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

Balm in Gilead: Ng’ethe Maina

July 16, 2014

Ng’ethe Maina began his career in the social justice field as a founding organizer at SCOPE, a grassroots community-based organization in Los Angeles, helping develop it into a leading voice for poor people struggling for social and economic justice. As a Senior Organizer, and eventually as Organizing Director, he helped lead successful economic justice campaigns to win jobs and training for poor people across the Los Angeles region, as well as set policy precedents for the use of public capital. He also helped pioneer cutting-edge tools and technologies for social justice organizing.

After more than 10 years at SCOPE, Maina moved to New York in 2003 to found and launch Social Justice Leadership. He created innovative training methodologies to help organizers, leaders, and directors become more effective at the work of social change. Under his direction, Social Justice Leadership sought to improve the effectiveness of organizers, organizations, and the social justice movement as a whole, and through its merger with Center for Progressive Leadership, eventually expanded to running leadership training programs in five states. In late 2013, after 10 years of building and running Social Justice Leadership, Ng’ethe left the organization to delve more deeply into evolving models that combine politics, power-building, and leadership.

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

Ng’ethe Maina: I first became involved in full-time organizing work right out of college, but my desire to do social change in the Black community stretched back to when I was just a young fellow. As a child growing up in the Bay Area in Northern California, I have vivid memories of being harassed by white police officers when I was walking home from elementary school, probably as early as the 4th or 5th grade. Quote: I was growing tired of being in the kind of endless intellectualizing and self-righteousness that can sometimes accompany budding political consciousness on a college campus.The Bay Area is supposed to be a bastion of liberalness, but that certainly wasn’t my experience growing up there. Not surprisingly, this kind of experience lasted through high school, into college, and beyond, and profoundly shaped my view of the world. I had an understanding of racism at a pretty young age and knew that I wanted to do something about it when I became an adult, though I didn’t really know how that was going to happen. I was also really interested in science and as a teenager, I became really interested in race cars, and so in my teenage mind I used to wrestle with “how could I build cars and end racism?” Not an easy question to answer.

I remember at one point I decided I would start a business building race cars and other high-tech stuff, and train and hire Black people, and I would give the company the name “The Black.” Funny stuff. Anyway, my consciousness around social justice came at an early age, but I really had no understanding of organizing until I was nearly out of college. On campus, I was involved in various student activist stuff, but things took a fateful turn on April 29, 1992. I was in school in Los Angeles, and on that day the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted, and South LA erupted in anger and unrest. I immediately got involved in the protests, and by that summer I was doing an internship in grassroots organizing through the Center for Third World Organizing’s Minority Activist Apprenticeship Program (MAAP). For my internship I was sent to Providence, RI to work with DARE – Direct Action for Rights and Equality. That summer was really my intro to organizing and it provided a concrete expression of something that I knew I had always wanted to do but didn’t know how to do. In college, I was also growing tired of being in the kind of endless intellectualizing and self-righteousness that can sometimes accompany budding political consciousness on a college campus. After the MAAP program, I still had one more term to finish in college, and I fortunately was able to keep in contact with one of the leading organizing figures that I’d met in South Los Angeles – Anthony Thigpenn. Anthony told me he was starting a new grassroots organization in South LA to organize Black and Latino communities, right about the time I was graduating. I jumped at the chance, and in January 1993 I began work as a grassroots organizer for AGENDA.

 

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

NM: Probably the single most important thing was having a good mentor in the form of Anthony. When I started at AGENDA, I was green as grass and didn’t really know anything about the craft. I was pretty politically involved and had a good analysis, but I really didn’t know anything about the practical work of building power in poor communities of color. And to be honest, I was terrified of messing up. In college, I studied engineering, and all the political stuff had to happen on the side. So the move into organizing was a big shift vocationally, and I felt that there was a lot at stake. I thought I was a pretty smart guy, but I realized that even with the good training through MAAP, there was a whole world of politics, power, and community building that I didn’t understand. So I decided to humble myself and throw myself into learning as much as I could, and fortunately, Anthony is a thoughtful and gifted organizer, strategist, and teacher.

A second factor was that I was in an environment that fostered learning. Anthony believed that organizers needed to be very well-rounded and able to operate competently in various realms of the work: recruiting new members, using technology, analyzing political and demographic data, policy analysis and development, understanding governmental structures, understanding ideology, developing popular education tools and methodologies. It was like a full suite of college courses, but learned through practice and real application. The sheer variety of things that we felt we needed to learn and build into our new organization was quite large, and so I always felt like there were new things to learn, and old things to learn even deeper. We had an orientation of mastering our craft, in the same way, that an athlete or musician seeks to have such deep fluency that they flow like water when playing their sport or instrument. This meant that in addition to doing good work helping to build power for the people, the organization became my most powerful site for learning – learning about organizing and politics and theory, and also learning about myself. I know that not all organizations are structured like that but I think that being in or creating an environment where the organizer can continuously learn and personally grow is critical. It kept me hungry and always wanting to come to work.Quote: An effective and sustainable organizing effort must have a vision that compels people to want to get involved to make it a reality, because organizing requires that masses of people see a concrete picture of what change can be, and feel inspired enough by it to put their own energy into it.
A third factor is that the organization was structured to allow me and the other new organizers to have some space to try things and even to fail. We were given a lot of support, but there was never a lot of hand-holding. At the same time, I knew that if I messed up, then the other folks in the organization would be there to pick it up before things got messy. I was fortunate to work in an organization that had all of these things in it that fed my own interest and growth. And I guess the punchline or underlying theme is that that particular organization worked well for building my interest and skill because it was very well thought out and planned. There was a theory of change, a vision for the organization, a strategy, and a plan of action. Of course, these things evolved over time especially as the organization grew and more and more grassroots leaders became involved, but having clarity (and flexibility) about what is being built is very important. I would say that the three factors I named above are important for everyone, not just new organizers, to stoke the fires of enthusiasm over time.

When I left Los Angeles ten years later and moved to New York, I immediately began to recreate those three factors in my life. This time, I had to piece it together rather than find it in a single organization, but it still worked out. I was able to find some folks I could learn from, put myself in an environment that fostered my learning, and tried new projects, some that succeeded and some that failed.

 

KR: I know that every organization, every campaign is different but what are some of the key components to building effective and sustainable organizing work?

NM: That is a great way to ask the question, focusing on effectiveness and sustainability. I think there are lots of examples of effective but short-lived or unsustainable organizing work. And its not hard to imagine work that can be sustainable, but doesn’t really have enough impact to make a difference for poor and working class people. Effectiveness (or impact) and sustainability is one of the key questions that we in the social change world have to resolve.

In my view, in order to be effective over the long-term you need to have what I would call a solid theory of change: that is, a clear and logical analysis, a compelling vision, and a coherent and actionable strategy. The analysis defines the problems our organization seeks to address and names the root causes. The analysis describes the environment or conditions that our communities exist in and that our organizations must navigate. There are some aspects of the analysis that won’t change much over time, such as the root causes of the problems our communities face. Other aspects of the analysis may change every few years, such as the makeup of the current government, or the demographics of particular neighborhoods. As organizers, its our job to stay up to date on our analysis of conditions, and to ensure that the members of our organization stay up to date as well, ideally through processes that allow everyone to participate in collectively developing this shared picture. Quote: I think it speaks to a trend in the social change world that Blackness is kind of passé, and from my perspective this is in part perpetuated by the funding community.Without a clear and logical analysis, an organization’s vision will be utopic and not connected to the reality of what the community is facing. A good analysis is like the starting point to a journey. It tells you where you are, and also provides an assessment of the terrain you are likely to cross as you travel.

The vision, then, is the end point of the journey. The vision must create a picture of what we want to achieve if we are successful in addressing the problems in our communities. What is our vision for jobs, education, housing, etc in our communities? Like the analysis, the vision also has long-term and short-term aspects. There are some aspects of the vision that won’t change much over time, such as the vision to end racism, sexism, and poverty. There are other aspects that will need to be adjusted as the conditions change, such as the vision for after-school programs over the next 5 years. An effective and sustainable organizing effort must have a vision that compels people to want to get involved to make it a reality, because organizing requires that masses of people see a concrete picture of what change can be, and feel inspired enough by it to put their own energy into it.

If the analysis is the starting point of the journey, and the vision describes the end, then the strategy is the pathway to getting from the start to the finish. It is critically important to have strategies that are coherent with each other, and by that, I mean strategies that complement each other and move the organization in the same direction. I’ve seen organizations have a commitment to a certain set of tactics (e.g. press conferences, or protests in front of the target’s house) and that can be fine, but if the tactics (the separate actions) don’t fit within a larger strategy then they may make you feel good to do them, but they won’t actually keep the organization moving in the direction it needs to go. Or other times organizations have a bunch of strategies that are actually contradictory to each other. For an organization to be effective and sustainable it must efficiently use its resources – that is it must use its resources with as little waste and redundancy as possible. Having coherent strategies is a key factor that makes this possible.

So having a good theory of change in the form of analysis, vision, and strategies is really important. But it’s all useless if the organization cannot execute its plans. The greatest plans in the world live or die on the quality of the execution. That means it’s really important to pay attention to details and to have good mechanisms for assessment and feedback as things progress.

Quote: A good analysis is like the starting point to a journey. It tells you where you are, and also provides an assessment of the terrain you are likely to cross as you travel.

It’s really important to work hard for success, but also to know that mistakes and failures will happen so the best that we can do is to learn from them. No one has yet figured out in practice the solution to ending oppression and bringing justice. This means that we should work diligently and rigorously on our various projects, but we should not be loyal to them if they aren’t working. We are still in something of an experimental phase, trying to develop the key building blocks that will be the basis of bringing greater justice, democracy, and equality to our world.

 

KR: Give me an example of one of the successful organizing campaigns that you worked on.

NM: At the time that I was in Los Angeles, there were a variety of crises facing South LA in particular, many of which sadly still exist today. Chief among them though was the unemployment and underemployment rate. Everyone knew that a primary source of the problems that the community faced was the fact that good jobs were scarce and had been so for decades. At the same time, there was a healthcare crisis facing the community in the form of fewer and fewer health facilities. There were only 2 hospitals in the Greater South LA area serving a population of several hundred thousand people, and one of the hospitals was on the verge of closing down and the other was notoriously badly run. A little research also revealed that there was a huge need for healthcare workers in LA, and that healthcare jobs were expected to be a growing labor sector for years to come.

So after surveying our membership and people in the community, our leadership decided to do a campaign that could attempt to get at both issues – we launched the Jobs and Healthcare Campaign. The campaign was primarily aimed at impacting job development policy in Los Angeles, by forcing the city to devote resources towards the creation of jobs in the healthcare industry that specifically targeted poor and working class communities for training and employment opportunities. It also tried to expose the fact that there were shrinking healthcare facilities in South LA, but the campaign didn’t actually have demands around healthcare provision.

The campaign was ambitious. The primary target was the LA City Council and their decision making of job training and economic development dollars. But there was no healthcare job training program that specifically focused on a career-ladder approach. So we partnered with the local SEIU chapter that organized homecare workers, and focused on getting the community college system to agree to work with the union to develop a training program that became the Healthcare Career Ladder Training program.Quote: It's the responsibility of the Black community to furnish leaders, but it's also the responsibility of funders to support new and existing Blackleadership, and the responsibility of other movement leaders to insist that we be present. We focused on the community colleges because their student population exactly matched our membership base, and the colleges had nine campuses spread in working class communities all over the city. With the support of the union and the community colleges we then targeted the city to put money into a pilot project.

There were a lot of moving parts in the campaign: organizing new members around the campaign, understanding and analyzing city economic development and funding priorities, training grassroots leaders on understanding the politics of the issue, working with members to shape the training program, working with the union and the community colleges to commit to the program, identifying healthcare institutions where program graduates could be placed, forcing the city to commit money to the program. We were successful in getting the city to fund the program, but then once we accomplished that, it took at least as much work to wade through the bureaucracy of the city and actually get the program off the ground. And honestly, that was more grueling than the actual campaign, because in a lot of ways the city continued to fight us even in the implementation, dragging their feet, and requiring endless hurdles.

In the end, we were able to get the city to commit money and the program successfully launched. The LA City website currently says that there is a need for 20,000 healthcare workers, and so far the Healthcare Career Ladders training program has graduated over 1200 new healthcare workers, making it one of the strongest job training and placement programs in the city.

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?

NM: To me, it’s not just a perception but a reality, and there are three critical aspects to how this problem is showing up.

First, there need to be more Black organizers. I don’t know if the number is decreasing from when I first began in the work 22 years ago, and I doubt any one would have anything other than anecdotal data on it. But it seems to me that 20 years ago there weren’t that many Black organizers, and today the problem is still the same, especially given the scale of the issues facing the Black community, and the fact that most social change advocates see how important it is to organize the Black community.

Not having Black organizers is a serious problem. Self-determination is an essential component of a people’s liberation from oppression, and a critical aspect of that is dissolving the line between the organizer and the organized. There need to be more people from the Black community who take up careers in organizing, and at the same time there needs to be a dedicated effort to broaden how we think of what it means to be an “organizer”, so that organizers don’t become a class in themselves in the way that some of the schools of organizing in this country have practiced.

Saul Alinsky’s bible of organizing, “Rules for Radicals,” has a chapter entitled “In The Beginning” that starts out with this passage:

In the beginning the incoming organizer must establish his identity or, putting it another way, get his license to operate. He must have a reason for being there – a reason acceptable to the people.

That notion of the “incoming organizer” which so characterized the growth of organizing in the 70’s and 80’s where young college kids were running around the country trying to help poor communities of color – in my view that notion just doesn’t work in the Black community in the long run. Actually, it doesn’t work for any oppressed community in the long run. That doesn’t mean that outside ideas and outside help aren’t useful. It means that the building of indigenous community leadership, and the community developing its own culturally appropriate practices and strategies is essential for true empowerment, effectiveness, and ultimately liberation.

So yes, we need more Black organizers, and at the same time, we need to be deliberate about pipelines of development. We need to ensure that there are competent and skillful Black organizers, and that there are opportunities for Black folk in general to get organizing and community-building experience. The situation facing our community is so dire that it will take nothing less than a whole community effort to make a substantive difference.

Second, there need to be more Black directors of community organizations. Of course, if there aren’t that many Black organizers to begin with then it’s hard to graduate a lot of Black folk to being directors. More typically we see that the more well-known community organizations that have primarily Black constituents are run at the staff level by college-educated people who aren’t Black. In the service sector, this is not necessarily the case, but it is prevalent for direct-action membership-based community organizations. There is almost no importance placed on developing indigenous leadership from the Black community to run the organizations in the community.

Finally, there is a noticeable decrease in the importance of Black leadership in broader movement spaces. A real marker for me was the US Social Forum in 2010. It was held in Detroit and there were a lot of Black grassroots members from Detroit and all over the country. In the midst of that, a set of funders decided to do an invite-only meeting with a dozen key “movement leaders” from around the country. Out of that group, there was only one Black leader who was running a grassroots organization, and that person was retiring that day. Almost all of the other “movement leaders” were not Black, but represented communities that were largely Black.

Quote: In my view, there are no real systemic solutions to oppression that don't involve the Black community, and the Black community will never be organized if there is no indigenous Black leadership to help bring it together.

It was a real eye-opener for me that in addition to few numbers of Black organizers and directors, Black leadership doesn’t seem to be as valued as it once was. Why is it that such a gathering could be held and there are virtually no Black leaders as part of it? I think it speaks to a trend in the social change world that Blackness is kind of passé, and from my perspective, this is in part perpetuated by the funding community. I know that there need to be more Black leaders, but I just don’t accept that there aren’t enough of us to be part of movement strategy gatherings. It’s the responsibility of the Black community to furnish leaders, but it’s also the responsibility of funders to support new and existing Black leadership, and the responsibility of other movement leaders to insist that we be present.

The issues facing the Black community are more intense than ever. Black people are being imprisoned and disenfranchised at an astonishing rate these days. Black males alone make up 8% of the entire world’s prison population. And yet Black people are central to social change efforts – and the issues we face define marginalization and oppression.

In my view, there are no real systemic solutions to oppression that don’t involve the Black community, and the Black community will never be organized if there is no indigenous Black leadership to help bring it together.

 

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

NM: One of the most important things we can do is to fund more Black-led organizing work. Funding can come from private and public foundations, but it also really needs to come from the Black community itself. This is a problem that Black social change organizations desperately need to figure out. Foundations come and go in terms of their interest in Black issues, but the Black community itself will always be there. Very few social change organizations (Black or otherwise) have managed to figure out how to get substantial and sustained funding from their base, and this is something that Black organizers, activists, and intellectuals must make a priority. Many of us talk about how to ensure a steady source of resources like churches or unions, but I don’t really know anyone or any set of folk who are actually trying to figure that out. We need a model for grassroots fundraising that can allow a level of flexibility for our work without having to fit into the constraints of any particular foundation’s philosophy. And there are certainly enough creative organizers AND Black socially-minded entrepreneurs that we ought to be able to develop some good models for community-based funding.

Another thing we can do as a Black social movement is to put energy into having more alignment around long-term vision across the various aspects of our collective work. There are definitely gaps in our movement-building work, but there are also some redundancies, and we need to put some effort into reducing that waste. I’ve no doubt that most Black organizers and activists feel that their work is critically important, and it probably is, but I also know that the level of communication between different aspects of Black social change work is low, destructively low I’d say. Quote: That notional of the "incoming organizer," which so characterized the growth of organizing in the 70's and 80's, just doesn't work in the Black community in the long run.There is no reason, other than fear or arrogance, that keeps portions of the Black movement isolated from one another. Today’s information age makes it possible to know of many Black organizations, yet we don’t have a culture that assumes that we should all be connected. I’m not saying we all have to agree on strategies, but the reality is that we are all doing what we think is right – even if we have vehement disagreement with other Black organizers, the truth is it does more harm than good to not be in communication, given the seriousness of the conditions our community face. At our best,  we would even strive to at least have a coherent division of labor so that we don’t waste our collective talent.

Lastly, I think we need to bring our A-game. Now, I don’t want this to read as me talking smack about Black organizing. I actually think that some of the work that our folk are doing are the most innovative in the land. But the conditions that we face, and the forces of oppression arrayed against us are as serious as they’ve ever been. Black people have been in this country for hundreds of years, and Black labor provided the founding of the wealth of capitalism in the US and in Europe. And yet we still struggle for basic rights, for the right to have political representation, and even for the right not to be killed simply walking down the street. This all means that rightly or wrongly, we as Black organizers have a responsibility to bring our very best at all times. Not only the best that we have to offer, but the best that the social justice movement as a whole has to offer. There simply is no other community in this country that has faced what we’ve had to face nor has fought as we’ve had to fight. Our forbears knew this and showed up with incredible dignity and courage – imagine the Montgomery bus boycott without the women of the Montgomery Improvement Association, or the Freedom Rides without the young women and men of SNCC. In this generation our responsibility – and frankly I see it as our honor – is to carry the legacy forward.

 

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