Community Organizers in Kenya Struggling with their Roles

the whole gang at COPA Kenya
the whole gang at COPA Kenya

Nairobi    A highlight whenever I’m in Nairobi is the opportunity to meet and dialogue with community organizers who are part of COPA Kenya, the Community Organization Practitioners Association of Kenya, and a unique professional association of organizers. We had what they call a “sharing” in which ACORN Kenya’s organizers, David Musungu and Sammy Ndirangu joined with the elected chair of ACORN Kenya and laid out the six year history of ACORN’s work in the Korogocho slum in Nairobi, and I briefly described the work of ACORN around the world, followed by questions from the dozen organizers who attended.

ACORN organizers, Sammy and David, prepare for COPA Kenya meeting with chair of ACORN Kenya
ACORN organizers, Sammy and David, prepare for COPA Kenya meeting with chair of ACORN Kenya,  Daniel Kairo

COPA Kenya’s roots go back more than 20 years to an equally novel training program funded by Misereor, the German Catholic Bishops fund, where Dennis Murphy and other organizers from the Philippines were brought to Kenya to train community organizers and in some cases the best of the lot were brought for further training in the Philippines. Some of the senior organizers at our meeting spoke of being in the second or fourth groups that were part of the initial trainings and through COT, the Center for Organizer Training in Kenya, generations of community organizers have continued to go through the six month initial training or the advanced training. The legacy of that experiment continues through COPA Kenya and the creation of a unique culture of organizing and the special sense in Kenya of community organizing as a profession.

Florence Juma, one of the senior community organizers
Florence Juma, one of the senior community organizers

The presentations and questions quickly underscored the uniqueness of ACORN Kenya’s work especially the fact that it was membership-based and dues driven. Several of the community organizers in attendance identified themselves as “consultants” now, working for various NGOs or the government to interact with the community. Others were engaged in programs around education or health in particular areas of the city. One said she was on the “job corner” looking for work. Another was both a consultant and working for a rural women’s empowerment group. Several were in agency work.

In the Q&A I shared the donor trends in the USA that were defunding organizational formation, leadership development, capacity building, and infrastructure and instead privileging specific tasks for campaigns and envisioning community organizations more as outreach tools than empowerment projects in their own right. I was briskly informed that in Kenya donor-driven work had led to the devolution of community organizers to little more than outreach workers and liaisons to the community for years to most organizers dissatisfaction.

In became clear in the question and answer session, as several offered examples of their work, that for some the roles of an organizer had become very confused. Several seemed to frame their work and experience as more of a mediator between government, business and the community. In a language confusion that turned out to be heated and perhaps profound, several organizers saw their roles in “prepping the target,” as including discussions with the target before an action or meeting with the community, taking the mediator role past a comfortable line for many organizers.

Everyone agreed the conversations were clarifying and helpful and parted in good spirits, but there was a lingering cloud for me. There was some confusion about the role of our elected chair and whether or not he was seen, which he expressly denied, as a community organizer successfully emerging from the community, as opposed more appropriately as a leader. The notion of developing leaders seems to have declined in importance for many now by necessity who were trapped in agency and NGO work for livelihoods. An organizer detached from an organization where accountability to members is a condition of employment and leaders are democratically elected and supported and determine an organizer’s tasks has become rarer in Kenya, and organizers are struggling with their roles and unhappy about it, which was disconcerting to me.

An organizer without an organization is a fish out of water, drowning on the shore.

debating the issues during the Q&A with the organizers -- pick best
debating the issues during the Q&A with the organizers

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Organizers Grow Up to be Developers

Cowboy BuilderWaveland    The activist and academically oriented quarterly journal, Social Policy, trades out subscriptions with a publication called Shelterforce, which, as the name indicates, specializes in housing related issues. A random email called “rooflines” that I get from time to time featured their best articles of the year.   Scrolling through, one piece caught my eye because the title was “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Organizers Grow Up to be Developers,” a play on the great Willie Nelson song cautioning mothers to not let their children grow up to be cowboys.  To have a housing development publication running an article cautioning community organizers to not become developers was bound to be something special, and the fact that it was written by John Emmeus Davis, a career developer and housing policy expert based in Vermont with a long history of projects and teaching behind him was intriguing as well.  What’s up with all of this?

Luckily for me Davis gets to the heart of his argument right from the get-go:

When a community-based developer of affordable housing incorporates community organizing into its programmatic repertoire, there is almost always added value—for the persons housed, for residents of the area served, for the organization itself.

The reverse is less often true.

Community organizers rarely become better at cultivating collective power and agitating for social change when they leave the streets, exchanging ball caps for hard hats. Not only do they stop doing what they do best; they start doing something that takes everyone a terribly long time to do well.

Wow!  Talk about hitting the nail on the head.  Davis is clear throughout the piece that in his field of housing development, the addition of experienced and skilled community organizers is a huge benefit, but he
is equally clear that community organizing rarely gets much of anything in return and in fact is more likely the loser in the tradeoff.  His argument reminds me of the answers we often used to give when outsiders
would ask us if we ever hired ACORN leaders to be ACORN organizers.  We would answer factually that, “yes, we did,” but we would be equally frank that it was easier for us to hire and develop a good organizer
than to find and develop a great leader, so in some cases we resisted the transition unless the leader or member insisted.

Davis understands he’s arguing the righteous truth but is doing so against the grain, but charges forward in the midst of the contradiction.

I can’t help feeling a sense of loss. It leaves a hole in the political landscape every time another group of hard-riding cowboys (or kick-ass cowgirls) settles down after years of punching out politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, and speculators without having to worry about permits, grants, credits, loans, or donations being withheld from projects they are planning to build. With a whisper of apology to Willie Nelson, a silly ditty plays silently in my head:

Mamas don’t let your cowboys grow up to be builders
Don’t let em pluck spreadsheets and beg for old bucks
Make em play guitars, stage protests, and such

Okay, my feelings are definitely confused. If nonprofit developers become more accountable to the people and places they serve when they begin acting more like organizers—listening, engaging, recruiting,
educating, advocating—perhaps community organizers become more strategic and effective when they begin casting their campaigns and framing their demands with an eye toward supporting development they
plan to do.

What he leaves unspoken is the question of resources and the role it plays in driving these cowboys off the right ranch.  Community organizations and their organizing staffs desperate for resources frequently decide to till another field hoping to grow money trees there when support for community organizing is so fallow.In a conversation in France not along ago about a different topic, I answered that the book that really needed to be written was the history of community organizing told through the lens of how it had been driven and adapted to resource problems and opportunities.

Regardless, today, we’ll just thank Davis for singing our song.