Home / Culture and Society / Community Organizer’s Toolkit, An Adjunct To Mao’s Little Redbook (Part I)

Community Organizer’s Toolkit, An Adjunct To Mao’s Little Redbook (Part I)

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The site is the Office and Unemployment and Traning, Hopkisnsville, KY, the time, a month or so ago. It’s a mandatory training program sponsored by Experience Works, a federally-funded, community-based organization that places you with your friendly local employers on a part-time basis, up to 18 hours a week, at a minimum wage.

The list of the participating employers is quite predictable – nonprofits of garden variety, manufacturing concerns of all sorts, an office job now and then – and so is the list of openings: yard duties, janitorial work, loading and unloading, sorting of clothes and other donations, cleaning up after the animals at the local shelter. The typical employer makes prolific use of court-ordered community service, SAP, and similar such programs to ensure steady influx of no-cost, manual labor year-round in order to compensate for the revolving-door effect. My last gig was with the local Salvation Army chapter, and the worst part was 95 degrees heat all summer long, the fellows coming in and out the only thing making the job worthwhile.

Don’t let the nonprofits and charitable institutions fool you, however: they work your fingers to the bone. Because the cost of labor is of no account, they must think you’re a slave. Community service referrals are paying off their fines, usually for penny-ante offences; SAP enrollees earn up to 60 cents a day, payable in a lump sum upon completion, hoping for leniency at their next parole board hearing; my $7.25 per hour was paid by the feds. The Salvation Army bore none of the costs. Likewise with Goodwill Industries, my next prospective employer, except that here they expect you to confirm to their dress code – clean jeans, a white T-shirt with no logo or markings of any kind, one smoke break every two hours, and no coffee. When inquired about the strictness of the rules, “It’s a corporation,” I was told, “and we expect the same of our regular employees.” (Shucks, I thought, as far as you’re concerned, I’m a volunteer.) Five days a week, three and a haf hours a day, netting two bills every two-week period. But hey, don’t’s knock it, that’s twenty Yankee dollars a day!

It was an eight-week program, four hours every Tuesday, and we were getting paid, but it was boring as hell. The object was to sharpen your job-hunting skills: how to research your prospective employer, how to write a power resume, how to conduct yourself during your first interview – the proper employee etiquette, in short, in hopes of landing a measly minimum wage job in a predominantly factory and rural town.

Somewhere at the midpoint of this drudgery, I had a brainstorm, or so I thought. “Why don’t we,” I posed the question to the project director, “have a panel discussion next time we meet, rather than read from the script? I’m certain some of us here might want to contribute. I’d would be interesting to learn what other people think.” (We were discussing the importance of networking when looking for a job. A so-and-so may hear of an opening somewhere and share it with others, the word of mouth kind of thing. Well, I wanted to take the concept to another level.)

“Excellent idea, Roger,” the director seconded. I was her pet, I suppose, since she couldn’t fathom why someone with my education and background would even be here. I’d told her my only objective was to save enough dough so I might get a used car and leave this ghost of a town for sunny California where I belong. Whether she believed me or not I have no idea, but I knew she felt sorry for me.

Come next Tuesday I opened the discussion by suggesting that we might turn the whole idea of networking upside down and put it to our advantage. Rather than limiting ourselves from the outset to the passive role of a job seeker, it’d make much better sense to talk among ourselves in order to learn what skills we have, what training, what interests. Who knows, there might be a match. We all know that in a community such as this, a great many needs, important needs, remain unmet by the existing structures, municipal or commercial. Even charities don’t do the kind of work they ought to. Many seniors, for example, are in dire need of transportation to do grocery shopping, make a doctor’s appointement, or pick up their
prescriptions – all basic stuff but vital nonetheless. Taking a cab to the local supermarket and back will set you back twenty dollars or more, a price they can barely afford. Most of you have vehicles in good running condition. Why not set up a joint venture and ease their burden? Or take catering, for instance. From what I hear, the service here is attrocious and the food below standard. If cooking is something you’re good at and love to do, here’s another window of opportunity. Likewise with aiding the handicapped by providing a limited nursing care at home or delivering their meals. And how about tutoring the kids who are deemed “slow learners”? I realize some of this may require licensing and jumping through all kinds of hoops, surely an inconvienience, but the possibilities are endless.

Before I had a chance to develop my idea and get the feedback, the project director stopped me in my tracks. She accused me of being subversive and counterproductive. I knew full well, of course, that this was neither the time nor the place to discuss such revolutionary ideas, that in a manner of speaking, I was undermining the very purpose of the program, its raison d’etre, since the object of every bureaucracy, however benign, is to propagate itself, everything else be damned.

Well, I put my concept on the back burner for the time being, discussed it now and then with a friend or two, reached partial consensus, even thought of going on Facebook just to see if there’s any interest, but for the most part, I’ve forgotten about it. Until . . .

Until I listened to an NPR broadcast, Can Evolution Breed Better Communities? featuring an interview with evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson, promoting his new book, The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. Apparently, Sloan conduced a field study in his hometown, Binghamton, N.Y., where he also teaches, and the book summarizes the findings. It wasn’t till then that I realized that my half-baked ideas were quite doable.

Look to the conclusion in Part II.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • Best article yet, Roger. Really interesting to get a ground-level view of the world of community service and nonprofit work. As someone who deals with this world from the other end I look forward to reading more.


  • Thanks, Dave. I’ll email you about a couple of typos on page one. My spellchecker isn’t working and I must have rushed it too much.

  • zingzing

    yes, a very good article. and a nice voice to it… someone actually talking with the people and trying to do some good. clapclapclap, roger.

    cut the nonprofits some slack though. they live or die just like any other company, but they do it with less margin. still, a good nonprofit would have applauded your initiative. you ran into a bad middle manager. i hope someone higher up than her reads this and realizes how stagnated they’ve become. this is exactly what they should be encouraging.

    btw, when i moved from seattle to nyc, i bought a used car for $700 and drove that thing over the rockies and down south and up the east coast and it made it. it was a piece of shit that belched fumes and smoke, but when i donated it to charity once i was here, i got $1100 in tax credits based on its blue book value. find a deal, and it’ll pay for itself and your gas across the country.

  • Thanks, man. A vehicle in this town, not even talking about cross country, is a must. It’s still in the hundreds, no downtown to speak of, only a few malls on the boulevard, and that’s about 45 minute walk. Was doing it before, but not in this heat.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Very nice job, Roger. It’s invigorating to see your process come to life through words. Well done.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Very good article, Roger – I read it twice…which is something I rarely do. I don’t agree with everything you said…but that’s the liberal in me.

    I’ll keep off my political soapbox for this one (unless someone else throws the first Fox-approved talking point, of course) and instead wish you the very best. I really do hope this works out for you for the better.

    Questions – do you have a degree and are willing to travel? If so, what Kenn’s doing is a very real option…and you don’t need to know a second language already. You’re not too old to enjoy a real adventure – the pay won’t be great, you’ll likely live in less-than-American-standard living conditions, but it will be a true adventure and you’ll learn things you never expected – that much I can promise you. The Peace Corps is another option – I’m not sure that they have an age restriction.

    Out here in Washington state, one of the most consistently-open job fields is that of a certified nurse’s assistant – you go to work at a nursing home, they’ll train you for six weeks or so till you get your certification, and then you’re a CNA. You’ll get paid about $10/hour, but with that you can still qualify for Section 8 housing…and once you have some experience you can open an adult family home with up to six residents, each paying between $2200 and $3000 per month. There’s a few bureaucratic hurdles, but it’s doable and there’s a great deal of support and resources for AFH’s out here. When it comes to CNA work and running an AFH, yes, the biggest part the job is wiping butts (or at least it seems that way), but after a while it ain’t so bad…and there are people I know who run three AFH’s and are making some really decent money.

    I’m aware you might scoff at these suggestions, but maybe they can give you ideas about other options where you’re at. Again, I hope everything works out for you.

  • zingzing

    “that’s about 45 minute walk. Was doing it before, but not in this heat.”

    get the fuck out of there. that shit will suck you in. i’ve been there and i fought and fought and fought to get out and i did it. i did it while doing drugs. so you can do it.

  • Got to get a vehicle, though, where I could crash there while looking for a studio or a residential hotel room. Am not going to stay on the streets.

  • zingzing

    alright, so a vehicle and first and last month’s rent. plus deposit. plus hotels across the country. i had near to 15 grand when i moved, and that shit didn’t last long. moving across the country sucks and i’ve done it twice. just getting where you want to go can be a ruin, but get there and have something people want and you’ll make it. i write for a living in new york city. if you think you can do better, you can do it on the west coast easy. i had faith i’d make it and i have, so far, so so can you.

  • Shoot, I wouldn’t need that much, zing. A decent vehicle to get me across — a thousand perhaps, and cost of gas. It’s only two thousand miles, have gone cross country three or four times. Sleep at rest stops. I have about $700.00 coming in monthly. Two or three months saved on rent would just about do it. Besides, you don’t need a deposit for residential hotels in CA but they’re no longer cheap. You pay weekly — $140,00 minimum — but then have to move out after 30 days unless your credit is approved.

    Anyway, later guy.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    You don’t need a vehicle. Chances are, Greyhound has a bus stop at or near your town, and they can get you out of there more cheaply than buying a car. Greyhound sucks these days – the decent toilet they used to have in the back is now a porta-potty (which is below third-world standards for buses that have toilets) – but it gets you from point A to point B rather cheaply.

    Just a thought.

  • Yes, Glenn — in Clarksville, TN, about 30 minutes by car. That’s how I got here in the place.

    And since we’re on topic, here’s a little report card about that trip: “The Greyhound Experience.”

  • Zing:

    You write for a living? Seriously?

    Does your work computer have a “shift” key?

  • zingzing

    amazing, ain’t it, rj? it’s crazy the things you’ll do when someone wants to throw pretty good money at you for your efforts. i’ll even capitalize shit.

    you really have to come up with a better joke than that. that was just lazy. and i know lazy.

  • Jordan Richardson

    I also write for a living, only in Canada people pay pretty handsomely for me not to use the shift key. Funny world.

  • Irene Athena

    The idea you proposed to the project director was a good one, and it is also no surprise that you got the rebuff you did, for the reasons you suspected. I met a guy at a local farmer’s market. He was passing out business cards featuring a link to a Facebook page for a similar type of cooperative services-trading organization in my town. He said it had been going for awhile and was successful.

    Good luck! You and your companions might end up making a garden paradise in your little corner of Ol’ KENtuck. Your people in California might be coming out to see YOU!

  • (If someone who decides to get involved in your venture has the ability to suck the humidity from the atmosphere over several hundred acres, that is.)

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    I just noticed that for the first two days, the only ones who were attempting to come up with ideas to help you with your situation were the same two guys you called the “greatest threat to democracy”.

    Both zing and I were quite sincere – we both do want the very best for you. So next time, please try not to let whatever bitterness you may be feeling affect your conduct towards those who have never meant you any harm, and who would be the first to at least burn a few brain cells for your personal benefit.

  • I’m aware of that, Glenn, but please take my word for it that there was never any bitterness on my part.

    On a related note, and it’s a belated response, I’d like to thank you, zing and Jordan for positive evaluation of this article. I’m rather uncomfortable with compliments and praises, the adversarial stance is much more my cup of tea, hence the delay. But I do thank you nonetheless.

  • Anarcissie

    I just discovered this article. I don’t know much about your life situation in detail, of course, but I would sure get the hell out of the hinterland as soon as, unless you have some kind of personal connection to support you there. I have done extensive traveling by Greyhound, although it was not recent — I gather things have deteriorated — it was bad enough. However, if you’re going to purchase a junker you might want to get to the Left Coast or wherever you’re going first. I speak as one whose Volkswagen microbus threw a rod in Salina, Kansas, back in the day.

    By the way, your article is pretty interesting. Of course the stuff you were thinking of is doable, at least up to the point where the authorities become aware of them and co-opt or crush them.

  • Well, I wasn’t going to link to this article until part two was done. You guys, Cindy and you, gave me a real hard time on the “Portrait” thread trying to explain the concept, so I decided to do so with some attention to detail.

    Apropos of “monitoring,” it had already come to the attention of the “higher-ups” that my article made a mention of Experience Works. Interesting!

  • Anarcissie

    I am mystified by the phrase ‘hard time’. I was so curious about it that I read over the latter part of the discussion and I’m still mystified. My observations about activism were taken from recent experience and are of considerable practical concern to me.

  • I’m certain they are, Anarcissie, and I wouldn’t dream of negating or making light of them. For starters, both of you were talking of a “from-top-down,” hierarchical structure (while I insisted that some level of organization, at least in the initial stages, was a must). That point was never acknowledged. And then, Cindy was adamant that Sloan’s results don’t follow from evolutionary theory, while I was saying I have no stake in the matter and thought Sloan was speaking rather loosely, in terms of “evolutionary paradigm.”

    In any case, it’s water under the bridge as far as I’m concerned. Is that OK with you?

    BTW, here’s the link to Part II.