Black and white photo of African American organizers protesting with banner text: Balm in Gilead: Collected Stories from Black Organizers

Balm in Gilead: Maurice Mitchell

November 6, 2014

Maurice Mitchell is the coordinator of the New York State Civic Engagement Table, a hub for collaboration and the sharing of technology among the progressive 501(c)3 organizations in New York. Maurice previously served as the downstate organizing director for Citizen Action of New York and spent seven years at the Long Island Progressive Coalition organizing a number of electoral and issue-based campaigns.

While studying at Howard University he led organizing efforts against police brutality, and divestment from private prisons and founded the local Amnesty International Chapter. Maurice has also been a member of Malcolm X Grassroots Movement‘s people’s self-defense campaign and Critical Resistance‘s New York Chapter. Maurice sits currently on the boards of Brooklyn Movement Center and Community Voices Heard.

Kevin Ryan: How did you first get involved in organizing work?

Maurice Mitchell: My first foray into organizing started in middle school as a student leader for the Long Island Student Coalition for Peace and Justice. This was a student arm of some work out of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island. We were tasked to mobilize students Island-wide on issues of social justice and peace.

My first legitimate campaign was the work I did as a college student at Howard University against police brutality and in support of divestment from private prisons.


KR: As a middle school leader and then a college student, how did you go about mobilizing your fellow students?

MM: In middle school and college, it was really a trial by error outreach. We would mail every school in every school district and see who shook out. Admittedly non–scientific methods of outreach were fully employed. I began to learn what worked and what didn’t and the types of personalities that gravitate towards social justice. I had refined those skills more in college and developed some disciplined outreach practices resulting in some fairly large actions. Of course, a college campus is a semi-artificial laboratory for organizing. Nowhere else are there so many idealistic young people with relatively large amounts of free time to develop their political education and participate in actions. It wasn’t until after college did I learn some of the organizing models I skill employ today. It was a solid experiential foundation that I drew from as I gained more “professional” practice.

Quote: Of course a college campus is a semi-artificial laboratory for organizing. Nowhere else are there so many idealistic young people with relatively large amounts of free time to develop their political education and participate in actions


KR: What were the most important factors for building your interest and skill as an organizer?

MM: I saw opportunities for me to learn, grow, and play a critical role in a broader movement. This is why leadership development is so key. I’ve always been in positions where I had to stretch my skills and capacity. Once I gained mastery in those skills, I would look for and eventually find other opportunities. This is also an important reason to democratize the work so that everyone involved knows that their voice and concerns are valued.


KR: Think about one of the successful organizing campaigns that you worked on. What were the key factors in building that campaign?

MM: Early in my career I led a successful campaign to stop the doubling of the county jail in Suffolk. Many things were aligned:
• Most affected communities in the forefront: We worked with the group Prison Families Anonymous. This is a group of family members of inmates. They were passionate, consistent, and dedicated. They were the core of our campaign.

• Sympathetic ear in the press: Newsday’s staff reporter Zach Dowdy was willing to listen to our case. We built a relationship of mutual trust over almost two years and his reporting on the issue was a major influence on elected officials and others. Quote: Although amazing work is happening  in some local communities, these stories are not being elevated

• Great support from national policy folks: We had great analysis from Dana Kaplan who was working through a national grant to study the prison industrial complex. Her testimony at hearings as well as materials she developed destroyed the veneer of irreproachability the County Sherriff and others had.

• Attracted uncommon allies: We built a relationship with a conservative tax hawk who would consistently be deployed to provide the opposition for the jail from the right.


KR: How much of this successful campaign was the result of good community engagement and mobilization and how much of it was negotiation and adjusting quickly as the campaign was unfolding?

MM: Both were essential. We relied on the community as the backbone of the campaign. It was their consistent presence at every public hearing that made it clear that this was a real issue felt by real people. On the other side, I and our support network paged through all the reports and discovered the huge price-tag of the jail. We were able to make news by providing our press contacts with the data that resulted in front page news. The embarrassing news shifted the onus on the supporters of the Jail to justify the project instead of the community to justify ending the project.


KR: In your role as the coordinator of the New York Civic Engagement Table, you work with a number of organizing and advocacy groups from across the state. From your experience, what is your take on the current state of Black-led organizing work in New York?

MM: Black-led organizing work is at a crisis level of under-funding and disconnection. The three areas that need the most work are leadership development, collaboration, strategic funding.


KR: Why do you prioritize these three areas?

MM: I prioritize these areas because they all rely on one another. We need to build a solid, intentional leadership development pipeline for black organizers from high-school and college, all the way through to ED. Black organizers get “lost in the sauce” and often don’t last in the movement due to myriad cultural and racial barriers or incongruities that are never explicitly surfaced. We need race-explicit leadership development and mentorship of black organizers to support their retention in the movement.

Black groups need to collaborate because they need to be at the forefront of innovative work in the field. Our organizations are under-resourced and the sources of funding are contracting. We have to work together to share costs and grow our impact. Organizations that continue to go it alone in a neat silo will be relics of the past.

Quote: It was their consistent presence at every public hearing that made it clear that this was a real issue felt by real peole

Funding Black organizing needs to be done is a strategic way where funders are considering the entire landscape and funding with the interest of both achieving meaningful organizing victories but also building infrastructure. Coordination, support networks, and the like can provide support so Black organizations thrive.


KR: There are a number of conversations that have been happening around the country about the decline in Black-led organizing work. What do you think has led to this perception?

MM: Although amazing work is happening in some local communities, these stories are not being elevated. Efforts should be made to regularly promote examples of where and when black-led organizing is working.

Coordination and collaboration between black organizations need to be greatly enhanced. Lack of coordination and collaboration is no longer an option for any of our groups, black-led or otherwise.

Trust needs to be built across traditional black civil rights institutions and their leaders, who tend to be older, and younger activists who are often working in white led institutions due to the paucity of black-led institutions to contribute to. We need to proactively create venues where these relationships can be built.

Deep investments in leadership development must happen. We need to identify the next black Directors and organizers in high school and college and support them through their work in the movement.


KR: What can we do to increase and sustain Black-led organizing work in the future?

• Support the work of organizations like Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity and help foment other such organizations focused on black leadership development.
• Encourage organizations to invest in the adequate compensation of their organizers. People coming from working class and low-income backgrounds have trouble breaking into organizing because of the low starting salaries and meager prospect for healthy wages in the future.
• Support collaborative and/or innovative work coming from black-led groups to help change the narrative of “black-led organizing of the decline” to one of “black-led organizations as doing cutting-edge work”


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