By: Kim Cranston
I grew up in a family of activists. I learned early the great value derived from making a difference in making the world a better place and, more importantly, giving others an opportunity to make a difference. From 1986 to 1994, I had the good fortune to work with Marshall Ganz on several projects, and my understanding of the capacity of people to collaborate for change was never the same.
After 1994, I followed closely the progress Marshall made advancing the practice of organizing. I watched his work in the Obama Campaign and elsewhere, and was delighted when he launched the Harvard Kennedy School distance learning course – Leadership, Organizing and Action: Leading Change.
This spring, I organized a 5-person team to take the course (along with 93 other activists from 19 countries). Our team wanted to experiment with organizing members of our community – Los Altos, California – to collaborate to improve our downtown. We had a great time working together applying what we learned from the course – the stimulating interactive lectures, section meetings, readings, videos, and team meetings – to advance our project.
The way in which we described our project evolved during the course as we learned more about defining and making measurable progress, and tested various theories of change. Near the end of the course we decided to substantially change our approach. We organized a meeting of members of the community who we felt shared our concerns about our town and might collaborate to improve it. We set a goal of 35 attendees at the meeting. 62 people showed up – we were overwhelmed by the turnout and enthusiasm. We’ve organized 5 community meetings since (we meet the first and third Tuesday of each month), with anywhere from 21 to 57 people attending. Within the community meetings, we’re organizing 5 teams that collaborate to identify areas of need and improve specific aspects of our town. These teams are tackling issues from increasing opportunities for people of all generations to have fun socializing, to helping merchants struggling in a difficult economy.
And we’re already making progress. So far we helped save two old London Plane trees the City planned to cut down. We’ve collaborated with another community organization to design attractive signs to help people get downtown during a major construction project. We’ve encouraged attendance at the grand opening for a new merchant appealing to youth, we’ve encouraged the city to increase community involvement with respect to a proposed public/private development on city-owned property, and more.
I cannot say enough about what an incredibly valuable program the distance learning course was for me, my team, and our community. It enabled us to collaborate effectively to achieve shared goals in a challenging environment. I am thrilled to see the New Organizing University is offering similar distance learning experiences to others across the country, and across the world, so that any body, any where, with Internet access can advance their organizing practice and the global movement for change! Anyone who seriously wants to improve their corner of the world should enroll in the New Organizing University.