Monthly Archives: July 2011

Some Lessons in Community Organizing

Months ago a similarly socially-conscious minded friend mentioned a group in Detroit who was working to teach at-risk youth to ride and repair bicycles. I scoffed at this – does anything scream “upper-middle class white person with a guilty conscience and too much free time” louder than teaching inner city kids about bicycles? A few weeks later when I excitedly mentioned to the same friend our group’s plan to start a community garden in Congress Heights, he quickly pointed out the hypocrisy of my criticisms of the Detroit group.
“No, no, no,” I explained. “Our project will be different. It will work. I mean, who doesn’t love fresh vegetables and getting their hands dirty!?!”
Yeah. Turns out gracing the food deserts of Southeast DC with fresh basil and a compost pile hollers white guilt just a little bit louder than bicycle repair workshops.
It also turns out a lot of people don’t actually delight in the image of daisies sprouting from the back of a toilet and a little fresh thyme to sprinkle on their dinner. In fact, it appears that there were some people who downright disliked our garden.
The first time I stopped by to check on the garden after planting, I was upset to see that some of our planters were missing, and bunches of transplanted seedlings had been torn up. I immediately realized that we should have known better. I read my share of Saul Alinsky in college, and we missed the basic principles of community organizing. As he says in Rules for Radicals, “As an organizer I start where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be.”

Because Saul Alinsky is almost as awesome as fruit.

Just because we have college degrees and “jobs” (even if they are AmeriCorps) and apartments in Northwest, does not mean that we bright-eyed young folk can waltz into Congress Heights, deposit some tomato plants, then sit back and watch as the world changes. When you can barely afford to put food on your table, I am certain having fresh herbs to garnish your dishes with is not high on your list of concerns. And learning the proper technique for dead-heading marigolds is not going to help you get a job. We failed to take into account the way the community is. And wild about gardening is definitely something that this community is not. Yet.
This doesn’t mean we’re going to give up. I believe if we are persistent, good things can still come from this garden. And even if we don’t grow a single bean, I think the lessons we have all learned are valuable enough.

Oh. And just in case you were wondering, that The Hub of Detroit actually looks pretty awesome.