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

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on September, 2011)

I

The site is the Office and Unemployment and Traning, Hopkinsville, KY, the time, a month or so ago. It’s a mandatory training program sponsored by Experience Works. It’s 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.II

II

The list of the participating employers is entirely predictable — garden variety nonprofits, 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, and so on. 

The typical employer makes prolific use of court-ordered community service, SAP, and similar programs to ensure a steady influx of no-cost, manual labor year-round to compensate for the revolving-door effect. 

My last gig was with the local Salvation Army chapter, and the worst part of it was 95 degrees heat all summer long, but that’s Kentucky for you.

III

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 pay off their fines, usually for penny-ante offenses; 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 conform 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,” they said, “and we expect the same of our regular employees.” (Shucks, I thought that as far as you’re concerned, I was a volunteer.) Five days a week, three and a half hours a day, netting two bills every two weeks. 

But hey, don’t’ knock it. That’s twenty Yankee dollars a day!

IV

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.

V

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. I have no idea whether she believed me or not, but I knew she felt sorry for me.

VI

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 to learn what skills we have, what training, what interests. Who knows, there might be a match. We all know that many essential needs remain unmet by the existing structures, municipal or commercial, in a community such as this. 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 appointment, 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 atrocious, and the food below standard. If cooking is something you’re good at and love to do, here’s another window of opportunity. 

And it’s likewise with aiding the disabled by providing limited nursing care at home or delivering their meals. Or with tutoring the kids who are “slow learners.” I realize some of this may require licensing and jumping through all kinds of hoops, surely an inconvenience, but the possibilities are endless.

VII

Before I had a chance to develop my idea and get feedback, the project director stopped me in my tracks. She accused me of being subversive and counterproductive. I knew full well that this was neither the time nor the place to discuss such revolutionary ideas. I also knew 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 kicking it about on Facebook if only to see if there be any interest. For the most part, however, I’d forgotten about it until . . .

VIII

Until I listened to an NPR broadcast, Can Evolution Breed Better Communities?  It featured an interview with an 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 had conducted 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.

I’ll continue in Part II.

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