The Common Good
March-April 2002

A School for Change

by Ben MacConnell | March-April 2002

Back in college, when you were asked to declare your major, "faith-based community organizing" with a minor in "direct action" probably was not an option.

Back in college, when you were asked to declare your major, "faith-based community organizing" with a minor in "direct action" probably was not an option. Soon, the Direct Action & Research Training (DART) Center in Miami will offer a paid, four-month, in-field training to those yearning to launch a career in faith-based community organizing.

According to DART representatives, participants in the program—called the DART Organizers Institute—will learn how to "build power, strengthen community, and win justice." The center will pay travel costs and provide a $6,500 living stipend. At the end of the training, it plans to bring its graduates together to talk about permanent positions starting at $25,000 to $35,000 in the growing field of faith-based community organizing.

For those new to the concept, faith-based community organizing is the process of bringing congregations and groups with similar values together so that they can hold society's political and economic systems accountable for justice. Since its inception, the DART Center has developed 20 metropolitan organizations spread throughout Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Kentucky, which together make up the DART Network.

Using strategies and techniques taught by the Center, local affiliates have won victories on a broad set of justice issues. These include improved public education reform, living wage campaigns, clean-up of drugs and crime, increased affordable housing, millions of dollars reinvested by banks in previously redlined communities, expansion of community-oriented policing, greater access to public transportation, targeted spending toward job training for those coming off public assistance, and more just immigration policies.

After surveying the staff from 100 faith-based community-organizing groups, Interfaith Funders (a national network of faith-based funders committed to advancing social change and economic justice) reported last year that these organizations are expanding rapidly throughout the country and are all looking for trained, professional staff. For instance, several areas beyond DART's current locations have expressed interest in participating in its network. Unfortunately, the shortage of available trained organizers has limited the response.

John Calkins, executive director of the DART Center, explained the need for the field school. "To powerfully engage others in the public arena where political and economic decisions are made," Calkins said, "we need skilled organizers challenging, training, and helping provide the necessary focus. The DART Organizers Institute provides that pool of organizers we need to continue to grow."

The Organizers Institute starts in June 2002; those interested are encouraged to contact DART immediately. Interviews will be conducted in Columbus, Ohio (March 2); Tallahassee, Florida (March 23); and Richmond, Virginia (April 13). The application process is open to anyone who possesses two basic qualifications: a desire to work for justice as a career and the willingness to learn how to do it.

The training begins with a seven-day workshop led by seasoned organizers. Next, trainees will be placed for 15 weeks in one of 11 DART affiliates located in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, or Kentucky. Working as staff in the field, participants will be given an opportunity to learn hands-on how to do the work of community organizing—including running successful community meetings, engaging faith groups in winning strategies to combat injustice, researching and targeting decision-makers, strengthening relationships through one-on-one listening processes, and raising funds locally. They will be provided with day-to-day supervision and mentoring by experienced organizers, as well as regular check-ups from staff. In September, trainees will leave the Organizers Institute with a good orientation to faith-based community organizing. DART will help successful graduates find placement in permanent salaried positions.

Rev. John Aeschbury is the lead organizer of BREAD (Building Responsibility, Equity, and Dignity) in Columbus, Ohio. "We're incredibly excited to hire future graduates from the Organizers Institute," he says. "It's by far the best opportunity out there for people who want to break into this field."

 

Ben MacConnell is project coordinator for the DART Organizing Institute in Kansas City, Missouri.

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