Community Organizing

Community organizing is an integral component in movements for racial justice. More than just a means to an end, grassroots organizing activates the transformative potential of individual and collective power in communities. A human rights framework recognizes that human rights and racial justice will not be accomplished without the leadership of these communities.

Examples from the USHRF’s 2011 convening include:

1. Youth Organizing

Founded in 2009 by leaders from the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools is a youth-led movement to improve safety in schools without pushing students into the criminal justice system. The Campaign recently succeeded in getting the Philadelphia School District to remove zero tolerance from its official code of conduct. In the face of budget cuts, the Campaign mobilized a march with 2,000 participants, drawing major media coverage and leading a former superintendent to publicly declare her support for restorative practices.

2. Arts & Culture in Human Rights & Racial Justice Organizing

The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program (MAP) unites artists and communities through a collaborative process to create art that transforms public spaces and individual lives. Launched in 1984, MAP has grown into a major community force, responsible for over 3,000 murals across Philadelphia. MAP’s free art education programs, targeted to at-risk youth, serve 1,500 young people each year, teaching transferable life and work skills and improving lives.

 

Student organizers with the Philadelphia Student Union march against budget cuts.

3. Human Rights Training, Education, and Leadership Development

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an association of migrant farm workers in Florida,has amassed an impressive membership to negotiate a series of ground-breaking labor agreements with many of the biggest companies in the food industry. Human rights trainings are a regular component of CIW’s weekly meetings. Pamphlets containing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are distributed every season. During meetings, CIW’s members emphasize universal legal frameworks that uphold workers’ rights and dignity.

In Baltimore, Maryland, The United Workers have successfully organized a constituency of homeless African American and Latino day laborers to win a living wage. Human rights education and leadership training offer a unifying vision for change through three leadership development programs. The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Organizing Model helps to contextualize workers’ experiences around other social justice issues.

 

Lessons

  • Creative popular education methods help translate complex concepts into digestible ideas. For example, CIW uses skits and drawings to illustrate power relationships between workers, produce growers, consumers and multinational companies that buy farm products.
  • Multimedia tools such as video and radio offer multiple avenues for education and involvement.
  • A human rights framework offers a stabilizing anchor for community members who have been marginalized. Understanding that they are entitled to basic human rights—no matter what the government or an employer might say to the contrary—gives vulnerable people the strength and confidence to stand up and challenge abuses against them.
  • Human rights can help bridge disconnected groups while acknowledging that differences must be addressed. For example, United Workers takes a proactive approach to fostering racial understanding through a member education program in which African Americans and Latinos learn about each other’s human rights struggles.

 

”I think the only idea that matters is… organize, organize, organize‚Ķorganizing is essential, especially among the people most affected by the human rights crisis in this country… If we’re going to build a movement in the United States, it’s got to come from the people most affected.” —Todd Cherkis, United Workers

4. Partnerships With Unlikely Allies

A human rights framework avoids many of the pitfalls of "wedge politics" which build walls between enemies and supporters. Instead, human rights create a common ground for respecting fundamental human dignity. CIW found that human rights messaging resonated with a wide variety of audiences. For example, explaining how poor working conditions violated human dignity helped them win over valuable partners in the faith community.

The Border Network for Human Rights has successfully built relationships between communities and law enforcement in El Paso, Texas, overcoming years of distrust, suspicion, and abuses of power. BNHR’s members, most of whom are immigrants, hold forums with elected officials and law enforcement forums to clarify policies and rights. Community members have the opportunity to ask about the local and state implications of immigration policies and advocate for practices that are rights-respecting. Cooperation with El Paso’s elected officials has led to the adoption of resolutions condemning border militarization, promoting comprehensive immigration reform, and most of all, recognizing the human rights of community members.