Community organizers have taken it on the chin lately – from a punch line at the Republican National Convention to political cartoons.
They've been laughed at, sneered at and dismissed. But who are community organizers, and what do they do?
You might live next door to a community organizer. These quiet, everyday heroes come in all shapes, sizes, colors and religious persuasions – or the lack thereof. Those who get paid for their efforts may work for the city or the state doing outreach, trying to get the tools of society-building into a community.
Such tools include education – reading, language skills, and job-training or infrastructure. Or roads, sidewalks, pedestrian bridges and parks. Government can produce these tools, but someone in the community needs to pick them up and get to work.
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Back in 1954, the Midwood Men's Club picked up the tools to build Midwood Park. These were the same men who carried other tools a dozen years before – guns on Normandy Beach and at Iwo Jima. Their greatest wish was to provide a safe place for children to play, so they saved the country from tyranny, carved a park out of unbuildable land, and built a playground – pretty much in that order.
But time and neglect eroded their creation, and another generation picked up the tools in the 1970s. By the 1990s, Midwood Park was again a sad-sack, but two gentlemen on the PMNA Board – Larry McMurtry and Philip Chang – made the park their personal project. They wrote grants, planted trees and perennials, and cajoled the county parks department to replace the seating in the amphitheatre, resurface the tennis courts and remove the fetid wading pool that had become a hazard.
At 7 a.m. on the day of Midwood Maynia 1997, the parks department twisted the last bolt into the new safety-certified playground equipment. I can still remember the fresh green scent of playground mulch as children poured into the park after the pet parade.
No one slapped medals on the chests of these volunteers, but they deserved them. Others eventually followed in their footsteps. So thanks to everyone who ever picked up a shovel, or wrote a grant, or called the county about graffiti on the restroom shelter, we have a viable park instead of a scary no-man's land.
Community organizers implement government for the people at the most immediate, local level. They fight blight and seek nothing other than a better life for their community, holding themselves fully accountable for achieving results. Each contribution of time and effort triggers other contributions until decay is transformed to vitality.
Community organizers don't expect anything, but perhaps we can surprise them with a simple thank you. Even better – volunteer! Help a child learn to read, lend a hand to Second Harvest, band an elderly neighbor's trees this fall. Every day offers a new opportunity. Don't complain – get busy.