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Community organizing is real work

One organizer: "I have responsibilities."

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Excepting the derision regularly heaped upon trial lawyers and drug dealers, it's not often that politicians directly insult a profession. But community organizers found themselves in the spotlight recently when speakers at the Republican National Convention took potshots at their vocation.

Organizers across the country have responded with vigor to the remarks by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani ("Community organizer? I don't even know what that is!") and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin ("I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."). While well-received by delegates on the convention floor, the comments were at odds with U.S. Sen. John McCain's calls for service in his acceptance speech.

Some Charlotte organizers said they were annoyed and surprised by the remarks, although one welcomed them for raising the profile of community organizing. Each organizer pointed out a few accomplishments of local activism.

Liz Clasen-Kelly, Homeless Helping Homeless: Clasen-Kelly, associate executive director of the Urban Ministry Center, works with Homeless Helping Homeless. Its membership, primarily made up of homeless or formerly homeless men and women, lobbies local, state and national elected officials for affordable housing and other issues of particular concern to homeless people.

A few of its members recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. Reps. Sue Myrick and Mel Watt, as well as Sen. Richard Burr's staff. "It was so great to see the confidence of our members, their growth in public speaking and sharing their stories," Clasen-Kelly said.

The group tries to put a human face on homelessness by speaking before groups and coordinating public service projects. To fight any perception that homeless folks are all panhandlers, they gave out coins at intersections. Since April 2007, they've picked up 1,700 bags of litter.

All but a few long-term members are in permanent housing, said Clasen-Kelly. A former president has a job helping other people find affordable housing.

Ahmad Daniels, Creative Interchange: Last year, a week after two Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers were shot to death at an east Charlotte apartment complex, allegedly by a 25-year-old black man, people met to discuss a crisis among black male youth. The discussion eventually resulted in the Nguzo Saba Liberation Academy. Nguzo Saba, a Swahili term for "The Seven Principles," is commonly associated with Kwanzaa, but academy organizers applied the precepts to mentoring young black males at the Saturday school.

Both politicians and organizers are necessary for communities, Daniels said. "Ideally speaking, what's best is that they're in contact with one another. To me, neither is more important."

Monica Simpson, Grassroots Leadership: Simpson first began organizing as a student at Johnson C. Smith University, where she helped create the first campus support group for gay students. She now works for Grassroots Leadership, a Charlotte-based national group that works primarily to stop the spread of privately run prisons.

This year the group lobbied hard against proposed illegal immigration detention centers in Charlotte and Gastonia. Both proposals were scrapped.

"I thought their comments were very painful, yet amusing," Simpson said. "The work that grassroots organizers do is just so important to communities."

Chris Bishop, Helping Empower Local People: Bishop said he was shocked by Giuliani's comments. "I think he got caught up in the convention hoopla because [HELP's sister organizations in the Industrial Areas Foundation] did a lot of good work with him in New York building homes for working-class folks in Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx."

HELP has 48 member congregations and organizations that shape its goals in Charlotte. "We're not just a bunch of people who are trying to cause a lot of noise and march in the streets," Bishop said. "That's not what we're trying to do. We're trying to lead people toward understanding how democracy works."

HELP has increased participation in a federal No Child Left Behind tutoring program from 8 percent to 28 percent. It's worked to expand a volunteer ombudsman program run through the Centralina Council of Governments. Eighteen months ago, only six volunteers visited area nursing homes. Now 40 members are trained to visit homes, which has allowed HELP to begin addressing deplorable conditions. "There is a perception that organizing is a bunch of liberals who want to push a far-left agenda, and that is not the case with what we do with HELP," Bishop said. "If anything, we are trying to attract the center."

HELP has worked with Charlotte City Councilman John Lassiter to expand the Mayor's Youth Employment Program. The first year, the program provided 41 jobs; this summer, it provided 179 jobs. HELP also worked with Democracy N.C., a group that encourages civic participation, and increased voter turnout in five precincts by about 31 percent.

"I have responsibilities," Bishop said.

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