded projects must maintain a substantial percentage of minority and women workers on their entire 11-county payroll. This forces contractors to maintain a constant supply of minority and women workers, rather than hiring them for specific projects. Kansas City's boomlet, which created more walkable communities and developed the downtown, lifted low income areas through this ground-breaking policy.

New approaches like these utilize a practical vision to promote future-oriented policy that works to meet the needs of today. The community organizing efforts of MORE2 reveal the ways in which community members and key stakeholders can engage democracy and create lasting reform. Jobs that fail to match the skill-level of the unemployed or that attempt to persist in a dying industry will not last. But jobs that employ the people that most need them and better the communities in which they live will make a transformative contribution.

Community organizing builds communities from the ground up - starting with the individuals it lifts into the public sphere. One organizer, Reverend Norma Patterson, had no idea she would end up as a leader who crossed the country regularly, speaking to crowded rooms filled with public officials, struggling community leaders, and the media. More significantly, she did not realize the change it would bring in her: "Before I started my work with United Congregations of Metro East (UCM), I never thought of myself as an inspiration to others - now my fellow leaders tell me they can't imagine our jobs campaign without my leadership. Organizing has made it possible for me to stand up and try to make a difference, even in a city as depressed as ours, East St. Louis, IL."

As much as the job crisis needs the attention of Washington, it is also needs the expertise of local community leaders who understand the specific needs of the population. One of the strengths of community organizing lies in building relationships amongst key stakeholders and informing lasting policy reform. Organizing and training leaders who can make a difference in their community needs to be the focus of our country if we want to build sustainable, livable communities that work for everyone. The Gamaliel report demonstrates that investing dollars in community organizing is one of the most effective and cost-efficient means of creating sustainable jobs and stimulating economic recovery.

According to the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy, every dollar invested in community organizing resulted in $115 in community benefits. It creates jobs, stimulates economic recovery, and builds a sustainable and equitable economy. Organizers must start quantifying success in dollars and jobs, and funders, including the government, must invest in the community-sustaining fields that organizers are trained to detect. Government must eliminate barriers and build capacity for these leaders to engage in job creation that really transforms communities.

If government officials are to stabilize our economy and provide jobs for under- and unemployed, they need to utilize community organizers who understand the local needs and can adopt innovative solutions. Democracy is at the heart of community organizing because it allows ordinary people to take part in resolving the crisis that are affecting daily life.

The job crisis is more than national - it's personal - and a successful solution will have to consider the needs and incorporate the ideas of the people.

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