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Community Organizing: Examples of Effective Change-Driven Collaboration

by | Feb 15, 2022 | Community Development

Like many things in life, the act of driving change and improvement in our communities is most effectively achieved through collaboration. By bringing together people with a common interest, goal or objective, getting things done and achieving the originally desired outcome becomes much more feasible and realistic. Through the division of labour, pooling of resources and aggregation of talents, skillsets and experience, the impossible becomes possible; the end goal more probable and attainable.

There’s no shortage of examples of community organizing efforts that show just how far strong teamwork and collaboration can go — particularly when they’re aimed at improving the lives of others. Here, we’ve pulled together examples of just a few.

Business for Better Community

community-based non-profit organization in Mount Hope, West Virginia is utilizing coffee sales to generate funds for the local arts community. ‘The Coal Bucket Coffee Shop’ offers coffees, ice cream, milk shakes, and more, while creating a vibrant gathering space in the community’s downtown core. Impressively, the coffee shop is run entirely by a group of dedicated community-minded volunteers, filling a void in the local business community left by another coffee shop that previously occupied the same space. It hasn’t been open for long, but it’s already proving immensely popular and benefiting the entire Mount Hope community. It’s an excellent example of how solid community organizing can benefit a community both economically and socially at the same time.

The initiative checks so many boxes: stimulating the local economy, supporting local youth, and supporting key arts and cultural activities. Ultimately, it provides benefits for the entire Mount Hope community, and it’s all run by volunteers. A lot of work and time was put into making the Coal Bucket an early success. It’s another example of what can be achieved with some creative thinking to address a gap in the community (the loss of a coffee shop) and add benefits that make the community better. 

We have seen many examples of this type of initiative. Episode 15 of our Community Revival Podcast showcases another great example from Manitoba, Canada. We aren’t suggesting that your goal should be to set up volunteer businesses that compete with existing private sector businesses. That would be foolish. However, entrepreneurs succeed by identifying opportunities where something is missing. Volunteers work to fill gaps in a community where something is missing. Put the two together and a solution can usually be found that addresses both gaps. It’s just one more creative way of community organizing.

Engaging Youth Through Recreation

A simple outdoor group activity is proving an immensely effective means of community organizing and positively engaging youth in the town of Isiolo, Kenya. The Isiolo Cyclists Club sees its youth members convene for around two hours once a week to cycle as a collective group along a local highway route. Organizers of the club — which has grown from 10 to more than 40 members in the span of less than a year — say the initiative has so far been effective in achieving its mandate of diverting youths from crime, drug abuse and radicalization.

Positively and effectively engaging youth has proven immensely challenging for communities all over North America. We hear it every day: Youth aren’t interested, so I give up. The issue usually isn’t that they aren’t interested, but more so that they aren’t interested in what you are doing, or the way you are doing it. They might not be interested in curling, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in sports. They might not be interested in joining your community service club, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in volunteering. As the initiative outlined in the article demonstrates, community organizing through engaging youth means engaging them in their interests, not yours. Quantity and quality of time with them ensures you get to know them better and allows you to find a common interest. Listen to them first if you want them to eventually listen to you.

If you’re interested in working toward something similar, start something in your community. Anything. Cycling, tennis, running, soccer. Some will fail, and some will succeed. There are countless community organizing ideas and activities providing ways in which to easily, quickly, and cheaply bring youth together to participate in activities they enjoy. Make sure it is affordable and accessible. Or better yet, offer it for free. There are plenty of grants and subsidies out there that will allow and enable you to do so. Ultimately, “there’s nothing to do” will still come from some of them, but don’t let it deter you. Have fun and get creative, but don’t give up.

Win-Win Events for the Win

Initially created as a means of adapting to the pandemic (by allowing people a safe outdoor space in which to purchase food), the Hazel Park Nighttime Farmers Market in Michigan is truly one of those win-win community organizing stories all around. Its concept is simple: It’s an evening market that sells produce for the price of a donation, complete with live music and plenty of opportunities to safely mingle. Food donations support local farmers who donate produce to impoverished communities within Detroit. However, there’s also a large arts and culture component to the event. A crowd-sourced large art installation made up of flowers was scheduled to open at the market in late-2021, and was generating plenty of conversation and excitement in the interim.

While we mustn’t underestimate the amount of time and planning that goes into community organizing like this, it’s easy to see why it’s so important — and ultimately, essential. Started in the midst of a pandemic, this event offers a means of (safely) bringing people together, allowing opportunities for socialization that have otherwise been difficult to plan and facilitate. But that’s not the only feel-good factor of this story. It’s also immensely encouraging and uplifting to see so many groups and organizations working together for the overall benefit of the community. And the participating organizers, producers, artists, and musicians don’t just give the people of Hazel Park something to do; they also make donations through funding generated by the community organizing event to local schools and people in need.

As a community builder, don’t be afraid to try and replicate this event, or something similar to it. Many communities in North America already have a Farmers Market, and so there may be opportunity to add to it some of the community organizing components touched upon in this particular example. If you do have such an event, ask yourself how it can be further expanded or adjusted to maximize benefit to the overall community. Seek to engage and involve local businesses, volunteers, service groups, and others with an interest in making your community better. Then, market and promote the event, and invite people from both within your community and beyond.

The Kids Are Alright

The small community of Irmo, South Carolina (just outside of Columbia) continues to raise funds to expand on the athletic and educational opportunities for children living in affordable housing complexes. After it was discovered that many vandalism and property thefts were being committed by young people in the community some cried out for more police and patrols. In the end, a ‘youth zone’ approach was embraced, and the community organizing efforts were already leading to a reduction in crime in the area.

Our traditional mindset says that the only way to combat crime is with more police and harsher punishments. It may make us feel better because it seems like an easy and obvious solution. It also works for politicians who say they will be tough on crime, and we allow ourselves to believe it will just go away. But research proves that doesn’t work well. Just because something is illegal does not deter anyone from doing it. People who commit a crime think they can get away with it, so they never anticipate the law will apply to them, which means the law and the punishment is not a deterrent. We always say around here, ‘invest in sports or you will pay for in the courts.’ Proper investments and good community organizing will prevent the crime from happening.

This is a great concept to implement in a community that is underprivileged and needs a place and space for sport to occur. In some cases, however, it is only a few underprivileged children that can’t afford to play organized sports. We recommend what we call ‘pop-up’ sports, which are cost free and league free, community sport gatherings that welcome everyone to play. They are friendly games that encourage the community to come out, to come together, and to play for fun and for free, which can go a long way to help your community connect, and give those youth something to do and a sense of belonging.