• Introduction

    For Anyone Who Wants to Make a Difference

    This book is for people who want to change the world and know that they cannot do it alone.

    It is a practical, step-by-step guide to starting or strengthening a community organization. It is for those who care about the world around them and know that improving it requires the active involvement of the people closest to the problem. It is for people who know that they need the power, perspective, and sense of community that come from being part of a group.

    You might be thinking of starting a new organization. Maybe you’ve never joined a group, but you see a problem brewing in the world around you that just won’t go away. It could be in your neighborhood, at the local school, in your congregation, at your workplace.

    You might be a volunteer or a staff person in a group that wants to be more effective. Perhaps your group has been around for years. No new members are joining and the old members are getting tired. You need new blood but are not sure where or how to get it.

    You might be a government official, serious about public service. You could be involved in community development, public health or safety, transportation . . . or any area that makes a difference in people’s lives.

    Whoever you are, you are someone who sees that the world around you is not as you think it should be and you want to do something about it. Whatever the idea, whatever the problem, you have decided to start a new group or fix an old one.

    Finding the Problem is Not Usually the Problem

    Sometimes you choose a problem.

    Maybe it is the slow decline in the schools in your town. The classes seem to be getting bigger each year. The good teachers are leaving.

    Maybe the drugs in your community are getting out of hand and you just can’t close your eyes to it anymore.

    Sometimes an existing organization identifies a new threat. It seems like all the cards are stacked against you, but still, you have to act.

    Maybe you are fed up with your elected officials. It’s been the same people for years and none seem able to listen or to get anything done. You think it’s time that someone new, maybe you, ran for public office. You know you can’t do that by yourself.

    Sometimes a Problem Chooses You

    And sometimes, the problem comes right to your door.

    Story: Keeping Their Homes

    The residents of Camfield Gardens, a housing development in the Lower Roxbury-South End of Boston owned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), woke up one morning in 1992 to find a note tacked to the front doors of their buildings: HUD was selling their development.

    The residents were worried: Would they lose their homes? They were mad: Their development was close to the rapidly gentrifying South End section of Boston. This looked like another chapter in Boston’s long history of displacing minority residents.

    They had no organization. One resident, a mother of five who worked as a school secretary, knew someone at the local HUD office who had once helped her get reimbursed when a broken hot water heater ruined her rug. She called the HUD employee. He told her about the HOPE Program, a new resident-ownership initiative. She got together with a neighbor and they organized the Camfield Tenants Association.

    Over the next ten years, through enormous effort and perseverance and hundreds of meetings with tenants and government officials, they built an organization with the power to negotiate for what they wanted with federal, state, and city officials. They stuck together. They managed to demolish Camfield Gardens and then rebuild it from the ground up. It took years of organizing, but the residents now own the development.

    So What’s Next?

    How do you start? What do you do first? What do you do after that? And what do you do after that? How do you keep it going? How do you avoid doing it all yourself and burning out?