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

Balm in Gilead: Mo George

July 30, 2014

Mo’s organizing experience started in college where she worked locally with NYPIRG as their Campus Leader. Upon graduation, Mo accepted an organizer position at SEIU Local 1199 where she worked for 9 years. After leaving 1199, Mo moved on to become the Lead Organizer at the Empire State Pride Agenda, where she fought for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. At Pride Agenda, Mo led various statewide campaigns, including further developing their annual statewide lobby day from 400 to over 1000 participants during her tenure there.

After the recent passing of her grandmother (who raised her), Mo resigned from Pride Agenda and decided to spend some time traveling the world, including time in Paris, Italy and other parts of France. Mo is now back home in New York and is excited to be working with Community Voices Heard members on Public Housing. Mo joined CVH as the Public Housing Campaign Director and is now the Director of Individual Giving and Events.

As a proud product of “the projects,” she feels that public housing must be preserved. Mo holds her BA degree from SUNY New PaltzĀ and an MPA from Metropolitan College. When Mo is not trying to change the world, she is usually either reading a good book, traveling, or just enjoying New York with her partner of 3 years.

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

Mo George: I started organizing while at the State University College at New Paltz when I was asked to work with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) on some environmental issues in the Hudson Valley. At the time, I didn’t know it was called organizing nor did I realize that it was an actual profession. All I knew was that NYPIRG was working to preserve a lake and as a kid from public housing in the Bronx, the chance to preserve something beautiful made me say yes to being a part of their campaign. It wasn’t until I took a job at Local 1199 SEIU and met organizers did I realize that what I did, with NYPIRG, was organizing.


KR: Growing up in public housing, were you engaged in any type of organizing activities, even though you may not have been aware of it at the time?

MG: The one thing that comes to mind when I think of my years in public housing and organizing was that it taught me that you don’t have to deal with the way things are, you have the power to change it. I remember coming home from college and finding that lights were out in the stairwell on my floor. When talking to my grandmother about it she stated that they are always going on and that the housing authority never seems to fix them. I found that a bit troubling because these stairwell are directly across from the incinerators. Oftentimes, myself and other women would dispose of garbage into the incinerator, and you have to have your back to the stairwell, as you use them, and that felt so unsafe. I often felt unsafe and knew that others had as well.Quote: We all hear, but listening is a skill.

One day, I was sitting on the bench with my friends in front of my building and we started talking about the dark stairwell and that it was scary and unsafe, I said we should say something and folks agreed. The next time we were sitting on the bench, and the building maintenance person walked by, we all started yelling at him to fix the light bulbs. He paid us little attention and moved on with his day. We repeated this practice of yelling at him every time we saw him, and he again went about his day. After about a week, some of the elders in the building started talking about the lights too and joined in our yelling at the maintenance guy. Finally, after about three weeks of us and the elders yelling about fixing the lights, I came home from college to not only find the lights fixed but a cover attached to each lighting fixture so people couldn’t easily unscrew or brake the bulbs. That day on the bench, my friends were like “Hey Mo, we got the light fixed” and I said yes we did. Looking back I realized that it is little things like that during my years in public housing that really was the root for my work.


KR: How did you develop your organizing skills?

MG: My organizing skills have been developed a variety of ways, beginning in college with my work with various clubs such as the Black Student Union and a position in student government, all giving me the foundation for what organizing is all about. Starting with getting fellow students together to protest against the administration or just knocking on doors to talk to people and move them to action around issues, was my first introduction to organizing in a non formal way and I believe all these activities gave birth to the organizer I was destined to become. My formal skills were developed by attending the Organizing Institute in Washington D.C. during my time working at Local 1199 SEIU. 1199 positions with Empire State Pride Agenda, and now Community Voices Heard, have all expanded my skills. Also recently taking part in BOLD (Black Organizing in Leadership & Dignity) have been beyond helpful in furthering the development of my skill, and I believe that as an organizer you should always be working on honing your skills.


KR: What do you think is the most important skill that you’ve developed through your organizing work?

MG: There are a lot of important skills I have developed, but I have to say the most important would be the ability to listen. Most folks may ask or think, “how is listening an important skill” or “we all listen”. I beg to differ; I think we all hear but listening is a skill. As an organizer, you have to know when to talk but more importantly, you have to know how to listen. Listening to people talk about their issues or tell their story has added so much value to my work. Folks may have been heard, but to see folks really listened to and then move from that place of being fully heard is amazing. It has helped me develop leaders and mentor other organizers. It is because of this skill that I have been able to do this work even better. Other skills besides the basics of door-knocking and meeting facilitation, etc, are all skills I’ve developed too, but the ability to deeply listen is the one I value most.Quote: We have to make space so that young Black women and men want to do organizing and see it as a profession. National People's Action has a wonderful t-shirt that says I Fight Evil for a Living; folks love that shirt and wear it proudly.


KR:How did you come to your current organizing position at Community Voices Heard?

MG: After my departure from Empire State Pride Agenda, and the loss of my grandmother who played a pivotal role in my life, I took some time to travel (went to Europe) and really think about what I wanted to do, and if organizing was still a passion. One night, at about 2am, I was on and saw a posting for Public Housing Campaign Director at Community Voices Heard (CVH), and it immediately spoke to me. Having been raised in public housing in the Bronx (shout out to Edenwald Houses), it was a real chance to give something back to the community that raised me. Public housing was my home for 41 of my 48 years here on earth and it gave birth to who I am, so given the opportunity to work on its preservation was something I couldn’t pass up. I also researched the work that CVH has accomplished since its beginning and I knew that it would be a good fit for me. I immediately submitted my resume at 3am that morning and from that moment to now 5 1/2 years later I never regretted pressing send and would do it again.


KR:During your time as a NYC Chapter Director of Organizing, what has been your strategy for supporting and strengthening Black leadership?

MG: I believe that the model of just winning campaigns without the development of strong leadership especially when working with Black leaders is not helpful to us as a people. Because of this, my strategy has been to develop leadership skills first. This begins with serious training. I think that through training, one’s leadership is enhanced and you can then move on to next steps. Those next steps should be support. Some Black folks don’t know what real support is or feels like. Too often we put our belief in places that we think are supportive. This is often because we don’t have real conversations about support, or how we need support. Due to this, we are left open to all types of elements that in the end really don’t support us in healthy ways. I think that mentoring is key and also helps strengthen Black organizers. If those of us who have been doing this work for a number of years (for me it’s been 21 years) reach back and support the next generation of Black organizers, we can increase those numbers. This is what I developed as my strategy.

Quote: I believe that once you have found the greatness within yourself, your leadership is natural, because you never quite settle for injustice or inequality.

KR: You mentioned leadership training. What does that training look like? What do people learn in these trainings?

MG: There are various formal trainings, such as “Intro to Organizing 101” or “How to be a Effective Leader.” All these formal trainings are needed, but I think we have to go deeper, especially with Black folks. We have to have training on race and racism, structural racism, and we need to train folks about understanding the situation of Black folks in our current state. These trainings have to bring us to know our culture and understand our role in society. We also have to train on leadership and what it means to be a Black Leader. Folks have to learn about society, our culture, and Power. We have to discuss our relationship to Power, do we want it and how do we get it. I think that, through training, we begin to become aware of ourselves and our fight. Training leads to the development of self, and development of self leads to understanding ourselves as Black folks. This leads to an understanding that we are born from Kings and Queens and greatness is our birth right. I believe that once you have found the greatness within yourself, your leadership is natural, because you never settle for injustice or inequality. Once you know your greatness, you know your worth and you know your worth more than society is giving you, and leadership training is the beginning of the path.


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?

MG: This question is one I recently had a discussion about while on a BOLD retreat. A few of us were discussing our work and a few thoughts came to mind regarding this. First, let me say that some amazing work is being done across the country, and just leaving the BOLD retreat that had more than ten Black executive directors and national coordinators shows that some real kicking working is being done. I think the perception of this decline has been because, while we have tons of Black-led organizing work, we also have lost some organizations and some people. When we talk about this, we have to talk about the issue of being able to say that you’re working on issues of Black folks without a call to have it be more multicultural. For some organizations, stating that you’re only working on “Black” issues has led to some tension and in some cases the loss of organizers. I think another reason we have to look at is funding, and we can’t have a discussion about decline without this piece. If we are being honest, we would have to talk about Black issues not being “sexy” to funders. If we are being honest, we would have to talk about Black organizations having to go almost against each other for funds. If we are being honest, we have to talk about funders and how it really works in the funding world, so that Black-led organizing can become something folks really consider. If we are being honest, we’ll have to also talk about not being “fundable”, which means no money for you to some folks. Overall what this does is that Black-led organizing groups have to begin (or maybe continue) to have hard and honest conversations about the decline, and the perception it leaves behind.Quote: If those of us who have been doing this work for a number of years (for me it's been 21 years) reach back and support the next generation of Black organizers, we can increase those numbers.


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

MG: Plain and simple, we have to invest in this work through financial, physical, and spiritual investment. When I say spiritual I’m not talking religion per say but rather an understanding of the spirit that leads someone to this work. I think we have to bring the “sexy” back to organizing. I remember when the media published all these stories of President Obama being an organizer and folks said to me, “Oh you do what Obama does?” and I said yes but better (just kidding)! If we are going to increase our work we have to start with a commitment to telling folks about our work. We have to make space so that young Black women and men want to do organizing and see it as a profession. National People’s Action has a wonderful t-shirt that says, “I Fight Evil for a Living”, and folks love that shirt and I wear it proudly. This has to be what we express to Black folks interested in joining this fight, that fighting evil is a calling and they should answer if called. We also need to open up the door (financial and physical) for more programs such as BOLD. Their Amandla training program for new organizers or those interested in becoming organizers is a space to learn about the work and examine and explore all the possibilities in this work. I think it’s vital that Black folks have space to come together and work on our issues within ourselves and our community.

Also, once folks are on board, we have to sustain it. We can no longer follow models that don’t support who we are as a people or ignore our culture – a culture that is rich in art, dance, and celebration. We can’t sustain Black-led organizing if we keep making it impossible for Black women with children to do this work in a way that honors and celebrates their family. We have to support spaces that allow Black directors on all levels (such as with the BOLD Director’s retreat), to continue this work and most importantly work towards expansion. This will sustain those of us who have been doing this work for a while, because we need support too. This will enable us to train and mentor more Black organizers, and continue to build stronger Black leadership. We also will have to push funders and individuals with or without wealth to fund this work. We shouldn’t have to worry about money to do this work, with all the wealth in this country. We have to let people know that fighting for social change for Black folks will benefit everyone. If we are to really increase and sustain this work, we have to move past the conversation and shift to doing it. I, personally, am sick of talking and I thank Community Voices Heard and BOLD for supporting me and teaching me to say “Forget the talking, LET’S BUILD”.


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