No Matter the Context, Listening is Always Central in Organizing

Ann Atwater registering voters in NC in 1967

New Orleans       When community organizing makes it into the mainstream, most often it’s duck-and-cover because trouble and confusion is coming as the critical content and context of organizing gets diluted and dumbed down for mass consumption.  With some trepidation I read a guest column in the Washington Post by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove who directs the Ann Atwater Freedom Library in Durham, North Carolina.  His main purpose seemed to be promoting a coming film, but some of the stories he was telling about lessons from Ann Atwater, an African-American activist and organizer in the mid-60’s, whom he described as a community organizer, are worth sharing.

Wilson-Hartgrove tells this story:

I asked whether she [Ann Atwater] would teach me what she had learned about community organizing. “Well, it’s pretty simple,” she said. “I listen to you until I learn what you want, then I help you get it. When we get halfway to what you want, I’ll tell you what I want.” When genuine fusion organizing works, everyone benefits and everyone changes.

Atwater first learned community organizing from Howard Fuller, a charismatic young man who showed up at her door in the mid-1960s, when she was living in dilapidated housing in Durham’s segregated Hayti community. Atwater wanted basic repairs to the house she was renting, and Fuller helped her get them. Then he told Atwater he wanted her to attend a 17-week community action technician training. She emerged from the program with a clear understanding of how she could help others who faced the same challenges she did. She organized neighborhood councils in all of segregated Durham’s African American communities to demand equal access to government services and economic opportunity. Durham’s lunch counters were long since integrated, but Atwater knew all too well that she couldn’t afford to eat at them.

            I can’t vouch for the movie which seems to be about Atwater coming to some kind of terms and reconciliation with the local head of the KKK, but certainly a basic principle of community organizing is that conflict can create deep bonds, rather than division, if handled constructively.  Wilson-Hargrove goes on to make a point that is worth considering, even if perhaps a bit optimistic.

… as a young white man from the South, I was adopted into the freedom movement by Ann Atwater, the African American community organizer whose vision for fusion politics is its driving force. Because I knew Grandma Ann and the beloved community she welcomed me into, I know that true multiethnic democracy is possible. In the midst of the identity crisis we face as a nation, the organizing tradition that Atwater embodied is the strong medicine we need: It has the potential to break through the lie that has convinced us that for one community to win, another must lose.

If people will take that medicine, we need to give it to them by the truckload!

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