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Karen Waters: Community organizing is no joke

Op-ed by Karen Waters

I am a community organizer. I make change.

I am my brother’s and my sister’s keeper. This is one heck of a big responsibility; one I believe is no laughing matter. Thousands of others like me understand we are in this together, and shoulder the heavy burden to create healthy, just and inclusive communities by harnessing the collective wisdom, energy and efforts of folks willing to sacrifice for the common good. We forgo high-paying jobs, evenings and weekends at home, fancy offices, big expense accounts and public recognition. You can find us in church basements, community centers or walking neighborhoods that others are content to drive past, or on rural back roads that are sometimes impassable.

In big cities and small towns all across America, we solve problems, find resources, manage tight budgets, motivate and mobilize people to rise above their own expectations of themselves, their neighbors, and even those with whom they fundamentally disagree. The job title is one you may not have heard, but the functions are certainly familiar – working with everyday people to activate a communications network like Paul Revere, organizing peaceful demonstrations like Mahatma Gandhi, speaking truth to power like Martin Luther King, changing policies to benefit children like Marian Wright Edelman, advocating for the poor like Mother Theresa, and partnering with others to get things done like Bush 41’s thousand points of light.

While recently some have mocked and laughed at my life’s work, I am deeply privileged to work with residents to improve their quality of life as Executive Director of the Quality Community Council and to serve on many community boards and task forces. Helping teachers to make sure that parents, even if they’re homeless, disabled, or unable to read well, understand how we can work together to make our schools the best they can be; knocking on hundreds of doors to tell residents how to save our planet by recycling and conserving precious natural resources; teaching families miles from the nearest grocery store to work cooperatively, organically growing the vegetables they need to reduce their risk for obesity, diabetes, and cancer; showing the mother of a murdered youth how to convert her plea for safety to action, challenging City Council to adequately fund the police department before she has even buried her son; empowering a teenager to educate her neighbo rs on gun violence prevention; organizing forums and dialogues to forge consensus on our community’s needs; plus registering enough voters to hold leadership accountable should those needs go unmet.

Although the pay is not much, the rewards are great, and well worth being the butt of petty political punchlines. It was no joke when a low-income retired veteran thanked me for “bringing back America like it used to be – everyone helping each other.” It was no joke when I was told by a teacher that a middle schooler wrote an essay naming me as his hero. It was no joke when a graduate of our leadership program was sworn in as the mayor. At the Quality Community Council, we know that Community Values are American Values, and we believe it takes Courage to Make a Difference.


Karen Waters resides in Charlottesville.

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